As I wrote the other day, I am cautiously optimistic about Ty Sambrailo’s ability to handle left tackle for the Broncos this season. The other offensive line positions (except for right guard, in which Louis Vasquez is proven), however, are where I find far more legitimate concerns.
The biggest issue with center, left guard, and right tackle is that you have players who are either inexperienced or haven’t stood out elsewhere. There is some hope among the younger players, but it’s going to take time for some of them to get to that point.
Looking at each position, let’s go over where my concerns lie, and how they tie into what I believe to be legitimate concerns from Bronco fans.
Left guard: This is the position where my skepticism is highest for the short term, not because of the players who are on the roster, but because whoever wins the job takes the place of Orlando Franklin, the Broncos’ most effective lineman last season.
I can understand that John Elway would not want to tie up too much of the salary cap into the offensive line, but when you consider that there were questions about whether or not Ryan Clady could bounce back in 2015 — even if he had avoided injury — it would have made sense to keep Franklin around, thus ensuring there would be at least two reliable veterans on the roster. Also, because the Broncos are committing very little cap space to the running back position, have very reasonable cap numbers for receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer (even with Demaryius Thomas in line for a big payday), and weren’t going to commit much cap space to the tight end position once it was clear Julius Thomas wasn’t going to be re-signed, it would have made sense to commit cap dollars to Franklin for the long term.
I think it’s silly to say that Franklin was a poor fit for a zone-blocking scheme. I have found that most of the top offensive linemen will learn to adapt to most schemes. For example, nobody is saying that Louis Vasquez is a poor fit for the scheme. I suspect the talk about Franklin has a lot more to do with why the Broncos said they didn’t try to retain him. In reality, I suspect their reasons were cap concerns, which I still believe to be overstated for the reasons I previously outlined.
As it is, expected starter Shelley Smith could be a value signing if he proves adept in Gary Kubiak’s schemes. The good thing is that Smith’s contract is structured so that the Broncos aren’t committing many dollars to him this season, and can get out of the deal next year if he doesn’t pan out. Still, even if Smith excels in Kubes’ system, I still see him as a major downgrade from Franklin, so I will make no argument against those who are questioning the left guard position.
I do have a little hope for Ben Garland, though. In limited snaps last season, ones he took when Franklin briefly had to leave games for minor injuries, Garland handled himself well. From what I have gathered, Garland is the ideal candidate for a zone-blocking scheme. As with Smith, though, Garland’s talent level is nowhere near that of Franklin’s, and while he is good for depth, it remains to be seen if he can be a starter.
The Broncos clearly like Garland, and I suspect they hope he can be the long-term answer. I am crossing my fingers for him to succeed, but Franklin set the bar high.
Center: Gino Gradkowski had mixed results during his time with the Baltimore Ravens. He took over for longtime veteran Matt Birk in 2013 and his play was up and down. Along came Kubiak, who worked with offensive line coach Juan Castillo to adjust the zone-blocking scheme, and Gradkowski lost his starting job. Again, it’s understandable that Bronco fans should be concerned about Gradkowski as the likely starter.
Of as much concern is what the Broncos gave up to acquire Gradkowski. Sending a fourth-round pick to Baltimore, even if the Broncos got a fifth-round pick in return, was a bit steep. A better trade would have been to send a sixth-round pick and get a seventh-round pick in return. A sixth-round pick is one you aren’t expecting to be a player for the long term (remember that players like Danny Trevathan are the exception, not the rule), so there’s far less risk involved, than with a fourth-round pick in which you at least expect a quality depth player. Even if the Broncos get a third-round compensatory pick for Julius Thomas, it’s not enough to mitigate the risk of trading the fourth rounder.
With that said, perhaps Gradkowski will fare better now that Kubes will have full control over the offensive scheme, and will work with coaches who have worked closely alongside him in the past. Keep in mind that Castillo spent the bulk of his career with the Eagles under Andy Reid, so one would expect Kubiak and Castillo to have some differing philosophies.
I do believe that Max Garcia represents the future at center. The biggest issue with Garcia is that he is not considered an ideal candidate for a zone-blocking scheme, so I expect him to learn for a year or two, before taking over as the starter. Certainly that doesn’t address the present situation, but for the future, I do have a little optimism.
Right tackle: Even before Clady’s injury, you had two players whose skill set indicate they are not the most ideal candidate to play on the right side (Sambrailo and Chris Clark) and one player who is said not to be the ideal candidate for a ZBS (Michael Schofield). This is why the Broncos did the right thing in signing Ryan Harris, who brings both experience at right tackle and in the ZBS. He’s also the perfect player to mentor younger linemen.
I expect Harris will win the starting job and that he should be fine as a stopgap. The big question is whether or not Schofield can adapt to a ZBS. I had some hope for him, but thus far, there has been more talk about Clark getting the bulk of work. This would indicate that Schofield isn’t progressing as quickly as they want.
As far as the long term picture goes, right tackle is my biggest concern. If Schofield doesn’t develop as expected, then either free agency or the draft must be utilized in 2016. Free agency will depend on the available players, though, and if Sambrailo plays well enough that the Broncos decide to part ways with Clady, then finding another veteran will be ideal.
Even as I am skeptical about certain positions on the O-line, I am reminded about how one can never know who will emerge as a key contributor. Tom Nalen, a seventh-round pick, spent his first season on the practice squad, yet he became the best Broncos player at center, and arguably one of the best five offensive linemen the Broncos have ever had. After the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, Gary Zimmerman made his retirement official and Brian Habib left in free agency for the Seahawks, yet Tony Jones successfully made the switch to the left side, aging journeyman Harry Swayne was adequate on the right side, and 1998 third-round pick Dan Neil ably replaced Habib at guard, and the Broncos won another Super Bowl. Looking back, I think a lot of it had to do with the coaching staff getting the most out of those players. That will be crucial for the O-line to succeed as a unit this season.
Again, I will not argue there are legitimate concerns about the offensive line. The main thing for Broncos fans to hope for is that Kubes and company can get the most out of the players they have, and that a couple of the younger players can develop into long-term starters.