The Chicago and New England games were the third and fourth times this season that the Denver OL has gotten pushed around by a strong defensive front: Buffalo put the icing on the cake. The opening week loss in Oakland could have been put down to being rusty, new coaching and opening nerves, but the pattern since then has been to handle lesser lines well, yet to fall apart against a stronger team. Denver had a run of wounded and problematic teams in terms of the opposing defensive lines, and the Broncos O-linemen moved and attacked well against them. Against the stronger teams, they weren’t worth much. They’ve had better games, but it’s become clear that there’s a talent/experience issue as well. J.D. Walton has made strides but still has weaknesses, Zane Beadles is a matter of some concern, and Orlando Franklin, for a guy who never played right tackle, has improved across the board.
There’s some good news. Mike McCoy agrees:
They’ve gotten better every week. That’s something that is going to take time coming together with the limited practices we had going into the season. Like everybody else in this league, we are going to grow and keep going.
I won’t argue with McCoy, and in some ways that’s clearly true - they’re communicating better, certainly. I’ve said before that I’d wait until late December to make any decisions about this squad - the players were new to the changes in the system, adapting to the new coaches and settling into their roles early on, and I’ve found that a lot of generalizations can take hold without much evidence. It’s also a very young group (the second youngest in the league) and you don’t always see the changes you want in a short period of time. I’ve always thought that you need to see things over time to know what’s going on, and there have been periods this season where Denver has shown clear improvement along the OL. The question that I’ve had is whether or not they’ve been able to develop enough over the course of the season to have a good idea of the group's strengths and weaknesses and some ideas as to how to improve it. I’ve put a lot of time into it, and this is what’s come up.
It’s late December now and in all fairness, you are where you are by now. In the final analysis, I think that this line still needs help, and if the Broncos want a certain running QB to be their guy, they’re going to have to give him a very good line. It will look a little different from the run based, but efficient pocket passer group that McCoy probably envisioned a few months back, but the report right now - with one regular season game to go - is pretty straightforward. There are problems that have to be fixed in order for the team to win consistently. That’s not a knock on any one player, but a recognition that the OL as a group is very young, more inexperienced than not, and lacks a top or elite lineman to lead the group. Chris Kuper is closest in some ways, surprising as that is to a lot of folks, but we’ll discuss those issues below - it’s not a straightforward good/bad situation.
The good news is that there are some quality players on the line. The bad is that the kind of dominance that the better lines have isn’t there right now. As noted above, this is a very young group and I think that most fans would agree that they’re a top player or two short of where they’d like to be. Part of that is just where the players are in their careers, and part is how they match up to others in their positions.
Although this hasn’t come up much, I honestly think that Walton or Beadles might do better on a different team - one that has some veterans who are getting it done, where they can learn from other players and where they’ll have time to develop. Denver needs some experience and power on the interior line and it still has a question mark at right tackle. If you look at the impact that Brodrick Bunkley has had on the overall play of the defensive line, you’ll understand what I’m talking about - one stout player can bring up the play of the ones around him (Marcus Thomas hasn’t hurt the efforts, either). Clady was that player in 2008 but we have to wait to see what the knee situation - and there may be more to it than we know - brings in the offseason. He’s been less than himself for two seasons now, and I know that he’s playing hurt. I doubt that Denver would move Walton, despite where he is in the rankings, which makes Beadles’ situation somewhat tenuous. That’s probably not news to anyone who’s watched a lot of OL play.
Clady and Kuper are the young ‘old men’ of the team. Kuper is an average-to-somewhat-above-average NFL guard, and a great guy to have in a locker room. I don’t minimize that aspect - they play on Sunday what they live during the week in practice, weight room and meetings. His good side is that he’s tied for the highest yardage on runs through his position with Franklin according to Pro Football Focus, so it’s not like he’s without benefit to the team overall. He’s got a lot of good going for him and yet some of his stats are very conflicting. I’ll show you that later on - his situation goes far beyond simple stats or even simple film analysis. Kuper is a bit of a quandary.
What concerns me the most is that Kupe’s had two 4th-and-inches situations that went through him this year, and he failed to pick it up both times. He’s also struggling against top competition. The issues on 4th and inches cost a game early on, and cost a drive more recently. These OL guys as a group are also struggling against the better defenses, such as those of Detroit, Chicago, New England and even Buffalo, who’s playing hot and cold.
Those things change games and seasons, and Denver doesn’t have a true go-to OL guy on the roster right now. I see that as a problem. I’m reminded of Matt Hasselbeck pointing out (ESPN Insider) that the last time he had a couple of Pro Bowl linemen and a solid running back, he took his team to the Super Bowl. The OL is that important. Given Denver’s lack of experience, I’m drawn to a solution that involves bringing in a highly-ranked veteran.
But things get a bit complex: there’s more to Kuper’s game than you can see in passing. It’s not easy to say that he’s a good player or a bad player - his pass efficiency rating is decent, and the rushing yards through his position are second on the starting five. He’s clearly good, but he’s not a true standout and that 4th-and-very-short aspect’s hard to ignore if Denver wants to emphasize the run. I don’t think that having three first- or second-year guys around him does him any favors, but at the same time, he’s not consistent enough against better teams. I’ve seen him blow a good guy away, but not often enough.
Let’s go over each of the players and see what the options might be.
