Fattening Up on Orlando Franklin

There’s no real question about it - I’ve been looking forward to watching the film on RT Orlando Franklin since the beginning of this series. I loved it when Denver took Franklin with the 14th pick of the second round back in April, and I felt at the time that the issues of his potential problems vs. speed rushers and in pass blocking in general were being overblown. Now I had a chance to find out.

IAOFM reader Chibronx noted that the recent tale of the offensive line’s development is one of the best stories of the Broncos that no one is talking about, and I agree with him. My own experience (and some of you have actually played the position and have commented on this to me), has been that many of the fans have little understanding for the OL positions. I don’t blame anyone - the TV turned us into a nation of watchers rather than a nation of doers back in the 1960s. If the camera follows the ball, you may not hear an OL player’s name unless he whiffs on a block or commits some other infraction. How do you learn? Well, dropping by IAOFM is certainly the first step, but I hope to add some specifics through this series. I’d like to start with the player himself, since the fanbase knows him the least.

Orlando Franklin has been a consistently positive force in the Broncos' new offensive line. From watching his scratching, groping progress since the preseason game in which he had to deal with NFL speed and power for the first time, to watching his recent efforts against San Diego, I‘d have to say that whatever his total numbers or rankings, there is little question in my mind that Franklin has the makings of a starting right tackle for the future. What I’m basing this on is his production at each level including his ability to change positions on his way to the NFL, and on the improvement that he’s shown overall this year.

Denver's offensive line has been a bone of contention for a few years now, and prior to 2008 it was showing signs of wear already - the veterans who played so well were ending their careers and depth became quietly nonexistent. It's not news to anyone who follows football that the best teams in the league consistently have among the best offensive and defensive lines. In Denver's case, the team has traditionally chosen to go with a system that includes a lot of zone blocking. I know, Josh McDaniels chose to also go with a great deal more gap blocking than usual. But, if you look back at the film, even he also included a lot of zone blocking in his running game. Denver’s lack of OL depth, though, became uncomfortably clear while moving from its 12-sack year of 2008 to the issues of 2009 and 2010. The problems with two of the linemen - both veterans, in Ben Hamilton and Casey Wiegmann - were unexpected and proved to be insurmountable. Russ Hochstein clearly wasn’t the answer, nor were some of the other band-aids that were tried.

It's also important to realize that not every system of zone blocking is performed exactly the same way. Some coaches require lighter players for a ZB scheme, but others don’t (most teams use zone blocking on at least some of their running plays) - the real issue is whether or not the players have the lightness afoot and the athletic skills to move as a unit. Alex Gibbs became a legend in the league for his understanding of zone blocking and his application of his own individual system: it’s intricate, and it takes time to understand and implement, and he was brilliant in that area. Denver has struggled to make changes, though, so the coaches made some decisions on how to improve their situation.

Dave Magazu, the Broncos' current offensive line coach, has taken a more simplified approach to zone blocking. When you have a team that's struggling, one of the standard ways to improve their performance is to give them a more straightforward, simplified approach to their position, and he’s doing that. For any player, it also means playing to their strengths once the coaches know what those strengths are, and within the overall focus of the team's system. Denver chose Orlando Franklin in the draft for a number of reasons. From the moment he was drafted, the Broncos made no bones about the fact that he was going to be the starter at right tackle. Why? What were the strengths that drew them so strongly?

First and foremost, Franklin has the appropriate body type for the position. At a current 6-foot-seven and 330 pounds, he’s a big guy to get around and he’s consistently shown a fiery aggression while on the field. Some people feel that arm length is important for tackles, while others consider that overblown. In Franklin's case, regardless of your feelings on the subject, he has 35-inch long arms, which is generally considered the perfect length for a tackle and which he uses increasingly effectively to slow speed rushers coming around the edge. Arm length is useless without arm strength, and Franklin has plenty of that. It's also no secret that Franklin loves to run block, and that was among the first things that Denver wanted from him. He's been described as a mauler (which, after watching a lot of his film, is both true in degree and somewhat overstated - he’s got decent technique for a guy in his first year ever at his position) and prior to Sunday's game in Miami, he was leading the team with runs of 7.8 yards per attempt by Willis McGahee that go through Franklin’s position. Even after the game, McGahee had the same rank, while Denver’s overall rushing rank (the rank of the players themselves, not a ranking within the league) improved. When you consider the problems that Denver has had with their running game over the last several years, selecting Franklin when they did in the 2011 Draft to fill in areas of weakness makes perfect sense.

