Fattening Up on the offensive line, Part 3

This is the conclusion of Doc's three-part assessment of the Broncos offensive line. Part 1 and Part 2 were posted earlier in the week.

I like the improvement of J.D. Walton from last year, but I don’t see Denver running fourth and inches through his slot at this point, and I’m not sure that he ever will be that guy. He’s just not hitting with enough of a punch to drive people back, ala Tom Nalen. I’m sorry to compare him to one of the best from Denver’s past, but Denver wants to consistently be in the postseason playing for the Lombardi Trophy, and you won’t get there without a very good or elite center. Right now, J.D. doesn’t seem to be that. I like him, and he’s growing, but the lack of power and leverage are too often issues. J.D. snapped to two Heismann winners in college (including the one in Denver) but as important as his position is, they’re going to let him grow into it, or find a guy who can get those last inches. I’ve never heard anyone speak badly of Walton, and my only complaint is with his technical game - he’s tough-minded, he’s willing to mix it up and I like his moves to the second level, but he’s not dominating DTs. In a team that’s made no bones about going with a running attack, one of the three interior linemen have to be able to create that push. Right now, I haven’t seen it. To be clear, I like Walton and Chris Kuper in particular - I also follow Zane Beadles’ tweets and he’s the kind of guy I’d love to have a beer with, but he does have his balance troubles, and that can’t help Walton, either.

J.D.’s not afraid to get into a scrum, and you do often find him in the middle of the minor skirmishes that break out frequently in pro ball. He’s got some mean to his game - but it’s probably more important that it shows right after the snap than right after the tackle. Walton was put in a terrible position by the Broncos, being tossed into a double-rookie, shoulder-to-shoulder cluster-frack that resulted in very little but a whole lot of double A-gap and other assorted blitzes and with the guy closest to Kyle Orton in the backfield usually having a different colored jersey on. That’s not Walton’s fault, either - nor are the problems they have with Beadles. Walton is a striver who may pan out, but Denver’s coming out of a long, ugly spell. I can’t put all the blame on him, low rank or not, but he has a ways to go.

Beadles’ inadvertent faceplants and at times lack of balance (despite his light feet, when pulling to his right in particular) concern me even more than Walton’s issues with power and leverage. Chris Kuper brings a lot to the table, but that fourth-and-short scenario clearly isn’t his forte either, and he’s been in the game for six seasons now. Taken as a whole, the interior line isn’t close to doing what it needs to - they play well in certain situations, but the inability to make third and short, fourth and short, and the inability to handle much more than gap/pull blocking and zone - anything else has backfired too many times, even though Denver keeps going back to trying the power runs that aren’t their forte. When you suddenly find yourself without an OL game, as happened against New England, it’s a quick look back at why the team struggled so badly in 2009 and 2010. There were other reasons, but to me, this one led the parade. Protection issues, penalty issues, power short-yardage situations and holding up against better teams were all areas of weakness this year, and they have been in the past few as well.

As is popular among the fans, given Beadles’ issues perhaps Orlando Franklin should probably be given a chance to become a Pro Bowl left guard instead of a ‘middle of the pack’ right tackle. That’s been the fan mantra and it’s got its points, but there is a downside that I wouldn’t underestimate - it might be worth doing, but you can’t just blithely ignore its danger, either:

The combination of Franklin and Kuper on rushing plays has been Denver’s most effective blocking pair, and that’s something to keep in mind for a rushing team. I don’t break up good player combinations lightly, although it might be necessary in this case. If they want to keep Franklin on the right corner for any reason, bringing in the best veteran guard they can find and afford isn’t a bad idea either. Any way you think about it, the Broncos need at least one elite offensive lineman. Maybe Ryan Clady comes back and is a second one, but you can’t be sure and you’ll need to be able to trust that there will be such a player when the 2012 season starts. Frankly, putting a high quality veteran at one guard slot (Kuper’s leadership gives him added credence to the argument for keeping him at RG) and another at right tackle (with Franklin sliding to LG) isn’t a bad approach. When I compare the overall and specific play to other offensive linemen in the league, Denver just isn’t good enough to challenge anyone right now. I’m not going to pretend to know who’s showing the most potential, but I can tell who is trailing the league, and that’s not going to get it done at the playoff level. There isn’t a player on the starting OL that I don’t like, but I’m not sure that they’re a good combination for what Denver wants to get done.

