Another free agency period has come and gone and once again the Denver Broncos are less than set along the offensive line. For what feels like nearly a decade, the trenches along the offensive side of the ball have left the organization and fanbase wanting.
With the constant switching and struggles to find a solid right tackle, the myriad of left tackles with a propensity to draw flags from the officials, and a solid but unspectacular trio of interior players, the Broncos’ offensive line has continually left much to be desired.
State of the O-line
To be fair, the O-line did make a marked improvement last season. Up-and-down left tackle Garett Bolles seemed to be trending in the right direction over the last half of the season, with Jared Veldheer offering a steady presence at right tackle, and the interior, when healthy, played decently well.
Recently-departed OL Coach Sean Kugler, who is now in Tampa Bay, deserves some credit considering the injuries that the line faced last year and how good the blocking, especially for the ground game, was despite the shuffling of players along the front.
While the O-line did lose the likes of long-time center Matt Paradis and up-and-coming, versatile lineman Billy Turner, John Elway and the Broncos did make an impact signing on the O-line this offseason with the addition of former Dolphins’ first-round pick Ja’Wuan James to man right tackle for the foreseeable future. Jared Veldheer, who is still a free agent, did play decent last season but with his injury history and older age, Denver went with the upside play bringing in the long, young, and athletic James to play right tackle.
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James has had his bouts of inconsistencies during his tenure at Miami, but the upside is still tantalizing and garnered him enough intrigue on the market to become the highest paid right tackle in NFL history. On the other side of James, Garett Bolles will be given another year to man the blind side of the O-line.
Bolles has had an inconsistent start to his career, drawing the ire of fans due to his knack for losing his technique and falling into the bad habit of drawing holding calls, but his play had been improving. The former first-round pick has started to draw some concerns regarding the mental side of the game.
He will be given another year to prove himself at tackle, both in play and desire to be great. Next offseason the Broncos will have to decide his future in regards to their decision on his fifth-year option.
The addition of new OL Coach Mike Munchak will undoubtedly help the Broncos now and going forward. Considered one of the greatest O-line coaches currently in the NFL and arguably the second-best behind New England Patriots’ wizard Dante Scarnecchia, the Broncos’ O-line should be trending in the right direction in 2019. Given that the tackles also appear to be ‘set’ in 2019, the unit’s success will likely come down to how the interior rotation settles.
Connor McGovern had his ups and downs last year, but should be a serviceable player. He plays with strength and intensity but sometimes can struggle in one-on-one situations, especially against athletes with length such as New York’s Leonard Williams who beat up McGovern a few times. McGovern may be center or guard, but the drop off from Paradis after injury was felt in both snapping the ball in shotgun, as well as calling out protections pre-snap.
If lined up at center this year, McGovern will have an offseason to prepare for the responsibilities of the position. Ronald Leary is likely the most talented player on the interior, but he has already ended the last two seasons on injured reserve. Will he be ready Week 1, and for how long can he stay healthy? After those two, some combination of Elijah Wilkinson and Sam Jones will make up the interior, but both are projections at best as average starters in 2019.
Round two will again be the sweet spot for interior O-line
Will the Broncos look towards the draft to help add much-needed talent and competition to the interior? It does not seem like the Broncos will be using the No. 10 overall selection on an offensive lineman given that the team appears to be set in 2019 at tackle and there is no pure interior player of the quality of Quenton Nelson in this year’s class. One could argue for Alabama’s Jonah Williams who could start on the interior year one, push Bolles at left tackle, and give the team a backup plan in case they decide to move on from Bolles, but that doesn’t seem super likely at this moment.
However, round two of the draft seems like a great spot to pick up an interior offensive lineman that can start and be a good contributor year one. However, that may be a risk for the Broncos to expect to find a good interior offensive lineman in round two.
It was reported that last year the Broncos had hopes of landing a starting quality interior player round two of the draft. With the Broncos slated to have the No. 8 pick in the second round, 40th overall, and four highly-regarded interior offensive lineman on the board, Denver likely believed they had a shot to nab a high-end player in the second round.
However, with the round kicking off, a flurry of offensive linemen flew off the board, with Austin Corbett, Will Hernandez, Braden Smith, and James Daniels going in the first seven picks, which caused Denver to decide to select wide receiver Courtland Sutton. Many reports have indicated the Broncos would have liked Will Hernandez or James Daniels if they were still on the board.
The 2019 draft very well could play out the same exact way. While the Broncos likely feel they are in a prime spot to select an immediate starter on the interior at pick 41 of the second round, a run on offensive linemen seems like it could happen once again.
Perhaps the likes of Garrett Bradbury of North Carolina State, Chris Lindstrom of Boston College, Dalton Risner of Kansas State, and Erik McCoy of Texas A&M don’t even make it to the second round, but given the value of the fifth-year option of first-rounders, most interior offensive linemen don’t find their way into round one.
However, Denver very well could find themselves in a situation like last year where they wanted to take a starter on the O-line, but the players they liked are gone. The decision then comes down to taking the best player on the board, but leaving the interior vulnerable, or reaching to fill a need.
The likes of Wisconsin’s Michael Deiter, Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins, Ohio State’s Michael Jordan, Oklahoma’s Dru Samia, and Penn State’s Connor McGovern will all very likely be on the board at 41, but that would mean the Broncos are almost assuredly passing on better talent.
Don’t rule out a trade
The Broncos could attempt to trade up to secure ‘their guy’ on the interior, trading back up into the end of round one or to the top of round two, but that will likely carry a very heavy cost including either their second and third-rounder this year, or potentially even involving their 2020 first. Denver is not a single interior offensive lineman away from competing for a Super Bowl in 2019, so any trade involving their first in 2020 should be off the table.
Still, it could leave Denver in a very vulnerable position offensively. Given how important the push from interior offensive line is in the effectiveness of the zone run and keeping the immobile Joe Flacco upright and playing with confidence from within the pocket, if the interior plays as poorly as the currently listed starters, the offenses’ overall potential will be capped even with the guiding eye and development of Munchak.
The Broncos have finally appeared to take steps forward in stopping the bleeding along O-line. With the additions of offensive line coach extraordinaire Mike Munchak and upside of their new right tackle, the Broncos are trending in the right direction in the trenches.
However, with the multitude of questions along the interior ranging from McGovern’s best fit and effectiveness, Leary’s durability, and whoever shakes out as the third interior lineman, the interior looks like a black eye on the roster. The Broncos would likely love to address that position round two if possible with one of Bradbury, Risner, Lindstrom, or McCoy, but hoping one falls to 41 is extremely risky given the history of ‘runs’ on the position early in round two.
Munchak will have his work cut out for him, but Denver better have a plan B in case that a guy they want round two doesn’t happen to fall to them. Munchak will have his plate full either way, but if the Broncos are to jump back into AFC West contention, the offensive line must be better. With the interior having as many questions as they currently do before the draft, that might be a difficult ask in 2019.