Let’s start with the Oakland debacle and look at some plays from the games that seem representative of what he’s been doing. Doing full games, or even halfs, would take up too much time with six games in the can. Let’s just check some of the good and bad and note where he was overall:

Week One – Oakland

I think it’s fair to say that none of the Broncos had a good week against Oakland - in fact, after watching it a few times, I’m painfully sure of it. Franklin, in his first NFL start after an abbreviated introduction to the team, was in the same situation. It was a bad game against a team that is better than many Denver fans are comfortable admitting, and who has a pretty strong DL. Tom Cable did a pretty good job of putting together the bits and pieces that Oakland had developed over several years via high draft picks and the Richard Seymour trade, which gave a powerful boost to their DL.

Pro Football Focus keeps a weekly ranking of players,  and at times I like to refer to the Premium aspect of their site when I’m grading a player. In their approach, you might recall, a 0.0 is neither good nor bad, while minus rankings are, as you would expect, a negative:  positive rankings are considered good performances. Like my articles, the grading system is based on watching film. The NFL buys proprietary information from them which suggests that they know what they’re doing.

By the way, I’m kind of a militant middle-of-the-roader on the stats argument - I find a lot of it useful, and I don’t really care how people view and enjoy the game, as long as they do. It’s also my experience that the concept of stat measurement in football is and should be vastly different from that in baseball, and the higher value of them in baseball has tended to both overwhelm and to understate their weaknesses when analyzing football. I just find that too many plays have components for which measurements are either currently impossible or missing for a full mathematical symbolic representation of the sport’s complexity.  I would not be surprised to find that changed at some point, and certainly, it’s a process that’s changing as we watch each season.

A simple example was a recent route fake by Knowshon Moreno that was the key to one of the Broncos' plays working, even though he would never show up in the stat line. Down the road they will continue to become be more efficient and thorough - they’ve certainly improved in recent years - but still I watch too many things during games that aren’t being measured and currently cannot be. There are stats that are helpful to different folks with different perspectives on the game. I tend to use simple ones partly because prob/stat isn’t my training and partly because I’m not trying to find what correlates to winning historically, but rather what is happening in this single game, on the field.

And in this game, Franklin was ranked in very negative terms against Oakland. Let’s look at a couple reasons why:

Raiders 23, Broncos 20 (Gamebook)

2-9 -21 Denver came out for the second play with both Julius Thomas and Daniel Fells lined up over to the right, outside of Franklin, while Orton threw a short swing pass to Spencer Larsen in the left flat that went for a 1st down. Nice call - drawing the D to a suspected run to one side, throwing the swing pass to the other. The blocking was good across the board.

1-10 -36 (13:49) Franklin directs LaMarr Houston outside and past Orton, pass to Lloyd for 1st.

1-10 -47 (12:20) Run play outside RT, Houston slips the block and slows Moreno, others come up to take him down. Franklin couldn’t stay with him moving towards the sideline.

3-15 -42 Denver’s in a 203 formation with no TEs, Decker in the slot. Kamerion Wimbley tries to get past Franklin outside and is passed back to Larsen, who’s in pass pro. Nice pass to McGahee, who is stopped from behind short of the 1st-down marker.

OK - it wasn’t a bad start to the game for Franklin. Wimbley would go on to be the biggest thorn in his side all day, getting past Franklin in time to harass the QB several times but not to sack or even hit him. I don’t see that as completely negative, and I tend to rate the two areas - penalties and sacks - somewhat differently for a sack against an OL player if the sack follows an unusually long period of the QB holding the ball.

