Mail: Scouting Denver’s offensive line

Tia writes:

Hello, IAOFM staff! First, I just wanted to say thank you for continuing to be the best source there is for Broncos news and analysis. Your recent article on TJ Ward and what he'll be able to do for us this season was particularly great (can't wait to see him in action!), and I was writing to ask if you may be willing to do a similar sort of preview for the O-Line, based on a mix of last year's performances and what you've seen/heard from TC so far?

That seems to be our weak spot at the moment based on early camp reports, though I'm sure they're slower to adjust due to having two guys learning new positions, but I would just love to hear your thoughts on whether or not there's anything to worry about there, and what this newly retooled group's strengths and weaknesses may be this year.

Thanks for the question, Tia, and for your kind words. There’s a lot to say about the line and how the new changes affect it; I think this is as good a time as any to get a look at the largest men on the team.

Before we start, I want to share how I’ve dealt with my own concerns about not being physically able to attend practice. Much of this article is based upon the accounts of people who have been present at Dove Valley. I try to read every article and watch every available film clip. Some of my perspective comes from watching tape of last year’s work, combined with the current reports from people I trust. I keep in mind that in all cases, comments are taken from a series of snapshots - plays that stood out to that observer. The more plays that make an impression, the better.

There are few enough readable and viewable national writers to quickly get an idea of their perspectives. One writer looks down while making notes, as another has just looked up to see a key play. No single option is perfect, so I’ve decided to provide an overview of what’s been said. I’ve tried to be open where there’s more than one perspective. I use whatever I can find and consider it in the light of what I already know, and what I can see on film. There are enough contradictory reports to recognize what my own prejudices are. That’s how I come to these conclusions. Given new information, injuries and unexpected events, much of it could later change.

The Starters

  • LT - Ryan Clady
  • LG - Orlando Franklin
  • C - Manny Ramirez
  • RG - Louis Vasquez
  • RT - Chris Clark

Left Tackle - As fine a job as Chris Clark did in his absence, the return of two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady will be a big help. In today’s game, the primary pass rusher who once was across from the LT might now be anywhere along the line. The LT is also often ‘on an island’.

That means defending the QB without help, one-on-one, against pass rushers. So far, Clady hasn’t missed many beats. He’s admitted to being a bit rusty, as you’d expect. Facing the quality defense Denver now sports is helping him get his edge back quickly. The initial depth chart has Winston Justice behind him.

Left Guard - Orlando Franklin has had some ups and downs, but that’s normal when you’re feeling out a new position. It’s also common to the intense daily work that’s designed to bring out any weakness in him, no matter how small. He’ll get beaten, he’ll learn, and then he’ll dominate. Having Sly Williams often across from him is a strong impetus to maximize his technique.

On July 29, Jeff Legwold wrote,

A few days into camp and it’s already clear, moving Orlando Franklin to guard should help. In live run-game drills, the Broncos showed the ability to move people in the middle of the field.

Franklin will change over to using his lower body’s power and footwork in close quarters. I once studied an art that’s sometimes referred to as ‘aikido done in a phone booth’. Franklin’s challenge and opportunity in moving from tackle to guard is much the same.

He’s now able to bring all the power in his 6’7”, 320 lb bear-like body to bear on the defenders right from the snap of the ball. His challenge will be to get his hands on them faster (and on the inside) whenever possible. Those and proper footwork will always get the job done. After watching film of him pulling and trapping in 2013, I don’t worry about his pulling skills. It’s a different direction, but he’s nimble for a player that large. Ben Garland is the only guard currently listed behind him on the depth chart.

Center - A lot of questions are coming up about the center position, but I see Manny Ramirez keeping his starting job. The worth of Will Montgomery (6’3”, 304 lb) is simple - John Fox values real-time game experience. He’s played four-plus years at guard and two-plus at center, so he’s also versatile.

Sixth-round pick Matt Paradis (6’3", 300 lb) has already gained weight, and is showing the intellect that’s so valued at his position. He’d still have to explode during camp to take away Montgomery’s spot.

My biggest concern, then, is what to do with Paradis? Normally, you’d put him on the taxi squad. That’s the old name for the practice squad that came from the offseason and day job earnings of players driving cabs. My concern is that he’d be too vulnerable there to being poached by another club. With Montgomery and Ramirez both listed at 31 years old, that means Paradis would be a tough player to lose, should someone make a run at him.

There’s a good chance from what I see on film that Matt will become Denver's next center. He’s country-strong, plays with a nasty streak, and likes to finish his blocks with his man horizontal. He has the strong hands and quick mind I’ve mentioned, and moves well to the second level. He lacks only the NFL body and film room experience that every first-year player has to go through to become a starter in this league.

He’s a bit light right now, but as I mentioned, he’s already gained some weight and can gain more. Through work with the nutritionist and Luke Richesson’s group, he’ll be able to fill out his frame. I saw him in shorts at the combine; he has the body to add those pounds without losing quickness.

