Last week, the Denver Broncos received some bad news as starting left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Ty Sambrailo, the Broncos’ 2015 second-round pick, now finds himself likely starting at left tackle.
Given how much the offensive line struggled last year, it’s understandable that Broncos fans are worried about what will happen this year with Clady out of the lineup. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First, the Broncos are changing to a pure zone blocking scheme, which wasn’t what the Broncos ran when John Fox was head coach. His offensive line coach, Dave Magazu, would occasionally use zone blocking, but wasn’t specifically tied to it. When your scheme changes from one year to the next, some of your personnel will be different.
Second, because the scheme has changed, the Broncos are now going to look for linemen who fit that scheme. Most scouting reports about Sambrailo indicate he is a good fit for a zone blocking scheme, so it should be no surprise that the Broncos drafted him.
Third, new head coach Gary Kubiak likes linemen who can play multiple positions, even if there may be one position at which they fit better than others. Certainly he wasn’t going to just cast Clady aside, but when one considers that Sambrailo was thought of as a player who could play either tackle or guard, it’s again understandable why he was drafted.
On the third point, there is a valid criticism to make regarding Broncos personnel decisions: the decision to let Orlando Franklin depart in free agency. Franklin can play multiple positions, a trait Kubiak likes, so if any decision should be criticized, it should be letting Franklin go.
But let’s get back to Sambrailo. While most scouts agree that he’s a good fit for a zone blocking scheme, and that he has the talent to play multiple positions on the line, they have been divided on everything else. Some scouting reports suggested that Sambrailo is better as a left tackle, where he started his final two years at Colorado State. Some suggest he would be a better fit on the right side, and others project him as a guard.
Then there was the projections for what round he should have been drafted. They ranged from a late first-round pick to early in the fourth. There was no consensus as to where he should have been taken, and opinions of the Broncos drafting him in the second round are all over the map.
And then comes what some scouting reports had to say about his blocking. I read several reports that praised him as a pass protector, but that he struggled with run blocking. Other reports I read said the opposite was true: good run blocker, poor pass protector.
Given that opinions are all over the map about Sambrailo, the only way for one to get an idea about what he is like, is to watch highlights of him. I peeked at a couple of highlight reels, and from what I watched, I would say the scouts who got it right are the ones who call him a good pass protector who struggles with run blocking. I also believe that left tackle is where he best fits, although he could probably line up at left guard if greatly needed. He’s not a polished product, but that doesn’t mean he needs to sit on the bench for a year or two before you put him into the lineup.
This brings me to another point: This scouting report from Bleacher Report compares Sambrailo to Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari’s story is interesting, as he was a 2013 fourth-round pick, and a player who declared early for the NFL draft, when some scouts thought he should have stayed in college for another year. Criticisms of him ranged from his arms being too short (one levied against Sambrailo) to not having the proper build to play tackle.
As 2013 training camps got underway, the Packers had veteran Bryan Bulaga at left tackle. During a Packers Family Day scrimmage, Bulaga tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Does this story sound familiar? A star QB loses his starting left tackle! What on earth would the Packers do?
Along came Bakhtiari, who head coach Mike McCarthy named the starting left tackle. Bakhtiari turned in a solid rookie season, faring well as a pass protector, though he struggled at run blocking. Once again, this sounds familiar, right?
Bakhtiari played well enough to keep the starting job in 2014, with Bryan Bulaga moved to right tackle. Bulaga’s move came at a good time, because the other candidate struggled. That would be 2012 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, who was ultimately waived by the Packers last season, and thus is unquestionably a draft bust. (A brief note: When the Packers drafted Sherrod, they needed a right tackle, so it was a need pick, and thus evidence that drafting for need may not work out just as easily as drafting BPA.)
It’s at this point that the story of Bakhtiari doesn’t align with that of Sambrailo (unlike Green Bay in 2013, the Broncos right tackle spot remains up in the air), but the point remains: Sambrailo, a lineman who some scouts are not convinced is ready to start, and has demonstrated he’s good in pass protection but struggles with run blocking, will have to replace a veteran left tackle, protecting one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Only time will tell what Sambrailo does, but I do see a couple of things that work in his favor. First, he plays until the whistle blows. Second, early indications are that he’s not letting the pressure get to him. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder, something that Bakhtiari absolutely had. Both can work in a player’s favor.
The big question I see with Sambrailo is whether or not he can improve as a run blocker. That’s something that Kubiak values. I do think the presence of C.J. Anderson will help, as he’s a decisive runner. I’m crossing my fingers for Montee Ball, who has shown that ability, and whose main issue last year was missing most of the preseason, then trying to come back too quickly from a groin injury. But Sambrailo will need to get better in the running game to be with the Broncos for the long term.
As a pass protector, though, I’m cautiously optimistic. I think he will be fine there. The only question is how the rest of the linemen will measure up in that department, and we’ll discuss that more later on.
Sambrailo does have areas he must improve, but I’m not going to bet against him, just like scouts shouldn’t have bet against Bakhtiari. The thing about players who bring a competitive streak, and just need to improve a few areas, is that they excel more often than not. Who is to say that Sambrailo can’t do the same?