Rebuilding the Broncos: Offseason outlook, Part 4

On July 18, Loren Landow, sports performance expert for Steadman Hawkins Clinic drew 45 players to his workout for pro ballers. They included Brady Quinn, Robert Ayers, Joe Mays, Richard Quinn, Dan Gronkowski, Lance Ball, Cassius Vaughn, Matt Willis and the regular group of offensive linemen led by Chris Kuper and including Russ Hochstein, J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles, as well as free agent-to-be Ryan Harris. That shows me that there’s still a lot of will and cohesion on the team, despite the problems of the 2010 season. It’s a good start.

"We have all the talent in the world," said Broncos punter Britton Colquitt at the Diamonds in the Rough Charity Golf Classic, Cherry Hills Country Club. "We just didn't have all the X factors to put it all together. Now we've got the coaching, we've got the motivation. Everybody's going to want to come in there and have a great camp."

Now, there’s an interesting comment. Might be true, might not, but it clarifies what the tone in the locker room was last year. Everyone is undefeated when they’re going into TC, but I’m pleased to hear that at least one of the players (and I know that several others have expressed pleasure with EFX and the coaching choices) is happy with the new FO and coaching group. I suspect that it’s going to be a common feeling - there was a constant sense of impending doom last year, at least among the fans. The tone in the locker room is always a huge issue, and it’s rarely going to be talked up in the media, since the players tend to shun talking to reporters about it.

I’ve mentioned Coach Vince Lombardi’s discussions of the power of Love in the locker room recently. The chemistry that emerges in the right season is as elusive as the taste of green tea and can be as bitter as an overbrewed cup. It all starts with players trusting the coaching and extends to trusting the players next to them. Having as few head cases in the locker room as possible helps. The professional personalities need to meld - does this or that guy really hit the weights, or does he like to watch and talk? Is he spending extra time in the film room when his assignment that week is tough? Do the players watch each other’s backs? It can be tough to create that killer locker room spirit where people take pride not just in their own roles but in making sure that everyone is doing theirs, if the players know that some guys aren’t serious about their game. Everyone knows when a player slacks off. If the coaches let it go, you can lose a season right there. You’ll soon see some other guys starting to take it a little easier. At least Denver didn’t have a starting player wishing for the end of the season this time.

This part of the offseason drama was interesting in a positive way. From Loren Landow, the trainer who led the two-month Broncos player workouts that concluded Friday, came a quote on the Broncos’ OL players that trained with him that bears on today’s topic.

"I was really impressed with the offensive linemen as a group," Landow said. "Their consistency and their gains in athleticism and fitness in a short amount of time was impressive." Those players included J.D. Walton, Zane Beadles and backups Chris Clark and Jeff Byers.

There’s a lot to coaching that isn’t X’s and O’s. John Fox and his coordinators are well respected throughout the league - so are Wayne Nunnely, Adam Gase, Richard Smith and Ron Milus, among others (although the Denver situation is still being written). That’s a good start. Following the overview, Part 2 (DTs) and Part 3 (RBs) articles, the last piece that I see in FA right off is the crying need for OL depth. There are a lot of options out there and Denver will have to move fast to get the right one, but they say they’re as ready as they can be. I’m anxious to see what that leads to.

Right now, Denver has no one behind Walton at center but Eric Olsen, a shaky pair of backup tackles in Herb Taylor and Chris Clark and their guards include two failures from last year in Russ Hochstein and Stanley Daniels. You can’t do everything in one offseason, but this is an area that cries out “Danger, Will Robinson!”

Here are the OL players that I’ve looked at the hardest:

Justin Blalock, G (Atlanta)
Height: 6-4   Weight: 329   Age: 27
Born: 12/20/1983 Dallas , TX
College: Texas
Experience: 5th season

Along with Tyson Clabo, Blalock, who Atlanta obtained in the 2nd round of the 2007 draft, has been a solid starter for all four of his seasons in Atlanta. It would make a lot of sense for the Falcons to bring back both, if they can, but both are UFAs. This year, a lot of FAs will have to choose between taking the team’s offer and testing the waters. Some may get burned (and that’s true for the teams, too) as the FA period is likely to be lightning fast. While Clabo may be a more desirable player and certainly has more position flexibility, Blalock has been a solid, dependable and durable player for Atlanta, opening those needed holes for Michael Turner that Denver didn’t have for Knowshon Moreno. He allowed only one penalty (false start) and 1.5 sacks last season in 16 starts. Blalock has a wide body with good short area quickness, and he’s worked hard on his technique, although he still plays too tall and loses leverage on run blocks. He also struggles late in games and still has to improve his conditioning/intensity late in the contest, but he’s progressing well. Atlanta will try to keep him, but he’s got the right to see who else likes his style of play - the Titans have come up several times as an option.

