I commented last week on my breakdown of the Cornerback position that I was lucky to have drawn a position that Broncos fans can clearly feel very positive about. The offensive tackle position is in even better shape, and actually, is the strength of the team. Expect more great offensive-line play in 2009, and it will start from the outside.
During last year's reloading season, I spent a fair bit of effort in writing about the offensive line, which, at the end of 2007, was pretty lousy. I talked about my concerns, and why I advocated the selection of a Tackle in the first round in 2008 (which ultimately came to fruition with the selection of Ryan Clady.) In 2008, the Broncos line was terrific, and it was the OT position which led the way. After the jump, we'll discuss the individual players at the position, and the prospects for further improvement in 2009.
You have to love it when the team gets it right, even if you personally had it wrong. I am hoping that is the case with Knowshon Moreno this season, as I didn't personally advocate for that choice, or love it when it happened. if you think back to March and April 2008, people on this site were HOT for Chris Williams and Earl Bennett from Vanderbilt. Both were drafted by Chicago, and both did absolutely nothing as rookies. The Broncos got Ryan Clady and Eddie Royal, who were two of the top 5 rookies in the NFL.
The best rookie in the NFL last season, to be clear, was Ryan Clady. He was the best offensive lineman in the NFL at age 22, and there is every reason to expect that he will continue to improve. Just to be clear, though, the degree of success which Ryan had in his first season, as a Left Tackle on a right-handed team, was essentially unprecedented. Joe Thomas was good the year before, and Jake Long and Jeff Otah were also good in 2008 (Otah on the right side), but none approached the two-way dominance of Clady.
At 6-6, 325 pounds, Clady has the foot quickness of a man who is 100 pounds lighter. He also has very long arms. He allowed one half of a sack in more than 600 drop-backs, which is incredible. The one stumble he did have was against the outstanding Richard Seymour, and he just got his feet tangled up on the play. You'll take that happening one in 600 times.
The thing that really sets Ryan apart from other good pass-blocking LTs is that he is also an elite run-blocker. Broncos fans will remember how devastating those runs around left end were last season, with Brandon Marshall cracking back on a DE, and Clady out in front hitting a CB. Offensive linemen don't consistently hit CBs (only Anthony Munoz ever did), and Ryan Clady did it all the time in 2008.
For this season, expect improvement from Ryan Clady, and expect him to get a lot of media attention when he dominates DeMarcus Ware in Week 4 on FOX, which will almost certainly be nationally televised, and called by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Well, on second thought, neither of them would notice Ryan, so I may be reconsidering this. In any case, don't expect Ryan to be snubbed from the Pro Bowl again, or from first-team All-Pro recognition. He's on his way to Canton in about 15-18 years, if he can have a healthy career, because he has the greatest natural skill set the NFL has ever seen in a LT.
I linked to something I wrote in April 2008, where I expressed that I wasn't too encouraged about Ryan Harris's prospects to become a starter. I was basing that on an absence of praise from Mike Shanahan, rather than anything I saw on the field, since he didn't play any offense in his rookie season in 2007.
It turns out, Harris was one of the best RTs in the NFL, and was certainly the best in pass protection. He was charged with giving up 2.5 sacks, which was tied for 6th in the NFL. If you take away the Cutler fumble/non-fumble against San Diego, which had absolutely nothing to do with Harris, he's tied for first with Ryan Diem, Jon Stinchcomb, and Ray Willis. He was named All-Pro by SI.com, with only Peter King voting, and based upon a recommendation from Mike Shanahan.
Harris is very cost-effective right now, but he's going to cost a bunch of money in an extension a year from now. He is definitely good enough to play LT somewhere else, and the Broncos will have to pay for that quality. In 2009, expect Ryan to deserve to go to the Pro Bowl, but not to get there, as RTs tend to struggle to make it. He'll always suffer for recognition with Clady on the left side, but he deserves to be known for how outstanding he is.
Tyler Polumbus is a local guy from Colorado University, who acquitted himself well on offense in the preseason, and on special teams during the regular season. He is also very cost-effective, and I feel pretty comfortable with him as the primary backup to both Tackle positions. It remains to be seen if he could handle the best pass-rushers in the NFL one-on-one, but I think he could handle the job with a reasonable amount of help.
The Broncos signed Brandon Gorin in April to compete for a backup job. Gorin is a decent veteran role player, and could make the team, given his time with New England, and familiarity with Josh McDaniels. He has been a backup on some bad teams in San Diego, Arizona and St. Louis, and you clearly wouldn't want Gorin starting a lot of games.
Stanley Bryant signed as a college free agent from East Carolina, and will probably compete for a spot on the practice squad. Clint Oldenburg is a third-year player from Colorado State, who was originally drafted by New England and saw action in two games for the Jets in 2007. Don't expect either to make a big impact on the field in 2009.
The Broncos should field the best set of OTs in the NFL in 2009, a fair bit ahead of Tennessee (Roos/Stewart) and Miami (Long/Carey). Really, anything less than that would be disappointing. Michael Lombardi has said that he believes staying healthy is a skill for O-linemen, and if Ryan and Ryan can show that skill, the quality at the Tackle position will be a major factor in the Broncos' over-performance of 2009 media expectations.