Early last week, we learned that Orlando Franklin's oft-rumored shift from tackle to guard is indeed happening. The move clears the way to place Chris Clark at right tackle, and gets Denver's five best linemen onto the field together.
Just knowing where Franklin will be has provided Denver with several benefits.
Firstly, it leaves the team with one less need going into the draft. They could still take a guard or guard/tackle, and I expect they will.
Doing so would be smart, in case Franklin and the team don’t agree on numbers following the season, when his rookie contract ends.
Secondly, it will give Denver a brutally powerful interior for 2014.
The return of left tackle Ryan Clady is like getting an extra first-round pick, while putting him and Franklin side by side is like carving the line out of pure Rocky Mountain granite.
I recently spent some time on Franklin's game film from 2012 and 2013 and noticed a lot of little things that he’s changed. There are angles that he’s improved on, and faster footwork. A lot has become natural - how well he keeps his pad level low is an obvious improvement.
I’ve vacillated over the last two seasons on whether to move Franklin inside. I saw him improve dramatically in his second season of 2012.
Even so, I wondered if Franklin might not be best as an All-Pro guard rather than as a good right tackle. His feet weren’t quite quick enough back then. His run blocking did show the meanness that drew Denver to him. He could be heavy-footed at times, and he stood too high as a rookie. Those suggested that guard could be a better fit.
After grading out at +1.9 overall as a rookie in 2011, Franklin earned a +22.6 in 2012, with his pass blocking in front of Peyton Manning soaring to +20.0 that year.
He then had a great 2013 before his game fell off at the worst time, in the Super Bowl (no sacks, one hits, five hurries). Even with that horrid one-game performance, Franklin finished the season at a laudable +22.1 over 1,340 snaps at right tackle.
After watching a lot of his film, it looks to me like he’ll continue to improve no matter where the Broncos play him.
Orlando’s footwork has improved by light years since his rookie campaign. None of his flaws were unusual in a young lineman, and the ones he had left looked fixable. They were.
At this point, he’ll surprise me if he doesn’t make at least a Pro Bowl, regardless of which slot he plays in. My hope is that Denver will find room and money for him beyond 2014, but every year is different. We’ll have to wait and see on that. A guard in the draft would hedge the team’s bet. One of the several top OT/OG draftees would keep all the options open.
The left guard has the greatest responsibilities among the linemen when pulling and trapping. That fact kept Zane Beadles popular despite his woes when pass blocking (-6.6 in 2013).
By contrast, Franklin’s footwork in 2013 showed that his rookie days are far behind him. He’s lowered his pad level and keeps his shoulders behind his knees when engaging his assignment. His feet are constantly churning. His hands are usually inside and locked into his defender.
Franklin often crushed his first assignment and went hunting for fresh targets in the second level. He still struggles at times with speed rushers, resulting in two sacks last season. That’s not much, but what games it happens in matters a lot.
Most of Big O’s 12 penalties were for holding or jumping the snap early, each of which could suggest the move to LG. Guards are somewhat less susceptible to offside penalties because they can see the ball at the snap. Tackles, playing out on the edge, are more likely to get caught holding or struggling to be timely at the snap. Guards also play in a smaller space, leading to fewer holding penalties. That’s all about footwork and technique.
I was once told that an older art, aikijutsu, was like aikido performed in a phone booth. Aikijutsu is an art based in small circle leverage, aikido on the large circle. That’s about the difference between guard and tackle - the tackle has to be able to cover more ground. The guard often has to bring his power and will to bear in a small space.
The problem with penalties has become a perennial irritant in Denver. That’s rare in an otherwise well-coached team. Franklin's footwork improved over his first three seasons. That should provide his quality pulling and trapping work.
Whether blocking for the run or pass, Denver's trio - Franklin, Manny Ramirez, and Louis Vasquez - is one tough interior group. Keeping Manning safe is their greatest responsibility.
Adding force to the run game is a close second. Denver likes to run the inside zone play, and Franklin’s move should improve it. The run game needs to become more consistent to make it effective both on its own and when strengthening play action.
Manning is at his best on play action. Play action requires the line to fire out as if run-blocking, and then to stop short with hard hand punches to the defender. The line then moves into their pass blocking stances. It’s difficult and it requires footwork, balance, and endless work on technique, but Franklin does it well.
I want to give some respect to Franklin’s willingness to move inside. He's developing into an all-around player. It surprises many people to know that he was better blocking for the pass than for the run over the past two seasons.
Beadles played himself into negative grades and rated a -2.9 cumulative for 2013, or 25 points worse than Franklin's mark.
There’s a lot to be done between now and Week 1.
Franklin is moving to a spot that he’s already familiar with, as he played left guard for most of three years at Miami, before moving to left tackle. Denver will have Clark, Vinston Painter, and Winston Justice competing for RT this summer. I suspect that a draft choice in some round will be joining them.
The team is in good shape on the line for 2014. But with Franklin’s contract ending after the season, Denver has to make sure that their ‘next up’ players are as ready as possible.
Given what I’ve seen of John Elway’s vision and comprehension of the total game, I doubt that’s a problem. I'm not a betting man, but I’d still bet the team is already developing their ideas for all the potential outcomes, whether Franklin stays or moves on. Ultimately, that’s next year’s problem. Right now, putting the best available players on the field comes first.
The last three seasons have seen Denver win a wild card game, host the divisional playoff, and then win the AFC Championship. Now we’ll see who can improve on Franklin’s work and help the team take that final step upward.
All that’s left is to carry off the Lombardi Trophy. If Franklin can continue his improvement while transitioning to LG, that goal will get a little easier.
Bring on the draft!