Kevin Boothe, G (NY Giants)
Height: 6-5   Weight: 315   Age: 28
Born: 7/5/1983 Queens , NY
College: Cornell
Experience: 6th season

One year with Oakland, five with NY and only seven starts in that time. I’m not even sure he’d be useful depth, although unless a man plays, you never really do know. Denver will have watched whatever game film they have on him.

Rashad Butler, T (Houston)
Height: 6-4   Weight: 308   Age: 28
Born: 2/10/1983 West Palm Beach , FL
College: Miami (Fla.)
Experience: 6th season

After a year with the Panthers and four with the Texans, Butler has started a total of 4 of the 40 games he’s been active for. Not on Denver’s list, I suspect.

Tyson Clabo, OT (Atlanta)
Height: 6-6   Weight: 331   Age: 29
Born: 10/17/1981 Knoxville , TN
College: Wake Forest
Experience: 7th season

I know - what would be the idea behind adding a big, expensive guard/tackle? We have Beadles improving (2 penalties and 6 sacks his rookie year) and Kuper (5 penalties, 5 sacks) has been between not bad and very good for much of the OL’s ‘desert period’ and we know he’s a good ZB player. Fox/McCoy are going back to a simplified zone blocking, so how does this make sense?

It’s simple, and there are two parts. The first is OL depth - we’ve already seen what injuries and a lack of high quality depth do to a line. It might play with Beadles (or even Kuper’s) head to potentially sit, but Clabo, while also a talented guard, is primarily a tackle who can also step in at RT if Franklin falters. Many OL picks, even higher round picks, need to sit for a year, especially with such a shortened training camp. If Denver can afford it, bringing in one player who will force competition at every position but center has a lot going for it.

But the second and most important point is that Clabo is a seriously big, mean, talented sum’gun, and Denver needs big and mean like Dubai needs concrete. The question in my mind is whether he can be scheme specific - does he have the feet for the zone blocking?  It’s a simplified version, sure, but still requires good feet.  What I’ve read on Clabo says yes, but EFX knows that subject better than I do. Clabo is on the higher age side of what they want, but with OL players consistently playing to 33-35, he can play out a four-year contract. For those who watch such things, Clabo had no penalties and five sacks allowed last year in 16 starts.

Daryn Colledge, T (Green Bay)
Height: 6-4   Weight: 308   Age: 29 Position G/OT
Born: 2/11/1982 Fairbanks , AK
College: Boise State
Experience: 6th season

Despite starting every game last year, the Packers are ready to move on without Colledge (2010 - 6 penalties, 4 false starts, 1 holding penalty, 3 sacks allowed in 16 starts). They may use reserve T.J. Lang or they may go another route, but Colledge was considered a weak link in the OL, and GB wants another ring. Jason Spitz proved that he wasn’t up to the task when Colledge had a knee injury, but he’d been the starting center in 2009 before being injured. Colledge was able to play both tackle slots (which may increase his value to a team like Denver), but GB hopes that Bryan Bulaga will move to left tackle, Lang to right tackle and with Josh Sitton at right guard, left guard will be the only slot up for grabs. It’s not the normal position for Colledge, but they tried him there briefly in their 2010 training camp. Nick McDonald has played both left guard and center, and Mike McCarthy is high on him.

“That kid’s going to be a good player,” McCarthy said. “I think Nick McDonald will be on my team for a long time. I think that kid’s coming fast.”

McDonald could take left guard or replace Scott Wells at center. That doesn’t bode well for Colledge, who’s a better pass blocker than a run blocker, since the Pack wants to improve the running blocking game and protect Aaron Rodgers by improving their two-headed (running and passing) attack. Colledge’s versatility as a G/T might make him interesting if the price is right.

