Midweek Musings: OMG QB Controversy~!

Hello Bronco fans! There’s been a lot of activity here at Thin Air and, regardless of where anyone stands, it’s great we can have lively yet civil discussion about the Broncos. And considering they are 6-0 and feature a top-three defense but have plenty of issues on offense, there’s been plenty to discuss.

I’m a bit early with this edition of Midweek Musings because there are a few things that need to be understood with regards to what decisions the Broncos had to make this offseason and what the Broncos need to focus on now that they are six games into the season.

A lot has been discussed about Peyton Manning for obvious reasons. I do want to touch briefly on a couple of items, though, that would not necessarily have been solved by saying goodbye to Manning during the offseason.

I’ll start with Rhett Rothberg, who suggested the Broncos should have gone with Brock Osweiler as the starter and used the space freed up by releasing Manning to retain Julius Thomas. His comment here seems to be prompted by what our friend Ted Bartlett recently had to say on Twitter.

Ted responded to a question about Welker, saying he’s washed up and not worth bringing back (I agree with him). He didn’t bring up Thomas (although Rhett mentioned him to Ted), but I’ll address the issue with JT, which goes back to this: He and his agent sought more money than the Broncos would give him, regardless of whether or not Manning stayed.

Let me be clear that I do not blame JT for seeking the best deal he could get. I don’t think he was greedy; he simply wanted long-term security. From the Broncos’ perspective, though, they had a tight end who was a great red-zone threat but a poor blocker, and they just brought in a coach who expects his tight ends to block well. Consequently, it wasn’t worth giving JT the deal he evidently wanted, and got from the Jaguars, because he’s not worth that much in the Broncos’ eyes.

In other words, the retention of JT was independent from whatever happened to Manning. If they let Manning go or if Manning retired, I still would have expected the Broncos to thank JT for what he has done and wish him the best, but not be willing to pay him what he was seeking, because they think that’s overvaluing a player. Let’s examine why.

If you look at the deals that have been handed out to tight ends in recent seasons, you can see a lot are being overvalued. Jimmy Graham’s deal is about right, Rob Gronkowski’s is undervalued (although the Patriots extended him before his rookie deal expired), Jason Witten’s was a fair deal at the time he signed and Greg Olsen’s recent extension is in line with his value. Those are the four best tight ends in terms of pass catching and blocking this season. Vernon Davis has declined, but his extension was reasonable at the time he signed it.

Antonio Gates, on the other hand, isn’t as good of a blocker, but his deal was reasonable for what he was: An excellent pass catcher and red-zone threat. His average salary per year is about what I would have given to JT. I would have given him a full year’s guarantee for 2015, and would have been fine with two years of injury-only guarantees after that, but no way do I fully guarantee anything after 2015, because he needs to improve his blocking. Since he got two years of full guarantees in his deal with the Jaguars, I suspect that was a sticking point for JT and his agent. If that was the case, there’s no point in continuing negotiations, regardless of whether or not Peyton is still on the roster.

With that said, does that mean the Broncos don’t retain any free agent they lost if Manning was gone? Not necessarily. It’s likely the Broncos would have tried to retain Orlando Franklin. If not, they may have spent the cap space on another guard, a slot receiver or a tight end other than Owen Daniels. I won’t speculate too much, though, because the larger point is that JT priced himself out of the range the Broncos would pay him.

Back to the tight end list I linked to, you can see JT isn’t the only tight end who has been overvalued. The same thing is true with Charles Clay (who the Dolphins transition tagged and the Bills were foolish enough to overpay), Jordan Cameron (but at least the Dolphins can get out of the deal after one season), Kyle Rudolph and Jared Cook. Additionally, Dennis Pitta has suffered serious injuries since signing his extension.

Why is that? Because more teams are looking at the position and thinking they really need that red-zone threat more than anything else, so they want to pay for that production, even if the tight end hasn’t shown consistency in that area or isn’t a good blocker. But those contracts should tell you something about John Elway’s thinking: Don’t overpay for a tight end.