I don’t know if Tebow can or can’t learn the pro passing game. I’m not certain that I’ve ever gone on record one way or the other - I think that if he does continue to achieve certain things, learn certain skills and absorb aspects of passing form and technique (including both things like footwork and things like looking off safeties) with the outcome of having a steadily increasing level of passing accuracy, yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt that all those things result in substantial success for the Broncos - I’m a fan of theirs, so I’m a fan of his. One thing I’m sure of - no matter what system they run, the level of play of the line as a whole is going to have to improve. Some of that will occur naturally as the exceptionally young players mature. I think that it will take more than that, though -  I think that an upgrade of one or two slots would improve the players around them, if the pro personnel department is doing a good job.

I’d love to be wrong on this one, but when I look at the Broncos roster and the rosters of the playoff teams’ OLs, the difference is just too stark. This is a good group. It’s just not an elite group or an outstanding group, and if you’re going to go with a run-heavy approach, you have to know you can make it, and know that you can stop the other teams’ people. I think that it’s a better group than Denver had to go with in 2009 and parts of 2010, and I think that it’s good enough to win some tight, low-scoring games. It’s when you have a more open game that the offense isn’t putting up the numbers, and part of that is the offensive line. A lot of coaches say that you can’t separate the QB and OL - they are that dependent on each other. I think there’s some hyperbole there, but there’s a large grain of truth, too. If you upgrade that aspect of the team, you’re helping every other aspect of the offense in degree. The same goes for your backs if your team has a large running aspect to the offense.

As far as Kuper, I only see two options - trade him or play him. He’s too good to sit on the bench, (although I’d love to see a Broncos line strong enough to be able to put him as guard depth), but I think that there’s more than enough evidence that the interior line needs to get tougher. You can keep him and add a veteran, quality left guard - overall, he’s been productive and this isn’t a quick rebuild. You can also move Franklin to LG if the best veteran available is a tackle and you’re willing to make that upgrade. Frankly, I’d also look around at centers - Walton was treated badly in the situation they dumped him into last year, but he’s also a liability in terms of his physical performance right now. They might not see a better option, but I’d look, while keeping in mind that making too many changes too fast can result in a setback for the group. I see a lot of improvement this season over last season - including no longer seeing double A-gap blitzes in my 4 a.m. nightmares this year - but Walton’s still not near the top of the pack. He’s very smart, which is in his favor, he’s willing to mix it up, but I’d start looking at other options purely as a matter of management - if the right center comes available, you’ve suddenly got a better shot on fourth and short and a natural leader for the line. While keeping a crew together is to be praised, keeping a crew that’s not functioning as well together isn’t unnecessarily as valued.

Kuper might also be somewhat marketable, and Denver may need to look at that option.  His contract could be an issue - he's finishing the second year of a six-year, $28.012-million contract which contained $13.021 million guaranteed. The remaining years are: 2011: $7 million, but then it drops to $3.5 million in 2012 (which isn’t bad, and may help). He’s at $4.5 million in 2013, $5 million in  2014 and $5.5 million in 2015. He’s a free agent in 2016. His lowest cost year will be 2012, and that might help him find a better situation. A bigger issue might be, can Denver afford to lose his leadership? That’s a tougher question, and it may play into who they do or don’t want to bring in to maximize the line.

Aiming for Success

However they do it, the line has to be upgraded this offseason if they want this team to succeed. Free agency is a good option, since the current group is so young and draft picks are so dear, but positive change is essential if they want to make it to the next level. Will Denver spend that money? It’s hard to say:  that hasn’t been the approach of late. The team will have to look carefully at how far they believe this group can go over the next two seasons. Certainly, there’s been improvement, especially over last year. How good do they believe these players can be? I suspect that’s the question that's going to get the most discussion in January and February.

That’s also when contracts are discussed - who’s going to be available, how long does X player’s contract run, etc. Here’s where Denver is: Beadles got $450K in 2011: in 2012 it’s $525K: in 2013 he's due $600K and in 2014 he’s a free agent.

