Average backup OL are fine for the Broncos

Happy Wednesday, friends.  I had a Twitter discussion last week with longtime reader Kriss Bergethon, in which we disagreed about whether it was feasible for the Broncos to acquire more quality veteran offensive line depth.

I was sitting in the Phoenix airport as we were tweeting, and I’ve been meaning to get back to this, as I think it’s a good opportunity to think about a couple of concepts in roster construction.

Kriss felt that the Broncos should seek to acquire more veteran linemen, and that’s a defensible position on the surface.  You should always want your team to maximize the quality of its 53 guys on the roster.  There are also a number of starter-caliber veterans on the street, who could probably be had for close to the minimum at this point, as their market seems to have dried up.

My problem with the idea of maxing out with veterans is that you’re implicitly saying that you’re living only for right now when you do that.  There’s this perception that the Broncos’ “window” is closing, because people like John Clayton and Jeff Legwold say so.  Personally, I think that’s a bunch of hogwash.

This Broncos team reminds me of the Green Bay Packers of 2006 and 2007.  The veteran superstar QB is there, and he’s aging, but most of the rest of the key players on the team are young.  The roster construction strategy has some allegiance to the present, but nowhere near full allegiance.  Brock Osweiler wouldn’t have been picked in the second round last year, if the team was in “win-now” mode.

Reporters always want to act like this is a binary situation, one thing or the other, where you're either all-in for right now, or you're completely focused on a more distant future.  In the first case, they say dumbass things like "the future is now."  No it isn't; now is now, and the future is the future.  Concepts of time don't change based upon a reporter's observation of the age of the starting QB.

Of course the Broncos want to win now, but they also want to win in the future, and that project is being carried out on a parallel track.  The organization is clearly planning for a team that is robust enough to absorb Osweiler’s growing pains, and still be very competitive whenever that day comes.  It’s the optimal strategy to employ with a QB who is near the end of the line; you build up a young team around him, and prepare a young QB as well as you can to eventually replace the guy.

Let’s consider the offensive line group for a moment.

The left tackle Ryan Clady is one of the best in the NFL, and he’s still young (26).  My only real concern with him is that he may be overvalued financially on a go-forward basis, since he’s likely going to be playing on the franchise tag.  I’ve been thinking for a while that the LT position isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that can make paying a good one cost-prohibitive.  PFF rated Clady fourth among all tackles in the NFL last season.

The left guard Zane Beadles really came into his own in 2012, and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, for whatever that’s worth.  Beadles is definitely a competent starter, and he’s also young, at 26 years old.  He was the 17th-rated guard in the NFL by PFF last season.

The center J.D. Walton was having his best season when he was injured, and his PFF ranking through four games was second on the team's OL group only to Clady.  It was also better than Dan Koppen’s for the whole rest of the season (5.1 to 2.8).  The idea that Walton is some kind of weak link is wrongheaded in my opinion, even based on a small sample size of good play in 2012.  Walton, like Beadles, benefited from his first offseason program, and improved in his third season.  He’s 26 years old.

The right guard seems like it will be Louis Vasquez, and he’s a good player, although he may be a bit overpriced.  He has an amazing track record of not drawing penalties – he’s drawn exactly one in his career, for a false start, as a rookie in 2009.  It was his third game as a pro, and the opponent was the Broncos, incidentally.  Vazquez is 26 years old, and rated 13th in PFF’s guard rankings.

Finally, at right tackle, you have Orlando Franklin, who’s the baby of the group at age 25.  He improved a great deal in his second season, especially his foot quickness and technique in pass protection.  Franklin was 18th among all tackles, and sixth among right tackles in PFF’s rankings.

The Broncos also have 30-year-old Chris Kuper still on the roster, and he has the versatility to play guard or tackle, having played outside some early in his career.  I think that Kuper is overpaid as a backup, but that he’s better than most of the guys on the open market.  I’d consider keeping him this year as insurance against an injury, since the Broncos clearly have the cap room to afford his salary.

That’s a young and good group overall, and it was really helped by the real improvements of Beadles, Walton, and Franklin in 2012, in addition to getting some help from Peyton Manning in looking better than Tim Tebow made them look.

Now, back to Kriss’s premise that this team should have seven or eight proven guys; I see six of them, as I mentioned.  They could try and get Jammal Brown and Brandon Moore (I consider them to be the best tackle and guard left) to come in on one-year minimum deals as backups, but backup offensive linemen almost never get on the field.  It’s a different thing for a guy like Brown or Moore to come in knowing they’re definitely a backup than it is for Quentin Jammer or Shaun Phillips.  Linebackers and defensive backs rotate, so those guys will play some, but backup linemen only get in when someone gets hurt.  Those quality veterans are likely to want to go to a team where they’d have more opportunity to see the field.

What you lose in bringing in short-term veterans that’s most important is the opportunity to develop young players like Quentin Saulsberry or Vinston Painter, or middle-aged players like Philip Blake.  Doing that is important for the long-term sustainability of your program, when you’re intelligently pursuing a two-track approach, as described above.

While I’d probably keep Kuper, I doubt that the Broncos will.  I think we’ll again see Manny Ramirez as the primary inside backup, and Chris Clark as the primary outside guy.  Both of them have proven competent enough not to sink the whole offense in the past, and they’re both pretty cost-effective.  The last guy on the roster will likely come from the Blake-Saulsberry-Painter-Justin Boren group, with a couple of those guys on the practice squad.

It would be nice if every player on the Broncos’ 53-man roster was a starter-caliber guy, but I think it’s unrealistic.  Every team in the NFL is employing cheap, young developmental guys, because there are benefits to be had from cost-effectiveness, and also from upside, and most especially, from cost-effective upside.  Think about it like this, too – even if the Broncos lose a starting lineman, this offense almost certainly doesn’t sink.  Peyton Manning has played with far worse guys than Ramirez and Clark in front of him, and he’s won plenty of games doing so.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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