Willie Colon, T (Pittsburgh)
Height: 6-3   Weight: 315   Age: 28
Born: 4/9/1983 Bronx , NY
College: Hofstra
Experience: 6th season

Originally a 4th-round pick by Pittsburgh, Colon started all 16 games for Pitt in three of his four seasons there. However, Colon suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon and missed 2010 (2009 - 6 penalties, 4 false starts, 2 holding, with 9 sacks allowed). Pitt now has Flozell Adams, who played very well at RT last season after a long run in Dallas despite his age and Jonathan Scott, who spent two seasons each with Detroit and Buffalo, is now penciled in as the starter at LT. Colon is still young and he’s not untalented - Denver is a possible landing zone for him, as he can back up both left and right tackle if he can come back from the Achilles' tear. That’s a big if, and he was also a weaker link on the Steelers’ OL. Pitt may even try to keep him, given Adams’ age, but they’re running into serious cap trouble.

Ryan Cook, T (Minnesota)
Height: 6-6   Weight: 328   Age: 28
Born: 5/8/1983 Albuquerque , NM
College: New Mexico
Experience: 6th season

Cook has been a starter (2007 and most of 2008) and a backup for the Vikings (since then), and already has 5 years of service with them (2010 - 16  games, 7 starts, 3 penalties, 2.25 sacks). He’s going to be a free agent, but has already described his own chances as ‘tricky’. That’s not a rousing statement of positive thinking, but it’s probably accurate. He’s just never lived up to expectations, despite the tender the Vikings put on him at the end of last season. Many players who usually wouldn’t got tenders, in an attempt to keep costs down if they were kept and to keep options open, if needed, by driving other teams off. It seems unlikely that he’d fit into Denver’s needs.

Leroy Harris, G/C (Tennessee)
Height: 6-3   Weight: 303   Age: 27
Born: 6/6/1984 Raleigh , NC
College: North Carolina State
Experience: 5th season

Harris was drafted by the Titans in the 4th round of 2007 and has been with them every since. He’s a talented guy who can play any of the three interior positions, and was even thrust into one game at right tackle and helped Tennessee gain 147 yards rushing that day. At this point, however, the Titans have him listed as the third-string center, while his bio claims that he’s "primed to become a mainstay in the Titans lineup”. He did start 15 games in 2010 (15 GS, 7 penalties (2 false starts, 5 holding, 4.0 sacks allowed), but opinions seem to be all over the board on what they want to do with him right now, as he’s a free agent. Someone may get a bargain - he’s been developed well and spent one year starting, as well as having experience at center and guard while potentially having the chops for right tackle. I’d keep an eye on him - he might be the right guy for Denver. Not a bank-breaker, and can play 4 of the 5 positions? That could be good.

Ryan Harris, T (Denver)
Height: 6-5   Weight: 300   Age: 26
Born: 3/11/1985 Minneapolis , MN
College: Notre Dame
Experience: 5th season

Is Harris worth keeping? It’s unlikely, The Broncos haven’t made a move towards him and they’ve had plenty of chances. He’ll leave, but Denver still needs a solid backup tackle.

Dylan Gandy G (Detroit)
Height: 6-3   Weight: 295   Age: 29
Born: 3/8/1982 Harlingen, TX
College: Texas Tech
Experience: 6th season

If the name rings a bell, it may be because Gandy passed through Denver briefly in 2008. He’s been on the Colts, Broncos, Raiders and Lions so far, and didn’t start a game for Detroit last season. Don’t look for there to be a line down the block for his services.

Max Jean-Gilles, G (Philadelphia)
Height: 6-3   Weight: 358   Age: 27
Born: 11/19/1983 Haiti
College: Georgia
Experience: 6th season

After 5 years with the Eagles, the massive 358 lb guard will hit the free agent market if Philly doesn’t snatch him back up (2010 - 14 games, 10 starts, 2 penalties, both for holding, and zero sacks allowed). He’s somewhat short, massive and he has the kinds of injury issues that men like him so often have. He’s a phone booth player who doesn’t have much lateral mobility - he’s worked hard on technique and knowledge of the game, but those don’t make up for the injuries. Despite his skills, he’s not the kind of player for Denver’s simplified zone blocking scheme.

Deuce Lutui, G (Arizona)
Height: 6-4   Weight: 338   Age: 28
Born: 5/5/1983 Ha'api Tonga
College: USC
Experience: 6th season

After 5 years with the Cardinals and 4 of them starting, Lutui will be a priority for AZ to re-sign and will face the ‘do I/don’t I' FA market if he chooses to. In 2010 he played in 16 games, started them all and had 4 penalties, 2 false starts and 1 for holding, with 2.5 sacks. AZ doesn’t want him to see the open market. A lot of teams hope that he will. Denver may need a tackle more than a guard, but Lutui could be worthwhile if he has the feet for Denver’s scheme.

