Fattening Up on the offensive line, Part 2

Picking up where we left off yesterday, I did a workup on each of the Denver linemen to establish what I’ve seen on film (I added stats when they seemed appropriate). I usually used the Pro Football Focus stats, and linked to the things that seemed to matter the most. After I’ve covered the players, I’m going to talk about the options that Denver has, and which I think might be the most productive.

Orlando Franklin

Rating Orlando Franklin’s value has been somewhat contentious among the fans this year. If you take in the running style and consider the yards per play through Franklin’s slot (6.7 per carry - beating Chris Kuper’s 6.2 for the team lead), Franklin is playing pretty well for a rookie. Most of them get to sit for a year - he was tossed into a position that he’d never played before at right tackle. He’s not a 4th-and-short kind of leader to the team, and that’s just fine - no one does everything and he’s a heck of a run blocker over the course of the game: the Broncos need that. His pass blocking needs work, but a lot of that is technique and he has improved this year, without question. The footspeed issue remains another question with him - he’s generally good at getting downfield to the second level, but not as effective with his kickstep going right and mirroring a speed rusher on the outside. Denver hasn’t mentioned the issues specifically to my knowledge, so we don’t have any straight info on what they’re thinking for his future.

I’m not recommending it, but I think that what Denver might do is keep him at RT and see how he develops next year. If I was predicting, I think that they will. It won’t be popular with the fans, but if you consider that J.D. Walton made substantial strides since last year (although he’s got a long way to go) and Franklin’s already playing better than J.D. did in 2010, it could be enough. Those against it will usually feel that he’s not able to handle the footspeed he requires. My own concerns are more with his knee bend, but I don’t minimize the footspeed issues. While I’m not convinced either way at this point, I’d want them to have a backup plan in case he wasn’t able to continue to improve, at the least.

Franklin is portrayed as mostly a mauler: although he’s more than that, it’s still probably his best attribute. He’s physically limited in terms of knee bend and kickstep, his pass blocking is ranked 41st in the league (93.7 pass blocking efficiency) and he doesn’t always handle Tim Tebow’s sudden innovations as well as he might - he’s got the desire and the strength, just not the experience or leverage on the go. He does have good wheels in getting to the second level, but not in his kickstep. He pulls and traps fairly well. And, he has the same problem in fighting from too high that afflicts a number of potentially good linemen - they either play stiffly or bend at the waist, which is a great way to become unbalanced (he’s 6’7”, which makes it hard to play low. Ask Elvis Dumervil about that).

He’s not elite, but he’s very good for a guy that’s so young in this sport. Remember - he didn’t play American Football until leaving Toronto for Florida, his junior year in HS, so he’s well behind the normal curve in that respect. He ‘coaches up’ well and he can certainly contribute. Franklin is big, strong, more athletic than I expected and one of the players that I expect to blossom over time. He has some weaknesses, too, no doubt. The question will be, where to use him - as in, at which position?

So far on the season, Franklin’s permitted five sacks and five QB hits, with 24 hurries (34 total pressures, as well as seven penalties for the year - fairly normal rookie pass blocking numbers, although they’re not stellar). Only one of the sacks was permitted in the past seven games. That’s not really the ‘poor pass blocking’ guy that we hear a lot about, but it’s not as strong as you’d like to see, either. In the Chicago game, for example, he gave up one penalty and five pressures - no hits or sacks. That’s not great, but it’s not terrible, either - mostly, it’s just better than average against a very good defensive rush. He gave up a sack and a hurry with a penalty to NE - it wasn’t a good game for him overall.

As I noted, he’d never played right tackle before, and if - and it’s a big if - they leave him there for another year, he may show substantial improvement, just as Walton has at center. An offseason to work on the footwork that’s needed at RT could help him a lot. The willingness is there, as is the size. Mike McCoy has commented favorably at the progress that Big O has made, and I think that’s more than just normal coach-speak. Franklin is improving. Where his ceiling is and whether he can overcome the weakness with his feet will remain the question for him.

