In the seventh of Thin Air’s series on previewing 2017’s training camp for the Broncos is a look at offensive tackle.
No position was in as dire of straits as both tackle positions at the start of the 2017 league year. After offseason moves, both positions still have much uncertainty surrounding them, and whether or not significant improvement happens may be what hinges on an offensive recovery in general.
Barring a major turnaround by an incumbent tackle, Bolles appears likely to be the first rookie starting left tackle for the Broncos since 2008. The last time that happened, the Broncos struck incredible gold: Ryan Clady not only took over the position with ease, but was named a second team All-Pro. Expecting Bolles to do the same would be unreasonably high expectations, but make no mistake: high expectations are still going to be on the table for him. If there are typical rookie pains, he’s either going to have to work through them quicker than usual, or the rest of the offense will have to cover for them to the detriment of the unit as a whole. John Elway has set up high stakes with Bolles and the left tackle position, and it’s going to be nervous to watch the results.
For the second straight season, the Broncos have tried to poach a right tackle from a division rival at a mid-level veteran price. Will this attempt turn out better than the first, very poor attempt? There’s a couple of mitigating factors with Watson that may prove so. First, Watson has had injuries set him back, including an Achilles tear that knocked him out of all of 2015. Second, he has the aid of Bill Musgrave being knowledgeable of his ability, as the two came over from Oakland together. (Musgrave is the QB coach for the Broncos this year, but was offensive coordinator for the Raiders last year.) Expectations will be high for Watson as well, but with four years in the league under his belt he may be more likely to meet more of those expectations.
At this point, Sambrailo is likely fighting just to be able to garner the swing tackle position. The bad news is that he was acquired under Gary Kubiak, and may be better suited for a zone blocking system than the gap system that will now be implemented. The good news is that he’s still on a cheap rookie contract. With those two factors weighing against each other, Sambrailo will need to show at least a base level of improvement in order to secure a roster spot for sure.
The Broncos and Stephenson agreed to what amounted to a $2 million insurance policy against each other. The Broncos still have Stephenson as a “break in case of emergency” tackle if disaster unfolds at the position in training camp, and Stephenson grabbed $2 million guaranteed for himself now as opposed to possibly getting less on the open market if he didn’t.
Stephenson will get $2 million more guaranteed if he makes the team. Given that the previous $2 million is now a sunk cost, it may not be that outlandish to sink that other $2 million if Stephenson proves to be the best option at the swing tackle position. That’s discomforting to type out and read, but it may very well be a reality.
Justin Murray, Cedrick Lang, and Elijah Wilkinson
Murray was a full time member of the practice squad in 2016, Lang was a futures acquisition after spending his rookie season out of football (and is a convert from tight end and basketball to boot), and Wilkinson is a rookie undrafted free agent. If there is not room for both Sambrailo and Stephenson to make the roster, keeping one of these three on the practice squad would likely be prudent in case injury happens above them. Which one of these three emerges ahead would be a wild guess at this point, but they’ll likely take the competition quite seriously.