Franklin would not give up a sack that game, despite the six hurries he permitted and some minor troubles he had with the run - to me, it was about what I’d expect from a player in his first-ever NFL game, especially with limited preparation since the draft.  Some sites and commentors had him as playing at a terrible level. Actually, his run blocking was generally good and with a single penalty, no hits and no sacks, I can’t jump into the whole idea that his pass blocking was awful. It’s not his greatest strength, but as he’s shown in most games, he’s managed to improve consistently over most of his short career (prior to the NFL as well as in it). Denver gave Franklin a lot of help on the outside, with Chris Clark, TEs, Spencer Larsen and the RBs all getting in chips or blocking outright, which helped keep Franklin at a level where he could keep up, and who made the run blocking that went well for most of the season go even better. Let’s look at how this progresses:

Week 2 - Cincinnati

Broncos 24, Benglas 22 (Gamebook)

1st Drive, 13:50

2-2 -42 I formation, 212, Franklin is lined up against Geno Atkins. Franklin slides him outside, and while he comes back inside,  getting into the pile on the short run, Atkins played no role in stopping the ball carrier.

3-3  -40 gun, 221. Franklin stops Atkins again.

1-10 122 Denver fakes the zone blocking approach to the right, there’s no one for Franklin to block and the Broncos come back left on a swing pass to J. Thomas.

Cincinnati doesn’t have an outside rusher of the quality that Cameron Wake or Kamerion Wimbley, and it showed - Franklin gave up no sacks or hits and only a single pressure. What did interest me was that they had more success against Franklin on the run than they did on the pass, an outlier for him.

Same drive, 10:47
3-3 122 set, run. Franklin fires out, loses his footing and face-plants himself. Happily, McGahee ran to the other side for the 1st down at the +44. Embarrassing, but I’ve seen a lot of good players do it.

1-10 122 set, run. Fells lined up in-line on the left, outside Clady. Kuper, Franklin and Fells all block well - Ball follows them and cuts back left for 4

2-6 122 set, Fells to right. McGahee up middle, but the blocking was good across the board. Franklin was on #97, Geno Atkins, and drove him out of the play and then stumbling back down the field.

2nd and goal, same drive. Franklin has his man pushed back, but lets him get away in the scrum and the player stops McGahee just short of the GL. On the following play, the run follows Franklin (who has two TEs outside of him, one of whom may be Chris Clark - poor quality on that one play’s replay. Franklin shoves him back into the end zone, and it’s 6 for Denver.

In short, that was about how the day went for Franklin. He made some errors, slipped, didn’t keep his man locked on certain plays, yet overall he played well. He’s got a career in which to develop his weaknesses.

Week 3 - Tennessee

I didn’t keep any of the plays that emerged, only because there was less to see that wasn’t part of other games. Franklin gave up one QB hit and two hurries, no sacks and generally handled his run blocking well. PFF ranked him above both Beadles and Walton for the day, but none of the players were terrible. Both Clady and Kuper ranked in positive territory, with Clady leading the way that game. The line wasn’t a big problem, other than one very big miscue.

Week 4 - Green Bay

A classic good news/bad news game - the bad news was that Denver was embarrassed, and the good news was that both Franklin and Clady had a heck of a game and that Zane Beadles was the only starting lineman to rank in negative territory. It was Franklin’s 1st game in an overall positive ranking, and he earned it. Even more encouragingly, his pass blocking outscored his run blocking. Franklin gave up only a single QB hit - no pressures, no sacks.

Watching him, it was obvious that the abilities of the line were in part affected by Green Bay’s hammering of the defense - some writers noted that the GB defense was concentrated on the back end. That’s simplistic, though - a lot of good play went into Franklin’s performance against Clay Matthews and Company. However, not that much came out that you didn’t see in other games, so let’s move on.