I do take John Elway at his word on one thing - he expects the rebuild of the team to take three seasons. I’m not sure it will have to take that long, but let’s say that it does. There’s an advantage there - your young guys will improve and mature. Each year they’ll review a player’s performance - first the position coach fills out an evaluation including film, then the FO reviews that information, including the heads of pro and college scouting. It’s the start of considering what direction to go in as this coming year’s draft and free agency period comes into play. If they don’t have Kuper, given his overall play and leadership, they’d have to account experience they’d lose in the player or players that they choose - they need experience and leadership, and it isn’t that easy to find. If they go with the players they have, they’re hoping that the young guys mature. It’s not unreasonable, even though I’d probably go a different direction.
If a player in the position coach’s venue is going to potentially be drafted or if the FO wants to consider that closely, the position coach is almost always involved with establishing some options at that point. The scout who wrote the initial reports will also be called in to talk about his experience - how did he feel about the player? What was his attitude towards the game - is it the most important thing in his life (religion aside)? How Dave Magazu sees each current player and how he perceives their progress or lack thereof will matter greatly in what they do next. I could see a scenario, unpopular as it might be, that just lets the players mature, aiming to have them ready in a couple more seasons. It could work, but I’d prefer to see more power, especially in the interior line. Increasing the line’s overall level of experience via an acquisition or even two would help. Walton could be replaced by a veteran and another veteran who take either right tackle or left guard (the fans would tend to go with the tackle) would also help the team if they bring in a sufficiently talented guy who has the leadership to be a go-to guy in the locker room.
What’s a big key here to me (and what makes this a bit more difficult) is that both Franklin and Magazu have commented that Kuper’s leadership has been very helpful to Big O. If Kuper isn’t kept on, making sure that Franklin’s got a veteran he trusts to talk to and learn from is essential when they look at options for 2012. Clady may not be that veteran guy at this point - in fact, he probably isn’t. He’s not all that experienced, having been drafted in 2008, and he’s been playing hurt the past two seasons. ‘What’s up with the knee?’ is a question with a lot riding on it. He’s playing tough through that, and in the world of the NFL, he's a role model in that respect. My concern is what is up with the knee, and if it’s OK, why has his stance changed so much, and for the worse? Is the combination of power blocking and zone blocking as much of an issue as it was under Josh McDaniels in 2009? If so, why?
I think that the best option, unpleasant as it is on one level, is that the team needs to look to free agency, open the checkbook and/or consider who they can trade to improve this group, but not to push it even younger via the draft if it’s possible to avoid that scenario. I understand the concept of just moving Franklin to LG and finding a RT, but I think that the problems go deeper than that (although it’s a good idea, if you can find a truly excellent right tackle who has some leadership experience). My suggestion is more general right now - I believe that they need one, or perhaps a couple of quality veterans, and of them they either need at least one serious, Pro Bowl-potential player on the line, or to upgrade more than one of the players substantially. I’m not big on overpaying one guy to bring up the talent, but I am big on paying what it takes to bring in a veteran who has the skills, whether on the interior or at RT, with Franklin moved to LG. Relatively few lines thrive without a top player.
I’m not writing off Clady, who has been a top guy and should be again, but he’s injured and they thought they got it taken care of right the first time. You have to wait and see, and Denver has to know that such a player is going to be there next year to anchor the group. It brings up the issue of the group having enough time together developing communication, but I don’t see a viable way around it. Right now, a running team - and Denver is one - has to have the ability to make that 4th down and short.
I don’t know if that kind of player is likely at their pick level in this year’s draft (I’ve looked, and given Denver’s picks, it’s a ‘maybe’ at best), and even if that were so, it would just compound the issue of their lack of veteran leadership. Somewhere, there’s a high quality veteran (or two) who thinks he’s underpaid because he’s outplayed his contract, and maybe who’s good enough to anchor an offensive line for a team that’s right now playing nearly 50-50 run/pass football, and where ‘innovation’ is a big concern. Kuper rightfully has the locker room cred, but I’m talking about the level of play on the field, and someone who’s capable of leading with that quality of play when it’s fourth down. Something tells me that director of pro personnel Keith Kidd and GM Brian Xanders know who those guys potentially are. They need to.
By the way, I haven’t lost my belief in Dave Magazu in the least. You teach who they give you, as defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely pointed out once he’d arrived in Denver. Beadles and Walton were drafted in a relatively weak year for OL players, and were then just thrown into the fire, which made for a miserable year. And, it’s emphatically not that these aren’t potentially good players for the right teams. It’s that having this many young, essentially inexperienced players and about or just above average linemen who may well grow into excellent veterans - and that happens a lot, on the line - means that you don’t have the kind of line that a running based team - or any team - needs right now. The group is somewhat unbalanced in terms of experience and skill. For a run-heavy team, that’s a disaster.
The defense has generally been keeping the Broncos in these games. The Kardiac Kid finishes are as fun as all heck on one level, but it’s not how you want to play football over the long term. That old problem called ‘regression towards the mean’ will eventually come into play - it just means that you can’t always count on mistakes that go in your favor, key plays by defenders and special teamers that appear whenever they’re needed later in the game and so forth. Tebow’s generally played well late in games (and is slowly improving earlier) and Denver leads the league in rushing, but the offensive points are down which puts a bigger weight on the rest of the team. Improving the OL will likely help to bring those points up.
The FO has to decide to put whatever it takes into getting this OL fixed. Although the idea that moving Franklin and finding a right tackle (not drafting one, unless there’s a player they can’t turn down) makes a lot of sense, there are a number of factors that should be considered, including the relative value and cost of the possibility of finding a RT in free agency and the effectiveness of the run-blocking combination of Franklin and Kuper. Looking at trading into an upgrade on the interior line is also an option.
In our next part, we’ll take the players one by one and see what their strengths and weaknesses are. I’ll see you then.