Time’s running shorter. There’s still free agency time to work, and the draft is giving Denver 10 picks. But the offensive line needs help in a big way. I’m not talking about Gino Gradkowski and Shelley Smith here. They’re good depth. Losing Orlando Franklin and Will Montgomery meant the last season’s top two graded linemen are now gone.
Denver’s still about where it was when head coach Gary Kubiak said, "We have to get better up front." It wasn’t a shock, and he’s right. It’s the time of year to fix it. Denver does need to be better up front. One piece of that puzzle is already on the table. It depends on whether Michael Schofield can handle right tackle in the NFL.
He was a fine right tackle at Michigan. There were games where he outplayed first-round left tackle Taylor Lewan. Lewan was a force in college, so I went into film expecting to see some inevitable college weaknesses from Schofield. I was also looking for specifics on how he was playing before being tutored by NFL coaches and veterans.
Elway gave some information on him openly. Whether it’s true or not during lying season is debatable.
Elway also made it clear some of the roster gaps left behind by departing free agents will be filled by young players already on the roster who may not have gotten much, if any, playing time last season. In particular, Elway talked about the potentials of tackle Michael Schofield and wide receiver Cody Latimer many times this past few weeks. He also called the right tackle position “a need for us,’’ that “a player like Schofield could fill.
So, rather than read FA/draft season statements, I cued up the first Schofield tape I grabbed. It was Notre Dame against Michigan, 2013:
Of the four games I had where they played against each other, they went 2-2. I chose the third at random. Michigan won this one 41-30. Quarterback Devin Gardner threw four TDs and ran for another, so Schofield got a workout.
It didn’t take long to notice a few things. I’d read through my notes from last year’s draft in preparation. A lot of what I saw with Schofield was pretty much the same. A few things, though, were both different and potentially important.
The first was based on the head coach’s preferences. Gary Kubiak likes a variation on the West Coast Offense formation. He prefers tight ends on both sides of the line, with two running backs (one at fullback) and two wide receivers. That’s not news. That was one of the formations that Michigan ran frequently and effectively. It’s helpful that Schofield has some RT experience in the basic scheme that the Broncos are expected to play out of.
I noticed that Michael was consistently good about knowing where his right side tight end was. He blocked ‘around’ the TE. He was finding targets both in front and behind the TE. He found pathways regardless of the congestion and ‘trash’. He was constantly aware of the ball, whether via ballcarrier or pass. At 1:10 of the video, you’ll notice Schofield (#75) seeing a possible problem and coming back to provide a block. That turned a reverse run into a first down. That vision showed up consistently through his film. A strength of Michael's is that he keeps his head on a swivel, looking for a target.
His second obvious strength was locking up with his man. At 2:08, Schofield is only one of the linemen, but they gave Gardner enough time to send out for lunch. The perfect pass to the center of the field was made possible by the line. What’s important regarding Schofield is how tightly he locks up with his assignment. That provides his QB with lots of time to throw - or run.
When interviewed at the Senior Bowl, Michael commented that he hoped to be remembered as a player that was consistent. Given the ‘watch me’ that’s so much a part of the pro game, his humble, thoughtful answer was a breath of fresh air.
The second film was the 2013 Nebraska vs. Michigan game that matched a Big 10 East team against one from the West:
At 1:12 of the first quarter, Nebraska blitzed effectively. Schofield’s man got free, but Schofield got his feet back under him and reacquired the block. Other linemen breaking down made the matter academic, but Schofield’s recovery was one of several that I saw from him. It’s an enormously valuable skill in a lineman. Most of them don’t have it to his extent.
Schofield showed many of the issues that I expected. Every college tackle lunges to some extent. It’s part of the growth process. They lean forward at the waist. All of them need some degree of their hand and footwork technique improved. What interested me was that with all the film I’ve been watching for the past few months, Schofield still stood out. On many plays, he was effective as the more highly-touted Lewan, who went 11th overall to Tennessee.
I hope to see new competition for Michael. Denver doesn’t have a true swing tackle. Finding that Chris Clark wasn’t going to be able to fill RT was an expected disappointment. Paul Cornick isn’t starter material. It is fair to note that linemen often bloom later. That’s great for later, but Denver needs help this year.
As much as I liked Manny Ramirez, his scout-team level performance last year has put me off him. Even if Matt Paradis works out, they need someone to back him up. A lot of mocks have suggested Cameron Erving. In this case, I’d agree with them. Erving has a lot of positional versatility. He’s also big and very strong for a center. Few centers can also play tackle, but Cam is one of the few.
As far as left guard, Shelley Smith was brought in as an option there. The draft is rich with centers and guard/centers. There are enough good guards to see one in the third round. There are also tackle/centers which are comparatively rare, in this draft. It’s probable that a quality lineman could fall to Denver at 28. There may be a choice of which line position is seen as most important or well-stocked.
Denver’s weak at both tight end and offensive line. They need to round out their new Phillips-type defense with a lineman. They’d prefer both a nose guard and a defensive end. They need at least one safety.
Not needing to worry about a starting right tackle would be a fine move forward. Schofield continuing his movement upward would be a good start.