Week 5 - San Diego

Chargers 29, Broncos 24 (Gamebook)

With Franklin coming off of a very good performance in a very bad game at Green Bay (and apparently by failing to look at the rest of the season’s film) many commentators were questioning if that performance in Title Town was a one-game wonder or if Franklin has real potential in the NFL. San Diego didn’t offer a fault-free answer, but once again he didn’t give up a sack and he was generally strong in the running game. There were a number of good aspects and some errors. Let’s look:

1Q, 1st Drive

1-10 -20 131 set. Begins as an overload on the left, with 75 (Chris Clark) and 85 (Virgil Green) lined up out from and back from Clady, while SD is in its base 5-2 - three down linemen, two LBs up. Denver has used this effectively before (it’s becoming common around the league right now), but this time, Fells is also split out to the right in the Z receiver position. Orton is under center with a single RB (Willis McGahee) far back in the I. Clark and Green motion to the same position out on the right, and as they do, Fells motions in, so there are three ‘TE’s’ on the strongside (right) with Clark outside of Franklin, (So there are really two tackles, shoulder to shoulder, and Virgil Green lines up inside of Fells, so the two TEs are on the very outside.

Although it’s being used as a power running play right now, there’s no reason that you couldn’t roll Tim Tebow out left with it and see if Green can get open down the seam, giving TT time to set his feet right so the throw is on target, and bring the WR - Decker, in this case - crossing in underneath to provide other options, with McGahee blocking and/or slipping to the flat. Equally, you can run Decker up the sideline - there are a lot of options out of it, and I’ve long had a sort of theoretical interest in some of its uses beyond the power run. Someone always eventually decides to experiment with other options within a formation, and it’s a copycat league.  I may get to see that yet.

In this case, on the snap Orton wheels and hands off to McGahee, who’s had time to get up to full speed. Kuper seals off his man and then hits the second level, pushing both defenders back effectively. McGahee comes up through Kuper’s opening, which is easily done, since Franklin and J.D. Walton have both locked down their defenders, as has Chris Clark. This is the second time I’ve seen this run, and Clark has looked efficient and powerful both times. It’s not the same as going against the DE one on one, but even so, he’s played it well which is a bit comforting if there’s an injury. McGahee isn’t easily stopped with the good head of steam, and the play goes for four yards. Clark stays on the field for the next play, and they run it opposite him - Franklin and Clark both take care of their assignments cleanly, with Clark putting his guy on Teflon™ boots and running him clear across the field parallel with the LOS until they collide with the pileup.

2nd Drive, 1Q 8:37

1-10 -20 Denver is lining up with Clark and Fells outside of Franklin again, but with McGahee back in the I and two WRs split out - Fells is also in the Y receiver position. This time it’s a simple zone blocking run, and McGahee breaks it back early, but into a pileup. Franklin is on Vaughn Martin, who flows with him but gets him going and then breaks back suddenly, opening Franklin’s hands so that the force of the OL pushes Franklin on past and lets Martin get back in on the tackle. It was a typical ‘veteran trick vs a rookie’ problem - Franklin will be studying that piece of film for a while.

3-2 -28 113, I formation, under center. At the snap, Kuper and Franklin just flatten V. Martin, pushing him into the second level so fast that Na’il Diggs can’t get out of the way and is knocked down by them. Score one for old-fashioned revenge - Franklin and Kuper have gotten to be close, from all sources so far. McGahee goes around the left TE (Fells - nice block from him, too) across midfield - he’s now had four runs for 34 yards. Matt Willis also put a block on his CB that drove him back and across the field on skates - every position was blocking well. 17-yard gain. You had to know that there was some payback for the previous play on Franklin’s part. Remember that mean side they talked about? It’s real.

1st and 10, -43 Franklin is lined up without a hand on the ground, his shoulders squared slightly to the outside, expecting the speed rush. It comes, and he guides the defender back and outside, but gets beaten at the last possible second. The defender is actually on the ground, but he reaches out and gets a hand on Orton’s ankle and pulls as the ball goes out. INC. It probably would have been an incompletion without the defender, but in the books, Franklin gets a hurry and maybe a ‘hit’. How do I grade it? I don’t - I just report it.