As for how Elway approached things, I think this is clear what he and Gary Kubiak agreed upon: Sign a veteran to a deal that gives him a fair amount of money the first season, but allows you to get out of the deal after a year if need be, and draft a tight end early, allowing you to rotate those players, keeping the veteran fresh while the rookie learns. That’s what they did, but the problem was their draft pick (Jeff Heuerman) got injured and they had to roll with Dominique Jones and Marcel Jensen as their options to split time with Owen Daniels, because there weren’t any young TEs available until teams tried slipping players through waivers. Neither young TE panned out and the Broncos are having to figure out what to do there, but with the understanding that Heuerman will get his chance next season, regardless of whether or not Daniels sticks around.

But the bottom line is this: While you might argue that the Broncos could have retained or signed another free agent if Manning was gone, Julius Thomas wasn’t going to be the one at the deal he was seeking.

Switching to another topic, I know Sterling Mallory Archer is very passionate about his belief that the Broncos could have done a better job addressing the offensive line. I will say, though, that his thinking is likely along my lines of thinking, but our differences really come down to who the Broncos should have drafted. I’ll roll out my line of thinking, which I suspect is what Elway was thinking as well, and would not be surprised if Sterling was thinking this way, too.

* Ryan Clady was a proven veteran left tackle, but coming off a disappointing 2014 and it’s not known if he would be with the Broncos after 2015 because of his 2016 cap number.
* Michael Schofield was an unknown at right tackle.
* Chris Clark was a good backup left tackle but struggled on the right side and is in the final year of his contract.

Those three points tell you your best plan is to draft an offensive tackle early, who can compete for the right tackle spot, but could move to the left side if you decide you can’t keep Clady after 2015. Your hope is that Schofield can either become the starting right tackle or the swing tackle, and if you keep Clady for another year, you still have that draft pick who can be either the starting the right tackle (if Schofield doesn’t improve) or the swing tackle (if Schofield becomes your starting RT) and perhaps take over as the starter in 2017.

Now, let’s say you take an offensive linemen other than Ty Sambrailo. I looked at some of the linemen who were available (excluding any that would have required the Broncos move up the board further than they did when they selected Shane Ray) and the general consensus about many of those linemen is that their best bet to contribute as a rookie was at right tackle, although some might have worked better as a guard (La’el Collins was one who got talked up as a possible guard rather than a tackle). There were a couple who could have moved to left tackle, but they would require plenty of development.

So what happens in nearly every case when you switch from drafting Sambrailo to somebody else, even if you take that player in the first round? Answer: You’re still planning on the rookie competing with Schofield at right tackle, but you have a potential left tackle in the future. And what does this mean when Ryan Clady’s injury (an event independent from whatever the Broncos do in the draft) comes up? Answer: You’re likely moving the rookie to left tackle and bringing in Ryan Harris to get a veteran tackle on board because he knows Kubiak’s system. Jake Long was not the answer because he was coming off two major surgeries in two seasons and wasn’t going to be ready for training camp. The fact that neither the Broncos nor two other teams who needed O-line help (Giants and Falcons) signed him immediately after workouts should tell you they were in “wait and see” mode regarding his services.

And what happened later? The Broncos signed Evan Mathis, a move that probably doesn’t happen if they signed Long, and definitely doesn’t happen if Franklin was extended. True, Mathis didn’t play in the preseason, but he wasn’t coming off a serious injury. Long was and would have had a steeper curve to getting back into top form, meaning you still have problems on the left side.

In other words, when Clady’s injury happened, the Broncos were in a bind and likely starting a rookie on the left side. I know it’s easy to point to Clark playing well at left tackle when Clady was injured in 2013, but it was a different system and, more to the point, the Broncos likely believed it was better to part ways with Clark in a trade because he was in the final year of his deal, rather than spend time seeing if he could work in the new system or give up on Schofield too quickly. And while Sambrailo struggled (as would be expected), Schofield has done well for himself since entering the lineup and has shown it would have been a mistake to give up on him so easily.