Ryan Clady

I’ve been a Clady supporter since before they drafted him, so I say this with some sense of seriousness: Clady’s situation worries me. I suspect that it’s his knee that’s been affecting him (that’s also what the injury report has said of late), and that we’ll probably find out more in the offseason. He’s not playing bubble-down as he was prior to the injury on his knee, he doesn’t have the same bend, he doesn’t have quite the same kickstep and it shows. He was fighting out of a wider stance with his weight distributed evenly even as he moved, back when he was dominating people. He’s not doing that now, and I have to wonder why. He hasn’t done so since the injury, so there’s that, too. I’m not privy to anything, but those facts seem evident. They might also be misleading...oh, for a fly on that wall.

You have to love his production, though - playing hurt and on the injury list, his pass blocking efficiency is 93.6 - that’s not brilliant, but you have to factor in that he’s playing hurt. He’s had help on the edge at times - other times they leave him on an island, and it shows. I look at the injury and also see that despite the play of New England’s front, while he gave up seven hurries he didn’t give up a sack, hit or penalty. You don’t want to lose him. He’s given up six sacks this season, but his QB hits permitted (three) are low, although his total pressures of 36 for the season are high. From what I’ve seen, he’s struggling with attacks off the edge, especially speed rushers. Since he didn’t have trouble with them early in his career, there’s no reasons to expect that solving the leg issue won’t put him back on track.  Right now, Franklin’s ranked as the 53rd-best  tackle on PFF, while Clady’s at 66th. Clady was 27th just two games ago - he’s had a couple of tough contests, and his leg isn’t getting any better.

What bothers me the most are the penalties - 11 of them. I think that most are from him just fighting to keep up. When he gets beaten, it’s usually early in the play (the defender getting position on him by firing out faster and moving him around), even if it takes time for the rusher to hit the QB. Sometimes he gets caught holding, sometimes he’s moved early to try and be there first. More than anything, I hope that Ryan heals up, whatever that takes. He’s a class guy, and a hard worker - I believe that he can get back to where he was, but they need to establish what’s been happening with him and fix it.

J.D. Walton

I like J.D. He seems like a guy who’s very smart and yet is somewhat physically limited in that he doesn’t always play with the greatest leverage. I do have concerns with his functional strength. If you want a simple case, check out this play description from the Buffalo game:

An example of his superiority is the way [Marcel Dareus] pushes Walton to the ground on third quarter right tackle run (1:17 left) and makes the tackle for a one yard loss.

Walton does have good aspects to his game - for example, he’s smart and he does reach the second level well for just a second-year guy. Is it enough?

I noted above that he’s improved a lot over last year, and that’s hard to argue - the incessant double A-gap blitzes no longer are a staple of defending against Denver (yes, I know that the change in the offense also matters greatly). So far this season, he’s let in four sacks, four hits, 14 hurries and 22 total pressures. When you take them as cumulative numbers (total pass pressures, which is the combination of sacks, hits and hurries), they don’t hold up well - the total is way too high, and it puts him down as the 62nd center in the league this year, which is last in the rankings. There’s a lot those stats don’t measure - his intellect, how he’s calling line shifts, etc - but there’s a pattern of not getting the job done across the interior line hat concerns me. Having Walton come in dead last among ranked centers isn’t comforting.

You also have to factor in how young he is - linemen sometimes peak early, but many don’t for a few years and pretty much all of them develop over time. That’s one reason that some of the best centers started at other positions - it’s usually easiest for a guy who’s had some NFL experience to take on that position, although that’s changing in degree. That doesn’t fix the problem that Denver has with Walton, Beadles and Kuper in the middle, though. None of the three is really a top player.

Not a lot of OL players are tossed into the fray right off the bat with another rookie next to them as Denver did with Walton and Beadles last season. It just isn’t the best way to develop your players. I’ve wondered if Josh McDaniels just didn’t pick that well in that draft or if he was stuck with the FA period passing too quickly. When he didn’t get into the bidding on a couple of fairly good veterans, I worried. I’ve wondered if it just wasn’t a good year for the OL in the draft: I seem to recall a certain number of top guys, and the sense of a dropoff after that (I’ve found that my draft memory is notoriously erratic - let me know if you’ve had a different experience).

With the trend towards teaching guard/centers, you can occasionally get a player like Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey, who can immediately dominate at either, and who has the intellect as well as the physical gifts for center from the start, but it’s rare. Cleveland's Alex Mack was another like that.