Right Guard - Louis Vasquez is the best right guard in the game today. Last year’s trophies included a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro berth. He more than earned them. Vasquez is the all-anything player that every coach hopes for. He's huge (6’5", 335 lb), nimble, coachable, and well-liked. He’s also quietly obsessive in the strength-development and film rooms.

He was the college roommate of Manny Ramirez. He was a leader in the Broncos' ability to deny a single sack in the playoffs last year against San Diego. He was a leader of the line that didn’t allow a sack or even a quarterback hit a week later against New England. He didn’t let in a single sack during 2013, regular- or postseason. I expect more of the same in 2014. Vinston Painter is behind him on the chart.

Right Tackle - The final decision on a RT isn't made yet, but Winston Justice hasn’t taken the starting job away from Chris Clark. I think that Justice is underestimated at times, but Clark did a fine job in relief of Clady last year. The linemen that have striven together create a bond that’s not easy to break. Continuity with Clark also plays in the team’s favor. Clark earned his right to a first shot at starter since there’s an opening this year. He hasn’t stepped up and taken that job yet.

Justice will have to stand out or backup Clady at LT. Justice is a perennial journeyman who's only played 16 games once in his seven years, and that was in 2009. He hasn’t rated in the positives by PFF since 2009, either. Denver believed in him enough to recognize that he wasn’t given a fair shot last camp. Warts and all, Clark showed last season that he, like Manny Ramirez, needed game time to show his full worth. Both are starters, and both have earned it. You have to beat them to take their jobs - they won’t give up.

This summer, Clark has showed that his powerful lower body permits him to anchor well. At times he can be caught leaning, but it hasn’t been a major problem. Clark seems to have a weakness with outside speed rushers, but that’s nearly universal. He also struggles at times with power rushers, because his hand placement still needs work, a problem that he also suffered last year. The Broncos are trying to create a starting lineup that won’t require a tight end supporting the right tackle. Neither Clark nor Justice have demonstrated skill that so far.

The Leftovers

A few of the remaining players stand out. Painter and Michael Schofield are the most important. They are to be groomed to start or compete within a year. Painter belongs in a developmental mode for another year, but the 49ers made a run at him last season, so vulnerability on the PS is a problem. Schofield is likely to be on the final roster for protection.

The Broncos will probably keep Justice around because of his game experience; his contract will be up after this year. I don’t see Paul Cornick as more than PS bait.

The other major question has to do with guard Ben Garland, who is currently listed as Franklin's backup and has another year of PS eligibility. Next year’s camp will be an all-or-nothing situation for him. He’ll have to bring to bear everything he’s learned to stay a Bronco.

That means that he has 2014 to live in the film room, train hard, ask for and get every scrap of advice he can glean. Is it possible that he could take the left guard spot if Franklin leaves? Of course. You don’t bet against such men unless the fat lady has warbled. If he doesn’t make it, he should go out with his head high. If he stays, he’ll have beaten out players like Schofield and Painter for left guard or right tackle. The odds are long against him, but odds don’t win games.

The System

The Broncos have suggested that they plan to do more drive blocking and less zone; we’ll find out in the early season, but that’s a good bet. They have a powerful short yardage corps. I expect to see a lot of the same running plays - pulling to the strong/closed side, for example. There will be a certain number of inside zone plays - they’re an NFL staple. I don’t look for any full stretch zone plays.

What interests me the most is what we don’t know. This is a biggest group of men that Denver has had; the interior is very strong. As a generality, there will be somewhat less zone blocking. The line has already shown the ability to drive open holes up the middle for Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman (who’s having a good camp), and others. According to Ball, the quality of the defensive line has meant smaller running lanes. That’s something to keep in mind over the course of camp. The holes are smaller, so the backs have to see and flash through them.

One side or the other (usually defense) will win the majority of the battles early on. You want to see the offensive line responding to that challenge as the days go on. This year, the defense they’re facing is a big step stronger than last season’s.

The pieces they’ll use are the drive, fold, down, reach, cutoff, and combo blocks. They can be employed in an infinite variety, limited only by the coordinator’s imagination. Adam Gase and Dave Magazu want to maximize the effectiveness of those choices.

Conclusion

I admire how exemplary this team is, on so many levels. As NFLN's Daniel Jeremiah said recently, “Can't remember a year where so many rookies were creating major buzz at camp... Impressive collection of talent.”

Yes, it is. He may have been speaking more generally, but the Broncos are a perfect example of the concept. Jack Del Rio mentioned last week that few players from this camp need to worry about whether they’ll have a job next year. The quality of talent is that high.

The level of interplayer competition is a big part of the Broncos being ready, week in and week out. These quality lines crashing together sharpen each other as a whetstone does a knife.

I love this time of year.

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

You can reach Doc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter @alloverfatman

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