Evan Mathis, G (Pittsburgh)
Height: 6-5   Weight: 302   Age: 29
Born: 11/1/1981 Birmingham , AL
College: Alabama
Experience: 7th season

The Steelers are in a tough spot. They have a lot of money committed to 2011 salaries, they’ve got Flozell Adams who played well at RT after his years in Dallas and they have Jonathan Scott at LT. Colon would have to pass his medical, but if he does - what then? They may have the juice to get Colon back if they want to, but he’s still iffy and they could use more help. Mathis, who was in and out of the lineup in Cincinnati, might be a good low-budget option. Bengals observers always maintained that Mathis was good enough to be a regular starter, and having seen him twice a year for a half-decade the Steelers also know it. In 2010, he saw 12 games, but had no starts and no stats were recorded.

Conclusion

I expect that Denver will spend the majority of its available dollars on a quality running back and an upper-to-top level DT, as well as adding another DT and a second running back if they can swing it. They’ve also been said to be open to adding some depth on the OL, and that depth might include a player who can push the ones in front of him and create a serious competition in training camp. If it’s possible, I hope to see a high quality backup/possible starter at tackle. If that guy can play guard too, that’s even better. We don’t know if Eric Olsen has the chops to be a quality guard/center in the NFL, and there’s no film for Fox/Elway to watch, so whatever decision they make will come mostly from Mike McCoy’s experience with him. They didn’t draft Olsen either, so they aren’t attached one way or the other.

But if Olsen doesn’t work out, you’re suddenly looking at a very different problem - you have to have a center behind Walton, and a guard would also help. Walton was regularly schooled last year, but being drafted and tossed in at starting center (with either a lower end player or another rookie in Zane Beadles next to him at LG) isn’t an easy path. Chris Kuper didn’t allow a sack in 2008, but let in five during both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and the Broncos hope that he’ll go back to his old ways with a better line and better maturity along it. I’d doubt that Denver would turn down a top guard who could fit their simpler ZB system. Walton learned a lot in 2010 and it’s not uncommon for a center in particular, given the cerebral nature of the position, to take some time to play instinctively and to have developed communication with the rest of his line. Having a strong leader there, such as Tom ‘Nails’ Nalen was, is a huge plus. I haven’t heard anything on that side of Walton’s play, but few rookies are expected to be team leaders as well.  Denver has to have someone ready in case Walton is injured, and right now, their only option is Olsen, who’s going to give day-by-day tweets on what training camp is like (@EOlsen69). They may bring in another candidate for the position, to push Walton and perhaps to back him up.

In the final analysis, Denver has to have at least one high quality RB and two DTs, with at least one DT coming from the upper levels as a player. It’s true that you can’t rebuild a team in one offseason, but you have to be able to at least field one that has a chance at success. The DL has been a thorn in Denver’s side for many years now, and the closest they got to a good group they dumped in the Jim Bates debacle. Over the past couple of years, the OL has been equally shaky, through a combination of scheme-inappropriate situations (Casey Wiegmann), weak player performances (Ben Hamilton, Russ Hochstein, Tyler Polumbus)  and a litany of injury concerns. It’s essential that they develop the depth that would permit the OL to function at a high level despite potential injuries if they want to really compete in the division, much less the rest of the league.

The good side of the lockout was the opportunity to carefully and fully investigate who will be available, who can fit the Broncos' schemes and who they can potentially afford. I’ve read both options as far as free agency - the theory that player salaries will be lower since teams will have to move fast to fill slots, and the theory that they will be higher for the better players, if not for the rest of the pack. Right now, it’s all guesswork, but like you, I’m going to watching with my breath held until Denver has filled a minimum of four slots with veterans, and to see how they chose in the CFA world. Certainly, there are players in both categories - FA and CFA - who could potentially step in and help Denver immediately. Look for them to concern themselves with that objective first, but to also keep an eye on the future and to be looking at improving the quality of depth players. They aren’t in the kind of shape that Mike Shanahan left, but they have a long way to go to be the perennial playoff contender that Denver fans became used to.

It’s going to be interesting, at the very least. Here’s to patching gaps and filling holes - Go Broncos!

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

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