J.D. had an ugly 2010, but he’s brought his game up considerably:  despite his high total pressures, his pass blocking efficiency is 96.3. That’s still down there at 59th on the list, but this is where the stat might not tell the whole story - Walton has taken 1,425 snaps, and a lot of the players with better numbers had far fewer snaps to go by.  I expect that Denver will keep him - he’s come a long way in his second year, and they’re probably going to want to see how far he can go. The Broncos have some big holes - cornerback, for example - and I tend to suspect that they’ll leave Walton in place and see how he develops. I’ll still worry.

You can’t ignore the number one issue, though - ranked against the other centers in the league, Walton comes in dead last. He’s going to have to bring up his game, or Denver will have to start considering other options.

Zane Beadles

I don’t know what to say on Zane at times - he’ll slide back past the center on a pull or trap and look great. He’ll then fire out of his stance and literally fall on his face. His pass blocking efficiency is at 94.4, above Franklin (93.8), Clady and Clark (at 91.2, Clark emphasizes the need for a better backup tackle), but that’s still pretty bad. Worst of all, he leads the league in total QB pressures - folks talk about Franklin’s pass blocking, but it’s Beadles who is really the weakest link in the chain.

I do love the way Beadles attacks when he pulls, especially to the offensive right, and he’s quite effective in that role. It’s when his assignment is more straightforward that often he doesn’t get the power and movement he needs to create. From what I can tell, his balance is the key - he’s not always playing with leverage, he doesn’t keep his weight balanced by dropping his bubble on pass blocking, and playing with the knees bent and firing out low to gain leverage effectively on run plays. Some time spent on really developing his core, hips and lower body would greatly help his game. He’s got to get lower by bending at the knees rather than leaning forward at the waist - otherwise, he’s just not going to improve enough. It’s a key technique issue for OL players, and it’s not something that’s optional. He’s got to get lower or he’s not going to start.

On top of that (or, more likely, because of it), I’ve seen him fall flat on his face several times, sometimes due to losing the battle with the defenders, but at least two of which didn’t involve another player: he just fired forward at the snap and pitched flat onto his schnoz. Untouched faceplants are not something that I long to see in my starting left guard. A couple more were from simple ‘ole’ moves - the DT just seemed to ignore him and he fell, so given the angle that was involved, it was clear that he was leaning forward at the waist and putting too much weight on his hands and arms, yet not locking them into place efficiently with his elbows in tight. Vince Lombardi, that detail-oriented, brilliant coach that he was, laid out 30 specific movements that every offensive linemen had to master. I don’t know if anyone is teaching the OL like that today, but I hope that Dave Magazu is. To put it gently, Zane Beadles may not have mastered quite all of them.

I’m thinking ‘solid depth’ when I look at him right now, which is also something the better teams’ lines need as well, so it’s hardly a wasted pick (although I’d like to see better from second-round picks, it’s still water over the dam. Being developed better might have helped). A player who can step in and do a credible job makes a big difference - ask the Packers about the last Super Bowl on that one.

Maybe the balance problem Beadles has is fixable and maybe not. He has five penalties, which is about normal. The sack he allowed against New England was his first since Week 8 against Detroit, and he didn’t let one in at Buffalo, so despite my concerns with him there’s some improvement going on as well. The questions that have to be answered are how much of a ceiling he’s got and where he is best used - starter or backup? I’m thinking backup, and I’m hoping that it’s not for Franklin, but for a top FA guard. If they go with Franklin at LG, a veteran right tackle is a must. And then there’s the question of Chris Kuper, which is a complicated one.

Chris Kuper

Kuper is an enigma to me. When I look at what I’d want to see done to upgrade the line, there are various options available. One is to bring in a quality veteran (or even two). If they do, I’d put the first at either LG or RT - depending on whether Denver is willing to move Franklin and who’s available who’s a veteran top player and whether he has leadership qualities. The alternative is being willing to let these guys grow together, and both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Being this young isn’t something that you want unless at least some of the talent you have is very good, top or elite. At the same time, if they’re willing to wait and be convinced that these players will meet their expectations and needs, developing as a unit also has benefits. The question is, is this a group that can fight their way into the playoffs each year? I’m not seeing that at this point.

