Going into draft season, it’s worth considering that Denver’s interior line remains one quality guard away from their starting five being a seriously dangerous group. Although Manny Ramirez developed some over the last season, he's just average when he’s playing his best, while Chris Kuper has become a big question mark.
I believe Denver needs more than that at right guard. I like Ramirez, but right now he doesn’t scare anyone. If Denver thinks he can become better than he was last year, they might want to take a chance on him.
However, what I’m looking for is the ability to add ferocity to the line, and I love the players who do that. Orlando Franklin was drafted on both his skill and his mean streak. The whole line responded to that toughness. That’s the power of a serious lineman - when he makes the players he’s with better, it changes the entire dynamic of the OL (or DL). That’s what I envision for Denver.
A prime example of the impact a guard can have, if an unfortunate one, is the differential between Baltimore's line play in their two games against the Broncos. Starting right guard Marshal Yanda was absent for the Week 15 matchup, when Denver tallied three sacks and seven hits on SB MVP Joe Flacco. With Yanda in the lineup, and Baltimore's line reshuffled, Denver's pass rush struggled in the rematch, registering just one sack and one hit.
Yanda is well deserving of his multiple Pro Bowls - he’s a force to be reckoned with, and provides a model for what Denver might be able to do. With Zane Beadles improving practically by the week, and Kuper struggling with a second injury to the same ankle within a year, Denver has an opportunity to establish an upgrade at RG that will strengthen the entire line.
We should find out a lot about him this summer. I’m going to be interested to see if they try him at right guard or at center - Walton may have taken the jump that Beadles did between 2011 and 2012. We’ll also find that out in camp. I’m hoping that Walton has, and that Blake takes over at RG - it saves a draft pick, and Blake has a nasty streak. Denver needs a backup center who’s under 35 and has one (potentially, at least) in Blake, as well as in C.J. Davis.
It’s worth considering that Baltimore solved its OL problems at both LT (with the addition of Bryant McKinnie) and RG for the playoffs. I’ll say flatly that without those changes, they wouldn’t have stood a chance against Denver or anyone else. San Francisco also has a heck of a line. Some people feel that the importance of an offensive line is often overstated, but I’m not one of them. Playoff football is greatly improved by a high quality OL. Here’s why:
Offensive lines obviously factor in the run, pass, and play action games. Peyton Manning is a major help in pass protection, and makes life easier on the line, but creating a group that can hammer out the running yards late in games and who can take over the defensive line later in games is essential to playoff football.
Finding a right guard who has the potential to scare people matters tremendously right now. That’s the goal, in my mind. This is a chance to do more than fill the gap at RG: it’s a chance to upgrade the toughness of the entire line, just as Franklin did for them. If not Blake - then whom?
I love guards. Their job is akin to that of a fire hydrant at a dog show, but they have the hearts of lions. Here's who I've found at guard, bearing in mind that some are considered tackles or centers by some draft sites. This summation assumes that Blake isn’t the answer:
First, I think that Alabama's Chance Warmack is everything that people say he is, and he should follow in the footsteps of David DeCastro - be chosen in the first round - probably within the top half of it - and have an immediate rookie impact on the line that is fortunate enough to get him. Franklin made the whole Denver line meaner and tougher when he arrived, and DeCastro had the same effect in Pittsburgh.
Carolina Tar Heel Jonathan Cooper should probably go late in the first round, and isn't likely to be there at the end of the second, in any case. Unless Cooper drops to Denver at #25, there isn’t another first-round-quality guard that I see. The second and third rounds should yield some good options, though. If it happens that Cooper is available to Denver in the first round, I'd probably take him. He's just behind Warmack in skill - he walls off very well on pass pro, and while he doesn't have the natural build of a mauler in the run game, I think that he can develop into it, and I don't want to overstate that. He's still very skilled and it is possible that he’s around when Denver picks in the first round.
Cooper’s a very athletic player and has the quick feet that you need in a zone-intensive blocking scheme. He's a 6-3, 320-lb specimen, and he needs a much better strength program to make use of that: Denver's is top drawer. That training, and the coaching of Dave Magazu, could bring out the best in him. He has also been talked about at center, which could make him the best of both worlds - you can't have too many multi-positional players. Cooper’s a great young guard, although he is still developing, like all of them.
Defensive tackle is also a huge need, as is middle linebacker. You can’t have them all, so a tough decision will arise.
Tennessee's Dallas Thomas is very good and a lot of fun to watch on tape - he's a serious tough guy who also is scheme-versatile. He’s also very tall, at 6-5, and only 300 lb (which looks odd as I write it, even though I know it’s true) - he’s actually a bit light for the position and needs to put on muscle weight. I love his natural knee bend and how it affects his pad level - impressive for his age. He’s a potential backup tackle, as well as a good guard. Some folks believe in longer arms for a tackle to help control the corner - with his height, the 32-inch arms aren’t as much of a concern; he’s got a nice wingspan. Thomas's coach moved him from LT to LG for his senior year to make him more draft-friendly.
His weaknesses are partly in his core and lower body strength, but obviously that’s fixable, and Denver has a great program for it right now. He’s a little lean in the torso, not that it’s always a bad thing, but due to that, he’s not as powerful as he will become. He brings excellent pad level, a nice punch (especially in run blocking) and good overall technique. All are promising. He’s a hard worker. He does need to learn to finish plays better and to develop in terms of his footwork, which is often sloppy. I worry about his ability to pull and trap when Denver uses a zone blocking scheme. His potential ability to handle work as a Chris Clark-type backup tackle, though, as well as his guard work, makes him interesting for Denver.
Larry Warford out of Kentucky is very interesting to me, although he and Dallas Thomas are nearly opposite players. Warford's kind of squatty, at 6-3 and 333 lb, but he’s murder to move in pass pro, has a nasty streak, and was probably the best player on the Kentucky team. He needs to lose some fat, gain power, work on his balance, and keep his feet moving in run blocking, particularly in getting to the second level. I expect that can be coached. He’s still a powerful, effective player with a strong upside. He could last to the third round, in current draft theory. That theory is going to change after Combine - it always does.
The versatile Barrett Jones from Alabama is one of the most technically skilled players in this year's draft. The problem with him comes with his durability. He missed one season with a shoulder injury (but redshirted) and more importantly, has had two ankle injuries already. He’s going to have a lot of testing done at Combine. He did, however, move from guard to left tackle after an injury to the starter there in 2011, and he was a star there. He earned the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman as well as the Jacobs Blocking Trophy (for the SEC's top offensive lineman) and was a consensus All-American that year, all because the starter got hurt.
This season he was excellent at center; you have to love that. He's got short arms and isn't suited, I suspect, to playing tackle in the NFL, but he's played tackle, guard and center in his career. If they have any thoughts of Blake at guard rather than center, Jones would be a hell of a pickup. He can handle Chris Clark's duties if Blake starts at guard, and can back up all three interior positions (he might take the starting job of one of them, over time).
Those are the best early-pick candidates in terms of Denver's needs that I could find for the position. There are tons of options in the mid-to-later rounds, too - most need developing, but we're going to probably have to deal with that unless Kuper makes a stunning recovery. Two injuries to the same ankle and not lasting a year upon returning the first time aren't encouraging. If I had the responsibility, I'd prepare a backup plan right now, and I expect that Denver has. If it’s not Blake, it will have to be in the draft. If Cooper drops to Denver at #25, he’s going to be very hard to turn down, unless Blake has shown starting guard-level promise.