Draft perspective: lines eat yardage

Trudging off the field after the Colts' stomach-churning loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV (which concluded the 2009 season), Indianapolis Coach Jim Caldwell was being besieged by inner questions. By the time that he’d reached the podium for his obligatory postgame meeting with the media, he still felt the same way that he had during that long, sad walk. Asked about why he thought that the Colts lost, you had the impression that the media expected that he’d talk about Peyton Manning’s late, final interception or the valiant but losing effort of the defense. He did neither.

“We lost the game because of the offensive line,” he said bluntly.

Bill Polian, now entering his 14th season as GM of the Colts, has been at the top of the NFL for a long time. Free agency in 2010 was an odd affair, due to the lack of a CBA - not a lot of offensive linemen were on the market, and of them, scarcity meant that most were overpriced. When the 2010 Draft came around, though, Polian used his first pick (31st overall) on TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes to provide a possible successor to Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis. It was a sensible move - Hughes was highly rated and both of their DEs are getting on in NFL years. Next came Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer with the 63rd-overall pick in the second round. Pick #94 was spent on Southern Cal cornerback Kevin Thomas in the third. You could argue for each guy individually - but the biggest issue during that SB loss went unregarded.

Finally, in the fourth round, the Colts took a guard out of Tennessee - a developmental guard at that - named Jacques McClendon, a player who had flown so far under the radar that no video was available on NFL.com and no rating had been given to him. All that NFL.com worked up on him was the tepid comment, “McClendon could become a developmental prospect as a potential run blocker in short-yardage situations. He is a smart player with good strength and decent speed and may eventually become a contributor.” Saying that a guy could become a developmental project for a limited number of players suggests that he isn’t even that far along now and is unlikely to ever start - not a rousing endorsement.

He was the only lineman taken in the Colts' entire 2010 Draft. It’s the first time that I can recall Polian seemingly ignoring his head coach’s advice on such a matter, and may (or may not) have had something to do with it having been Caldwell’s first year at HC. Regardless, Indy went heavily to defense that draft, using six picks on defense and just two on offense - McClendon and Oklahoma TE Brody Eldridge, who is reputed to be a top run-blocking TE. Eldridge is one of those players who isn’t likely to make the stat columns for the fantasy folks, but may clear the way for the running game to improve on the strongside - he caught just five passes in 2010 for 39 total yards. Those were the only nods to the weakness that Caldwell saw as the biggest factor in losing the SB. I was shocked.

Fast forward to 2011 and this time it’s Polian who’s been talking freely about the Colts' needs along the OL. Peyton Manning is 35 years old and they need to be grooming his successor, but from the tackles to the center, Indy needs to upgrade their line if they want to keep to their perennial  winning ways and to protect their QB, who’s getting too old to take the kind of hard hits that he experienced in the 2010 season - even though it’s true that the line only gave up 17 sacks, one of them coming in the postseason.

What was most telling was that the Colts' running game only ranked 29th in the league after ranking dead last in 2009.  Not even Manning's greatness can make up for that sort of futility in the running game, a fact that Denver also is facing without a Manning on the team. Manning dropped to tenth in the league in passer rating in 2010, a fact that is noticeable in part due to its rarity - in eleven prior seasons, he'd ranked among the league's top six passers in ten of them. The Colts had ranked second in the league in passing in 2009, and Manning ranked a close 6th overall, second in the league in yardage. The OL was a major concern for them in the draft - last week they obtained bookend tackles Anthony Castonzo from Boston College and Ben Ijalana of Villanova -  and they may look for guards in free agency. If the Colts with Manning can’t win without a running game and a solid-to-great line, how can a Denver squad manage it? Never mind who’s going to play QB for just this minute. Consider the quality of the Indy QB and the outcome. Do you expect a better record than Denver’s 4-12 last year? Sure. But a shot at the SB? Not a chance.