One of the reasons that I chose this drive was to illustrate something that’s important about grading players on film - sometimes, there aren’t any simple, clear answers. A player trips as another player is moving near him - was there a connection? Film that I have access to doesn’t always show it. If the OL player redirects his man for 4 or even 4+ seconds, do you call a sack against him?

Another principle that matters if you’re going to emphasize your skills as a running team (and emphasis is an important term, because there are really are no passing teams or rushing teams - just teams that emphasize one aspect or the other more than the other but want excellence from both) you want to make sure that your WRs like to block, know how to block and take pride in their blocking. If those three things are in place, you’re much more likely to see success when you’re running the ball. It’s a chance for the WR to dish out a little. Given how much they have to take, some of them really enjoy the chance to give some of it back.

Drive 3, 1Q 0:45

1-10 -20 212 strongside left. Fells motions back off line and across to right. Snap, runners fire strongside, Franklin double teams Vaughn Martin along with Kuper: they drive him off and Franklin is freed. He’s got his head on a swivel, knows that Martin’s out of the play and that Fells has his man controlled, so he leads the downfield charge, runs interference and McGahee makes it to the the -37 before being brought down - and if McGahee had beaten that man, Franklin had the next one already engaged. Excellent work.

2-8 -49 212. Franklin lets his man go by after chipping him - the way they lined it up and the way Franklin looked, he believed the rusher was Larsen’s assignment, but Larsen couldn’t handle him. Miscommunication or mismatch? No way to know.

Note: Denver continues to use multiple TEs on runs, mostly to Franklin’s side, and Chris Clark is also in, next to Franklin. This is more common around the league so far this year. With Franklin’s power, Kuper’s angles and the extra TEs, it’s hard to stop them. V. Green has blocked noticeably well on a couple of plays.

Over the course of the quarter, with the minor exception of that one play, Franklin has been equally good in pass pro and run blocking.

Drive 5, 3Q, 3:56 - Tebow at QB

1-10, Franklin loses his grip on a nice move by Ogemdi Nwagbuo, who gets in on tackle of McGahee

3-7 3:09, Franklin holds off the LB for 4 seconds and then loses him - but the LB is not involved with Tebow.

Drive 7, 4Q, 8:54

1-10 -49 McGahee to 23 - off weakside, but Franklin had his man shut down too.

1-10 +23 All blockers hold in pass pro, Tebow runs for 1st

2-10 +12 empty backfield, 5-WR set, it’s a draw by TT for the score - all blockers were locked on by Denver’s OL, which made the run simple.

A couple of things here - Franklin is handling his blocks on plays away from him the same way he would when the run goes through him, which shows his smarts, effort and focus. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, he’s been playing the same way, working on shutting down his guy. He plays to the whistle time after time.

Week 7 - Miami

For ease of function, I decided to cover the Miami game in a little more detail than just by play notes. Coming back off the bye, Franklin didn’t have a good game in Miami. It might even be more accurate to say that he had several bad plays, while he also notched some excellent blocking both for the run and for the passing game.  One reason that I like to watch film is that if you just look at the stats or are watching the game live, any bad plays will be called out by the announcers and for most of us, that might give a perspective that’s incomplete, at best. Against what kind of player did the problems come, in what situations? How did he play the rest of the time? Mostly, you hear a lineman’s name if they do something bad. Franklin had a bad day in Miami, especially against Wake, but he’s still progressing.

Phil Simms wrote the book Sunday Morning Quarterback, and in it he described watching a game and coming out with a certain, negative view of the QB (no name was given). In going back over the film, he realized that the QB was making essential plays, plays that they had to have, and making them well. The raw stats and a general, superficial viewpoint led him - even after all the film he’s watched and his knowledge of the sport - to a perspective that was totally wrong. Franklin struggled this game,without question. He also came up big on a number of key plays, though, and given his lack of experience at this level, that’s hard to discount. Much as Ted accurately decried the overstatement that Tebow had 55 minutes of terrible football (it often wasn’t pretty, but Ted was right about the parts that were valuable), Franklin didn’t have a great day by any stretch, but he did do a lot of things right.

