The struggle of the offensive line is a burning topic for the Broncos again this season. The latest to throw some significant fuel on it is Mike Kiszla, concluding with this usual shocker: “Unless the Broncos make a deal, I’m afraid the road to the Super Bowl is doomed to end in a brick wall.”
The easy counter to that sentence is that the Broncos had arguably worse problems on the offensive line last year. But even if you have reasonable skepticism that the Broncos could repeat such a performance with weaknesses on the offensive line, caveat emptor should also be exercised before getting on board with the idea of improvement via a major trade before tomorrow’s deadline, such as for frequently mentioned names like Cleveland’s Joe Thomas or San Francisco’s Joe Staley.
The offensive line problems are different in 2016 than in 2015
Last season, the Broncos suffered some vicious bad luck at the tackle position. Left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season early on, and his primary backup and right tackle candidate Ty Sambrailo followed Clady to IR early during the regular season. This forced the Broncos to play Ryan Harris off the street at left tackle, and the extremely green Michael Schofield at right tackle.
With a situation like that, where it was certain that Clady and Sambrailo were lost for good, it would make sense to seek a direct replacement at the tackle position. And indeed, the rumor mill implied that at this time last year, a trade for Thomas was considered to be very close.
But this year, the Broncos have not lost their projected starting tackles for the season. Whatever you may think of them, Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson are still available to play. The drop in talent is not nearly as steep as it was in 2015. Trading for Thomas or Staley would be a serious indictment of the decisions to acquire Okung and/or Stephenson in free agency. I would hasten to add that in the long run, that is not disastrous, especially in the case of Okung and his effective one-year contract. But it would be quite the disappointment for 2016.
This year, the team that mimics the 2015 Broncos the most in this department (and more!) are the Minnesota Vikings. Both left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Andre Smith are lost for the year, and many have said that this weakness might be the only thing stopping the Vikings from a serious Super Bowl run. I would expect the Vikings (along with the Seahawks, who have their own debilitating offensive line problems) to be more aggressive in a possible Thomas or Staley trade.
What do you do with Okung and/or Stephenson if you acquire Thomas or Staley?
This, to me, is the primary question that makes me averse of such a high-profile acquisition. As far as I can tell, Thomas has exclusively played left tackle in his career, and Staley as well except for right tackle his rookie year, meaning both have played the same position for at least eight and a half seasons. Okung, too, has only played left tackle as he’s in the middle of his seventh season.
If the Broncos acquire Thomas or Staley, then one of two things have to happen. One would be to bench Okung. In addition to that being a strong signal that they’d have given up on him, it only hypothetically improves the left tackle position. The other is to move Okung to right tackle, again a position he hasn’t played in the pros, with the most common next move to be to send Stephenson to right guard and Schofield to the pine. Some seem to think that all that shuffling would be a net positive, but I hold much skepticism, especially as I consider other points.
Midseason acquisitions don’t have a full complement of the Broncos’ playbook
I think it’s safe to say that most of us were excited when the Broncos acquired Vernon Davis from the 49ers last year in exchange for what will likely be demoting two 6th round picks to 7th round picks. I think it’s also safe to say that, although we were certainly happy that the Broncos won the Super Bowl, they did so very much in spite of what turned out to be minimal contribution by Davis.
Thomas or Staley may be of a higher caliber than Davis, but there is also a risk that they may not turn out to be a fit for Gary Kubiak’s offense, or at least take more time than anticipated to adjust to it. (In fairness, Thomas did play for one season under Kyle Shanahan at offensive coordinatory, so he would at least have some direct knowledge.) The compensation at stake will be much greater that it was for acquiring Davis, as well.
When will the tank run out for Thomas and Staley?
This is the next natural question to ask. Staley is 32, and Thomas will turn that age on December 4th (a fine birthday, indeed!) When a team uses a first or second round draft pick, it should be expected to get, respectively, five and four seasons of high play for the player they get. It’s reasonable to guess that both players could have four or five more good years in them, but it’s also reasonable to guess that Father Time could catch up to them beforehand. John Elway rolled the dice successfully with Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware, but at some point snake eyes could come up.
Time could be what heals the 2016 offensive line
Turn back the clock to the darkest time of 2015, when Schofield made Khalil Mack look like Lawrence Taylor. Many of us, myself included, were ready to bail completely on Schofield, even if it meant using a running-on-fumes solution in Tyler Polumbus. Many also worried if Schofield and company would be the reason for doom the 2015 Broncos.
But a funny thing happened, of course: that doom never came. The offensive line as a unit steadily solidified, and put together a decent playoff run. It didn’t play great, of course, but good enough to get the Broncos where they wanted to go. Stability is a factor in strong offensive line play, and to achieve it, there’s often not a shortcut for patience.
I will hazard a guess that come this time tomorrow, neither Thomas or Staley will be traded to the Broncos, and perhaps not anywhere. Cleveland, in particular, is looking more like they are not interested in completely gutting their little high-level veteran talent given their acquisition today of Jamie Collins from the Patriots. And it needs to also be mentioned that much of this talk is generated from what makes some modicum of sense to those that follow football, and such talk may not even qualify as proper rumors.
Barring the level of compensation, I will not be crestfallen if I am wrong, as contractually it is easy enough to say goodbye to Okung or Stephenson in 2017 if the Broncos are ready to make that commitment. But unlike 2015, the 2016 offensive line deck is one that Elway himself dealt, and in my opinion a move now would be a hasty fold that leads into going all-in on the next deal.