That’s the lesson for Denver. Denver left the defense as the second-class citizens of the team for a long time. Occasional drafts concentrated on certain defensive positions - Mike Shanahan tried to counter Manning’s expertise by accumulating defensive backs in 2005, then defensive ends in 2007, both with limited results.  It was a band-aid approach to a ruptured artery. After trading up to take the injury-ravaged Jarvis Moss at #17 overall in 2007, believing that he would somehow fit Jim Bates’ Run-Contain defense (for which Denver didn’t have the DL or LB players, and which was trashed halfway through its first season) Denver started to take more of a look at defense, but not enough of one. Josh McDaniels wisely emphasized the defensive secondary in 2009 and also filled the team with good receivers and a young QB with lots of promise in 2010, but did little to prepare the team’s DL for its 3-4 look, bringing in older players and ignoring the needed learning curve on draft picks for the line. Impassioned discussions were held by fans on which defensive linemen would best fit the scheme of the year (and it changed that often), but in vain. 2009 first-rounder Robert Ayers will be a DE this year, but was drafted as an OLB. The DL has been poorly constructed for nearly a decade.

At the same time, fans and the team's front office alike were lulled into a false sense of security with just twelve sacks allowed in 2008 by the OL. What was usually missed - and I myself was a big offender on this one - was that offensive line depth was limited at best, and neither of 2009's fourth-round pick Seth Olsen nor seventh-rounder Blake Schlueter ever even saw a snap in regulation game time. Schlueter was waived on September 1 of the same year he was drafted, while Olsen was activated for three games in 2009, but he never went in and was waived during final cuts in 2010 - he’s currently a backup with the Vikings. That’s hardly the way to a winning record.

It’s 2011. Last year, McDaniels made an effort, if a bit late, to fill in the offensive line. Ryan Harris was injured over much of the last two years. In 2009 there wasn’t anyone - Tyler Polumbus notwithstanding (and he didn’t withstand much) - to step up. I liked Polumbus in college, but he didn’t work in the new system. Casey Wiegmann couldn’t block except for a zone scheme, and Ben Hamilton just stopped playing. In 2010, Denver spent a year with a rookie center and a rookie at either RT or LG. As a LG, I saw Zane Beadles playing well (he isn’t a right tackle, but wasn’t drafted to be one). Center J.D. Walton was over his head - and that’s no surprise. Eric Olsen wasn’t activated. But, both starters will have a year’s experience when play resumes. They will have to come to camp in shape and ready or Denver will struggle again.

But it’s really on defense that it all came apart. It’s been coming for years, but really hit the fan in the last two, and it was a lot more than McDaniels. When’s the last time Denver drafted a DT above the fourth round? 2007 - Jarvis Moss (#17) and Tim Crowder (#56) were DEs and Marcus Thomas arrived in the fourth round (#121). Thomas had a good 2010 as a utility man, but he’s best at under tackle (in rotation) or being floated around the DL, much as Oakland does with Richard Seymour. Thomas is younger, and just getting it. Denver should try hard to hold onto him.  Elvis Dumervil came aboard in the fourth round of 2006. And, the Broncos took Nick Eason in the fourth round (#113) in 2003 - who’s now a backup in Pittsburgh. But the answer was Dorsett Davis at pick #96, third round, in 2002. And that’s just sad. The Browncos? Cute, but they  wouldn’t get the Lombardi Trophy headed to the Rockies. Didn’t work out in Cleveland that well, either.

Denver had the chance this year. KC’s Scott Pioli recently said,

There are bad things that can happen to players and your team, so you better be ready for the next player. So we have a need at every position. Some are ranked higher than others for immediacy, but that doesn't mean you run from another position. It goes into trying to find the delicate balance between best player available and need. It's obvious to people what people perceive and what we perceive the needs are. But you also have to think ahead. You can't focus in a one-year or even a two-year frame of thinking because then you set yourself up for failure when you're trying to build a consistent winner.

