What’s Really Going On With The Broncos O-Line?

Nick Kendall of Mile High Huddle wrote a good column about the Denver Broncos offensive line that is well worth reading. As he points out, the offensive line has its issues but isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

There have been a few comments made that the Broncos are worse on the offensive line than they were last year. I imagine some of those were made in frustration after losses, but for people who really believe that, it’s not the case. I would ask you to read Kendall’s article first before reading the rest of my article, but I did want to add a few thoughts to what Kendall wrote.

If we’re going to be honest, the main reason why we remain so concerned about the offensive line is mostly based on the right tackle position. It has been a position of concern since the 2014 season, when Orlando Franklin (a solid right tackle) was moved to guard and Chris Clark (a solid left tackle) was moved to right tackle. Clark struggled to make the transition and it was Peyton Manning’s play that compensated for his poor play. But his continued struggles led to Clark being benched and right guard Louis Vasquez being moved to right tackle. Vasquez never looked comfortable playing the position and went back to right guard the next season.

And that brings us to the next season, in which the Broncos had hoped for Ryan Clady to start at left tackle and have Ty Sambrailo compete with Michael Schofield for the right tackle job. Those plans changed when Clady was lost for the season to a torn ACL, Sambrailo getting moved to left tackle and Ryan Harris signed as a free agent to play right tackle. During the 2015 season, Sambrailo was lost to injury, resulting in the Broncos signing Tyler Polumbus after he was cut by Washington and Schofield starting the majority of the games. We know that Schofield struggled and he was benched for Polumbus in the final regular season game and never started again.

In looking back at those two seasons, while right tackle play was an issue, there was less agitation among Broncos fans for one reason: Most of those players starting at right tackle were on cheap deals, whether rookie or veteran deals (Vasquez the only exception), and so it didn’t bother fans as much.

That changed in 2016 when the Broncos signed Donald Stephenson to a three-year, $14M contract during the offseason with $6M fully guaranteed upon signing. Stephenson had a few starts in his NFL career but never looked the part of an every-down starter. But the contract he got was the real issue that bothered most Broncos fans – it was too much money to give to a player unproven as a starter.

That’s not to say Stephenson shouldn’t have received a multi-year deal, but if such a deal had been structured so that Stephenson got no more than $3M in the first year but was promised larger salaries in future seasons if he proved to be a worthy starter, it might have been more palatable to Broncos fans. And I can understand that Broncos fans may have preferred a one-year deal or even a two-year deal that the Broncos could easily get out of after the first year.

Regardless, the real concern about Stephenson was the amount of money paid to him. And the same holds true for the current Broncos right tackle, Menelik Watson. Though he received less fully guaranteed money upon signing ($5.5M), that money was still high for a player who had just a few starts but remained unproven as an every-down starter. Furthermore, he got a larger total sum ($18.375M over three years), which wasn’t going to calm down Broncos fans after the Stephenson experiment failed.

To be fair, Watson has been better than Stephenson when it comes to run blocking. Stephenson struggled in both aspects (run blocking and pass protection) last year and was one of several reasons why the Broncos ranked 18th in run blocking last season and struggled in aspects such as short-yardage situations and runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage. The revamped line ranks eighth in run blocking at the midway point of the NFL season, is doing much better at avoiding runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage and, though league average in short-yardage situations, is in a better position than when it ranked near the bottom last year.

Pass protection, of course, remains the issue and that is something Watson struggles with. This is another aspect that really causes people to overthink the idea that the offensive line is terrible. One think to keep in mind, though, is that the Broncos have faced mostly teams with top pass rushers (Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Khalil Mack and Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeMarcus Lawrence) and had a quarterback who didn’t have good pocket awareness. That’s not to say there are no faults with the O-line in pass protection, but they are getting exaggerated. But it’s understandable that Broncos fans would have concerns given that those who are playing right tackle aren’t faring well in protecting the QB. The same would apply to left guard, where Max Garcia has struggled.

What we really need to find out is if the O-line can do better in all aspects in the second half of the season. The Broncos face three teams whose defenses are in the top half of Football Outsiders DVOA, which are Philadelphia, Washington and Cincinnati, but the rest of the teams are in the bottom half of the league. Additionally, Cincinnati is the only team that ranks in the top 10 in FO DVOA in run defense, so the Broncos should be able to find more success running the football if the O-line keeps improving and if Brock Osweiler can do enough to keep defenses honest.

There will be some teams with quality pass rushers, so the Broncos shouldn’t expect to give up no sacks, but after giving up 25 so far, it would be good if the Broncos can limit opponents to one sack per game, though it’s understandable if they gave up two in games in which the opponent has a top pass rusher. Top pass rushers the Broncos will face down the road are Houston, Mack, Cameron Wake (Miami), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington), Brandon Graham (Philadelphia) and Geno Atkins (Cincinnati). If the Broncos give up three or more sacks in too many games, especially against a team like the Patriots, Jets or Colts – none which have a top pass rusher – then it’s definitely a sign that the O-line isn’t improving in pass protection.

As for what needs to happen in the future, the obvious move is that the Broncos will cut Stephenson this offseason. It’s also clear that Max Garcia isn’t starting guard material, so the Broncos will need to figure out how to upgrade that position. They will need to figure out what to do with Watson, but it’s possible the Broncos could move him to right guard, put Ronald Leary back at left guard and then figure out what to do to address right tackle for the short term. Or they could see if Watson will take a pay cut for next season, keep him at right tackle, then sign a guard in free agency. Either way, the Broncos will draft an offensive lineman who can be groomed to play right tackle.

If the Broncos do decide to move Watson to guard, then they need to avoid the real problem they’ve had with right tackle the past two seasons and that’s overpaying for the position. They need to sign whoever they bring in to a cheap deal. There really wasn’t any reason to overpay for anybody the past two seasons because right tackle isn’t a premium position. And if they do pay a substantial sum, they are better off doing that with a player who has a substantial number of starts. Leary got a big contract for a guard but it was justifiable because he had multiple starts and played well. But there won’t be much talent at right tackle in free agency next offseason, so the worst thing the Broncos can do is overpay a player who has limited snaps.

I will say that Kendall is correct that the O-line isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. The real issue that must be addressed is not overpaying for players who have seldom started, simply on the basis that they’ll fit the Broncos schemes. Better to pay less up front for such options to see if they work out, then reward them later on if they do. At least then you aren’t causing fans to fret about money paid out to a player whose performance doesn’t live up to the money paid out.

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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.