Franklin was usually against Cameron Wake, who is currently one of the best rushers in the league. Franklin is in his first season, and like Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton, he was thrown into the fire out of pure necessity. Wake is a burgeoning star in his third season after a long, strange road to the NFL that included a stint as a mortgage broker and in the CFL, and the mismatch showed. But in fairness, given his overall learning curve to date, I think that I’ll look forward to such matchups in a couple of years - it’s hard to remember that Big O has only played since his junior year in HS. He grew up on hockey and soccer, although his body type is unsuited to either. He’s still young in the sport and he’s still learning, and will for some years to come. He never played right tackle until he came to Denver, so much of what he’s doing is so new to his body that I’d have to suspect that he hasn’t reached complete unconscious mastery.

But in the Miami game, Franklin gave up two sacks, two hits and three pressures with one penalty (to keep that in perspective, even Tebow was hit with one sack, two hits and a pressure as being his own fault). To be honest, I think that’s pretty bad, and I didn’t see that as particularly terrible - if you realize where he is in his career, vs. Wake, that everyone is getting used to the timing and play of Tim Tebow whereas Wake, who made the Pro Bowl last year and had 14 sacks, is closer to his peak in terms of his own development. That’s not to suggest that it was a good game for him, or would be for any OL player with those in-game numbers. What it does say is that Franklin is he was:

  1. A rookie going against a top tier veteran
  2. A better run blocker than pass blocker

Neither of these surprises me, and they shouldn’t surprise you, either. The question is going to be how much he improves, and up until now, he was improving every year until getting to the NFL, and prior to this game, improved each week leading up to it. That’s what I want from a rookie OL player, and that’s what Denver has. He’s got a long way to go on stopping top pass rushing talent, but we knew that back in early May, so it’s not like this comes as a surprise.

Ted also blamed Tebow’s post-snap actions for one sack and his lack of presnap recognition for two more of them. I didn’t disagree with his play analysis from Tuesday’s article  - the OL played like beasts on the run, they had trouble both with Miami’s front seven and with getting used to the timing and tendencies of the new QB. Both problems were understandable. Franklin got the worst of his experiences with Wake, but he wasn’t alone in that. Franklin was also solid when it counted most:  at the goal line.

"I wanted to go follow Zane (Beadles) around the right end,” Tebow said of his call at the line of scrimmage. “(Chris) Kuper blocked down, great block, and Zane pulled around and I just followed him."

Franklin was also solid on that play - the three of them (Beadles, Kuper and Franklin) all took care of their assignments, Beadles once again proved that he’s skilled at pulling, Kuper made up for an earlier season mishap after telling the team to follow him and Tebow ran it in from two yards out for the successful conversion. It would take some amazing special teams play in overtime to seal the deal.

Moving Forward

Where is Franklin now? He’s come a long way up from the player who started against Oakland, whether he had a bad day in Miami or not. What’s going to matter the most for Franklin over the course of the season is how he handles the fact that as a rookie tackle, he’s going to get into situations because the defense will always try and establish a mismatch and because every rookie has a target painted on him until he stops the best the defense can throw at him. He’s going to have good and bad games, and good and bad plays within them - it’s the nature of the league. Big O faced a lot of talented players at the college level and stood up to them well, improving each year until he won left tackle, a major prize at the U of Miami. He’s going to have to do essentially the same at the NFL level. In college, he was at guard for three of his four years with one last game at guard at the beginning of his senior year, so he’s got one year at LT and now has six games, all in the NFL, at RT. Talk about being tossed into the fire....I’m pretty comfortable with Franklin, and I can’t say that about Beadles so far. I hope he turns that around.

Next week I’m going to cover Chris Kuper’s performance to date. Kupe was voted a team captain this year: he’s the ‘old man’ on the league’s second-youngest offense (25.5 years) and has been a locker room leader. I’m looking forward to finding out how he’s progressing and to filling out the line. See you then.

Go Broncos!

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

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