He knows his craft. At the same time, you do have to look at the short term - if you’re starting the season with a glaring hole, your opponents are going to take it apart and the short term becomes more important (Note - starting rookies side by side at center and left guard is a very dangerous thing to do). Denver lacked the lines - OL or DL - to compete with the playoff perennials of the NFL. Their path back into that group is fairly direct - solidify the lines, and build better talent and depth at all positions. It’s not a rare insight, but it fits the bill. This draft, even without the DTs that all of us expected, was a start. The front seven is far stronger today than it was last week.

Von Miller at #2 overall was an excellent pick, for all the reasons that we’ve discussed. He can play LB or a hybrid position, and he’s solid in coverage as well as having multiple moves as a pass rusher. But without building the interior of the D-line, you can’t have an effective front seven. My point isn’t to complain - I wasn’t unhappy with the draft by any stretch. It’s just to note that building the DL often takes more than one draft plus a few leftovers. I looked at Pittsburgh taking another solid, rotational DL player in OSU's Cam Heyward, and it reminded me of the depth that they developed over time - that’s something Denver will have to put years into. But it’s starting, and while I’m not sold on a run-stopping D and a run-based offense, I am sold on the reality that you have to really build the D over time. This was a good start.

And, I’ll be among the first to say that Orlando Franklin was an excellent choice, from what I can gather. The man played left tackle at Miami and he moves more smoothly with his kick-out on that side, but that’s mostly just repetition. He’ll play right tackle for Denver. His attitude and mauler approach will help the OL a great deal, and it will help the running game as much or more. Franklin was a good option, and the Broncos will still need more depth on the OL. This wasn’t a one-draft set of problems. Franklin was a good piece. Perhaps we’ll find out about Eric Olsen this year - in a way, I hope not. You usually only do if someone goes down.

We’re all a little perplexed - and frustrated - at the lack of attention to the DL, especially the DT position. I could understand it in 2009. There wasn’t a good fit at a good value. Last year I was more concerned with - they wanted to run a 3-4 and didn’t have a developmental NT, which is beyond odd. But it’s this year that really makes you wonder if GM Brian Xanders wasn’t a bigger influence on the draft during the McDaniels Era than we were told.

Still - I’d like to put forth an option: This defense wasn’t going to be a one-year rebuild - the problems ran too deep. I think that the Broncos showed how little they like the incumbent linebackers, and I don’t disagree - neither head coach John Fox nor defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have used or liked most of the somatypes that we had in house. I love the Miller pick. I love the Nate Irving pick, too. I’m not as huge on Mike Mohamed, but he’s depth, will push anyone in front of him and he’s got a ton of heart. With Wesley Woodyard and possibly D.J. Wiliams still around, (and D.J. is a very expensive maybe), they’ve switched out most of the LB corps. To be honest - they needed it. Neither Allen nor Fox liked the kind of LBs that the Bullough uses, that Denver had.

But that doesn’t mean that the former acquisitions will entirely go to waste. Joe Mays can back up at Sam or Mike and he’s a top ST player. David Veikune was a pretty good DE - Cleveland saw him as making the leap to a 3-4 OLB, but he has no coverage skills. That’s fine - he can be depth at DE. Same is true with Jason Hunter, if he avoids sharp objects - he pulled five sacks for Detroit in the 4-3 in 2009. Again - they’re depth. Ryan McBean could be depth at DE or he could be gone. He’s an RFA, so that could be fine either way.

Robert Ayers isn’t depth - he’s an excellent starter. Until he was injured last season, you could easily see the improvement he’d made over 2009, and he came along quickly in 2009. He’s moving back to what may have been his natural position, and when he was chosen, Josh McDaniels talked about his ability to gain muscle weight and switch back and forth, DE and OLB. That didn’t happen, but he can still put on that weight and he can play a very good LDE. One down.

Marcus Thomas is an RFA. He’s a natural 4-3 who wound up playing everywhere along a 3-4 line over the past two years, and played well in rotation. He may be the current frontrunner at UT, and could come back a bit lighter if that’s the plan. Kevin Vickerson is a very athletic 4-3 NT, at 321 lb. This isn’t a Super Bowl-caliber front line, but it’s a nice start to a much better DL than Denver has had - people can play the position they are trained and suited for. Elvis Dumervil is going to be at RDE, and while I do have concerns with his run-stopping, you can’t pretend that Doom, Ayers and Miller/Irving don’t comprise a very interesting pass rushing group.  Denver could use a free agent DT - Seattle's Brandon Mebane comes to mind, as do Philly's Mike Patterson and Barry Cofield of the Giants - but there’s a decent, though not spectacular group here.