To me, the biggest problem is that you have to know that 4th-and-short is your down. Many of us are old enough to remember the days when 4th and inches was going to be an Elway sneak - he’d roll out once in a while to keep teams honest, but usually it was Tom Nalen and a QB keeper and it was money. You can’t ignore that need and you can’t get around it. If you don’t have that confidence and aptitude, if you’re not sure when you line up that you’ll blow your guy off the ball and get those inches, you don’t have enough talent on the line go to the playoffs and win by running the ball. It happens once in a while, if enough other things are strong, but it’s a very tough problem to overcome. Denver needs to look at that.

That’s why I’m torn on what I’d do with Kuper - it’s easy to not see him as a top, much less elite guard, but in this group, he’s not just the old man. He’s been the leader of the squad and it’s hard to argue that he’s not one of the better players, statistically. Sometimes when you watch the game, mistakes stand out and for the OL, you generally don’t hear their names called unless they’ve erred. Let’s look at the stats. Start with this one - Kuper is ranked as the 52nd guard. That’s not great - actually, our old friend Kory Lichtensteiger, who apparently wasn’t good enough for Denver’s training camp with his lighter weight and short arms in 2009, is now ranked 35th. 

Kupe’s low numbers for penalties (only two in the 14 weeks since the opening Monday night game against Oakland, in which he committed three), sacks (three), pressures (15, which is too many), hits (three - good) and acceptably high pass blocking efficiency (97.1) all make him desirable for the team compared to our other players (via PFF if you get their premium stats), yet his tendency to falter against elite talent and his errors in fourth-down situations argue somewhat against that role. His level of experience is currently a plus - losing him without bring in one or a couple of veterans would potentially move Denver to the youngest OL in the NFL and it’s not what you want for the locker room. If they want to keep winning, that’s not the way to go. Kuper’s leadership can’t be eliminated without knowing who’s ready to step up.

One reasonable view is that he needs to play on a team where the level of talent can offset his limitations and make use of his steady overall production and high locker room presence. I want to note that I’ve seen him make some absolutely excellent plays. He understands balance - he’s just somewhat limited, and it’s showing at the worst times. He’s tough and he’s aggressive. He has been an overall benefit to the team - but I wonder if he’s just not the player Denver needs right now on the field. Franklin to LG and a veteran right tackle would be the easiest option, but I wouldn’t take anything off the table right now.

I say this with regret, too - I think that Kupe’s a heck of a guy to have. Here’s the oddity on his play that I’ve mentioned:  Statistically, he’s probably the top Broncos lineman. If you like stats, he’s at the top of the team in pass blocking efficiency (97.1). He’s also second on the team with run average per play - 6.2 ypc - yet PFF rates his run blocking at a minus-13.0. Those numbers are cumulative, and they only suggest that he’s made more mistakes than strong positive plays - not when, or what his other qualities are.  I do understand both his usually high level of play (1,425 snaps, and all of these players deserve credit for their toughness in playing every down this year) and yet the problems that he brings in short yardage and at times against better competition. He’s not a poor player - he’s a good player. He is, however, not an elite player and I think that the line needs to upgrade to at least one such player somewhere for the team to be a consistent playoff contender. Replacing right tackle and left guard are the most obvious, but I’d keep center in the back of my mind to deal with. What we’re seeing right now can’t last - the question may come down to whether Coach Magazu sees him improving quickly enough to make keeping him worthwhile. Again - I tend to think that they’ll give him another year, rightly or wrongly.

The ‘when it counts’ factor hasn’t been high, and that carries a lot of  weight with me. That applies to Kuper too -  he’s a productive, solid locker room guy whose overall production is good on both the pass and the run. He had a terrible start to the season and has generally improved. His leadership has been unquestioned.  Do you keep or let him go, as part of a trade or pick deal? It’s not an easy question, but it’s one that Denver may have to figure out in the offseason.

Part III will deal with some of the options that Denver faces and how they can maximize the pieces that they have, as well as some suggestions for making a couple of changes. See you then!

Go Broncos!

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

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