Ryan Clady received $1.105 million plus any incentives that he reached in 2011: in 2012 he’s due for $2.55 million plus incentives and in 2013 he’s a free agent. In a sense, that’s good - they should know what’s going on with his play/health by then and be able to make a good decision. If he’s healthy, Clady is a rock. He plays hurt, doesn’t complain and while his rapidly accumulating penalties got irksome, watching Chris Clark play LT would have been pretty appalling. Clady seems to be struggling, but he knew that ‘next man up’ wasn’t going to get the job done, and he toughed out the season. I hope for a simple diagnosis, a speedy recovery and a continued excellent career. He’s a fine player. Chris Clark, by the way, is a free agent after this season, while Big O Franklin has a four-year, $4.35 million contract which included a $1.68 million signing bonus. He'll make $450K next season, $525K the year after that, $600K in 2014, and then he'll be a free agent.

Chris Kuper’s contract was already covered -  he’s through his guaranteed up-front money and will be a free agent in 2016. I think that they’ll keep him, but if they shop him, the costs, while more aimed at a top guard aren’t totally unreasonable. Walton signed a four-year, $2.589 million contract lat year. The deal included a $798,500 signing bonus; the rest of his contract matches that of Beadles, and in 2014 he becomes a free agent. One advantage of young players is that they cost less. The disadvantage is that they need to develop - and 60% in their first or second year is a tough row to hoe.

The long and short is that I’m far happier with the group at OL than the cumulative stats would suggest, and that I do see a lot of good there. At the same time, I’m also pretty sure that if they want to be elite, they need to change at least one player on that line that will reflect that goal. I don’t see that player right now, and I wouldn’t assume that Clady will be him until he’s been medically evaluated in the offseason - even then, you don’t know until a patient is recovered how things are really going. I’ve seen too many instances where some expert tells us that X player will be back in Y amount of time, but it doesn’t happen (Note: quite a number of those ‘experts’ have never seen the patient’s chart). I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ryan in the meantime. I know that it’s hard not to overpay for such a player if you go the free agency route when it’s clear that you have a substantial need at a certain slot. They can go at this from the guard, center or right tackle positions, so at least there’s some flexibility there. I see Clady and Franklin as solid bookends if Clady can get back to his earlier form. The interior? Everyone’s potentially on the block, although Kuper and Walton have strengths that may keep them around.

It’s not all bad by quite a ways. They’re a basically good group that seems to zone block far better than they power block in traditional running plays. Teams have figured out the zone read and options, and those were never going to be the basis of the offense over the long haul, if you believe the coaches. They’re great ways to keep other teams guessing if you don’t overuse them, but if the opponent sees you coming, Denver isn’t the kind of team that tells you what they’re going to do and walks all over you to do it - they aren’t a Lombardi-type group. There are stories with folks who swear to them that Lombardi could and did give an eight-hour lecture on the 30 aspects of the job that his left pulling guard was responsible for in the Power Sweep - Denver isn’t there yet. Nowadays, few are.  Lombardi was one of a kind, but he knew what it took to develop a championship team.

What has rolled up the rushing yards has been Tebow’s own skill at running, the early confusion that the zone read created and the option played off of, and the tackle-breaking style of Willis McGahee. Lance Ball helped, and I’m with those who think that Jeremiah Johnson shows a lot of promise.

Did the OL come into it? Of course. The run-blocking play of the OL has been most effective via the 6.5 yards per rush through Franklin and Kuper’s 6.2 ypr on his slot. The LG and LT slots have each produced 3.5 yards per, and the middle left and middle right slots have come up with 3.7 and 4.5 yards per, respectively. Left and right end have scored 4.5 and 4.7 yards respectively, so the tackles and tight ends, especially on the right, are getting the job done more often than it sometimes seems (part of that is how much bad plays stick in your head, and how quick we are as a culture to forget the good ones). You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the running backs. On that note, is anyone not interested to see how Jeremiah Johnson does in his role as an outlet guy? Tebow tends to lock on a bit too much to his preferred receiver, but if he can accept that the guy’s not open, Johnson is an excellent go-to kind of player. He gets yards after the catch, he’s quick and nimble, and when he falls, he usually falls forward. He also blocks pretty well in the backfield.

Best quote of the day:

"It's not Tebow Time," the quarterback retorted. "It's Broncos Time."

Isn’t it just? It’s time for Kansas City, too.

Go Broncos!

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

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