And Denver had a lot of needs that the new FO decided to fill. A receiving TE - two options are now in house - was a welcome sight for me. Fox’s rep was to use TEs for blocking only, and that was one of my gripes with McDaniels. I believe that position is used badly by some coordinators, and that Sid Gillman was right when he said that with two good ones, you can control the center of the field. Denver now has options. Seventh-rounder Virgil Green can fly up the seam against Cover-2, which is one of the keys to beating it. So can fourth-rounder Julius Thomas, who may have more upside. At 6’5, he’s got the height to confound nickelbacks, and with his basketball background, he can outjump most of them. He’s also got soft hands.

Safety was a big concern - Brian Dawkins has aged, Darcel McBath lived on the injury report and David Bruton is, apparently, mostly a top ST player (as is McBath, when healthy). Denver took two of the top three safeties in this class in Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. It’s not a top class, but they got excellent value. Cornerback is in decent shape, so the secondary is looking pretty good.  Denver took care of linebacking, safety, right tackle and tight end, which is a good draft any way you look at it.

Their last pick - Jeremy Beal - isn’t your average player. He was the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s not fast - a 5.12-second 40 tells that story - but he’s hard to stop. He can back up Mike or, as I really see him - play rotation at DE. He’s also got ST capabilities, and with that package, he may turn out to be a heck of a value pick at #247.

I’m an ‘in the trenches’ kind of guy. It’s the first thing I consider when evaluating a team. I think that there are three or four excellent FA DTs that Denver could obtain and really bring the level of quality of the defense up fast. My bigger concerns that went beyond DT were the LB corps, safety, running back and TE. Denver nailed four of the six positions. That’s not a bad record.

Denver still needs to upgrade their DT position. I’d love to see them get strong enough that Thomas and Vickerson could be backups, although more rotational than true backups. Even so - when I look at the defense today, and I look at it a week ago, this is a much stronger team, allowing for the inevitable learning curve. And, the right tackle issue is probably solved - I expect Franklin to start opening day, and that’s going to be a huge help right there. There will be CFA and veteran FA running backs - that doesn’t worry me.

The issue of DT surprised me, as it did everyone, including John Fox, who noted that he was disappointed with that situation. Even so, I don’t want that one issue to overshadow the many excellent things that Denver did over the three days of the draft. Xanders moved around effectively, as he has shown a talent for. They had a lot of picks. They focused on some serious weaknesses, and I think that viewed in that light, it was a good draft. How good, you find out in probably three years.

But lines eat yardage - positive yardage, for the OL, and negative yardage for the DL. They fixed one of the two, and if they choose to open the checkbook, they can fix the other before opening day. This was a big step up for a team with serious problems.

Some of the changes will need time to develop - all of them will, in degree. But I expect Von Miller, Nate Irving, Orlando Franklin and Rahim Moore to start in 2011, and probably from Week 1. I also expect that one or both of the TEs will see the field in 2011, and Mike Mohamed and Quinton Carter may do so as well - Carter could start. None of them strike me as huge reaches. Beal looks like very good depth. That’s more than I expected, to be honest. I like the outcome, and I’m going to look forward to the possibility of free agency. There were no picks that I really didn’t like (Green came closest), and only Mike Mohamed really perplexed me - until I read more on him. Denver didn’t have the right DT guys drop to them at the right time - they wanted Christian Ballard, and they were pulling their hair when he left the board just before they picked. There were others. Sometimes it goes that way. Even so - I see five, possibly six potential starters from this draft. That’s quite a performance.

Lines eat yardage. But every position is necessary, and Denver made some great strides this week. I’ll take it.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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