Again, I will say it’s fair if Sterling believes a player other than Sambrailo should have been drafted, but regardless of who he (or anyone else) likes, when Clady got injured, you face a situation you don’t want: A rookie likely starting on the left side when the rookie needs development at that position. But you have to roll with the punches and hope for the best.

So the offseason dilemmas the Broncos faced weren’t simply going to be solved by moving on from Manning. It’s more complex than that.

With that said, that doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to what is happening. I will say, like it or not, Peyton Manning will be the starting QB unless he’s injured or the Broncos go on a lengthy losing streak, and the latter is not likely to happen with the way the defense is playing, unless a lot of those players are lost for the season to injury (and that’s a scenario I know nobody wants to see, regardless of what they think of the QB situation). You don’t have to like it, but you need to accept it.

So what can be changed? Let’s try these things.

* Gary Kubiak needs to call for Peyton Manning to throw more screens, particularly when it’s a favorable matchup. This is a coaching issue, because Kubes wants the running back to run traditional routes and I think it’s clear Ronnie Hillman isn’t comfortable with that. Putting him in the traditional screen role might be better. It’s also something C.J. Anderson can handle and it might be a better usage of his talents. I’d have to go back to look at highlights from past games, but as I understand it, Kubes mostly utilized running backs in traditional routes in the passing game and seldom called screens. That’s where he definitely needs to adjust his thinking to help out Manning.

* Utilize Bennie Fowler in the slot, because he’s created some matchup problems when he’s been on the field. You may as well find out now if your second-year UDFA can give you an inexpensive option at that position.

* I’d prefer to stick with a set five-man lineup on the offensive line, but if it looks like a few rotations are working out, that’s fine. It appears the line has settled in with Max Garcia rotated in for Evan Mathis, for example. The Broncos do need to work Sambrailo in the mix once he’s ready, though, because the rookie needs to learn and the Broncos need to figure out if he can be the long-term left tackle or if his future is to be the swing tackle, because it appears Schofield can handle right tackle in the coming seasons.

* Tight end could use an upgrade but the Broncos need to be careful what they do if they trade for one. I’m not sold on Vernon Davis, because he’s battled a knee injury this season and he’s only a year younger than Daniels. True, Davis has been better overall in his career than Daniels and his deal expires after the season, but I’m hesitant to trade for the guy. Jared Cook, while he may have been overvalued by the Rams when he signed his deal, would only require the Broncos to pay out the remainder of his $2M base salary and the Broncos could cut him after this season with no penalty, because the Rams would absorb the dead money. The only downside is, if the Broncos did cut him, he wouldn’t count toward the team’s compensatory pick total. Regardless, I’d talk to the Niners and the Rams, but not give up more than a conditional late-round pick, and one that is no higher than a sixth rounder. The Broncos don’t want to risk too much in trade like they did with Gino Gradkowski, even if they got a pick back in the deal, and even if it looks like that pick will come early in the fifth round given the Ravens’ struggles.

* Peyton needs to be willing to get out of the pocket and throw the ball away more often, rather than trying to force a throw he used to be able to make. This is particularly true with the issues at tight end and the slot, and especially true early in games when you have plenty of time left to get the ball back. Throwing it away isn’t ideal, but at least you aren’t throwing an interception and making the situation worse than it might be otherwise. To those who have been Manning’s biggest critics, feel free to emphasize this because you would be right on the money.

One final reminder: While it’s true the Broncos are playing terrific defense, nobody could have predicted it would be as terrific as it is. And there were plenty of questions we had going into the season, such as whether DeMarcus Ware’s production decline last season was because he was declining, whether Sylvester Williams would emerge in his third season, how Danny Trevathan would fare coming back from injury, what would happen to Antonio Smith given the investigation for child abuse, would Darian Stewart be the answer at free safety, could Vance Walker replace Terrance Knighton, and by the way, nobody was talking a lot about how good Shaq Barrett would be. We knew what Wade Phillips would bring as defensive coordinator; we just didn’t know if all the players we had would excel.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the Not So Scientific Team Rankings and perhaps thoughts on other topics not relating to our quarterback.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.