Why i favor a Left Tackle in the Draft
I think the Broncos have been making do with less at Tackle for a lot of years now, but really, the paradigm has shifted to this being a Cutler-centric team. While it is true that we've often gotten by with lesser talents on the OL, remember that the two Super Bowls were won with Gary Zimmerman and Tony Jones (A Hall of Famer and a near Pro Bowl-caliber pass-blocker, respectively) at LT.
I have love and appreciation for Matt Lepsis, but he had a terrible year in 2007, by his own admission. I think he was an A- Right Tackle, and a B- Left Tackle, at his best. He was always a very good run-blocker, and a somewhat marginal pass-blocker. Erik Pears, in my opinion, is really not a starting-caliber Tackle in the NFL, as much as we may like underdog stories. If you watch the line play over the last two seasons, you can routinely see Pears getting dominated. He was better on the right than he was on the left side, (where he was a disaster,) but he really should be a third tackle, not a starter.
I hope that Ryan Harris develops into a good starter, but I'm frankly not really terribly encouraged, based upon Mike Shanahan's reticence to praise his development. The whispers on Harris coming out of Notre Dame was that he lacked love for playing football, despite his clear athletic talent for the game. I'm hoping for the best, but we'll see how that goes.
Regarding Chris Kuper, I am a fan of his. I thought he was the best OL on the team last season once he got his bearings as a starter. I don't know if we have any basketball fans here, but to borrow a baskteball term, I think Chris lacks the length to be as effective at tackle as he is inside. Remember, it's a pretty rare case where everybody just misses on a player in the Draft (TD, Tom Brady.) Much more often than not, a successful late-round pick is a guy who really does have some correctly evaluated limitations, and manages to overcome them, or minimize the negative effects of them.
To set the stage, I think we had a C- Offensive Line, as of the end of last season. Assuming Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton both make it back and play to the high levels they've played at in the recent past, the capability is there for more like a B-. Let's assume the best, and name them starters at Center and Left Guard. At Right Guard, Montrae Holland did a pretty nice job last season, and should be a favorite to keep his spot. Casey Wiegmann will be the primary backup inside, with Kuper in the mix there also.
At Tackle, we can play Kuper or possibly Harris at LT, but I don't think either is a great idea. Pears should be (and seems to be) out of the question on the left side. For now, let's go with what Shanahan indicated he was looking at at the owners' meetings, and put Kuper at LT, and leave Pears at RT.
From Left to Right, that's Kuper, Hamilton, Nalen, Holland, and Pears. There's your B-. If Kuper does better than I expect, and/or Harris beats out Pears and holds his own, it becomes a B. We're now back to the quality of OL we were making the playoffs with, earlier in this decade, and maybe that's OK. In this best-case scenario world, I'm OK with drafting Devin Thomas or Rashard Mendenhall, or trading down a few spots for DeSean Jackson. We can definitely use a playmaker on offense.
My preference, however, is taking the best OL available at #12. Living in Cleveland, I watched Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach transform the Browns' offense last season. Derek Anderson got a lot of credit, but his left side kept him very clean, and it was key to all of their success on Offense. I think it would be better to move Kuper to RT, and play the draftee on the Left side right away.
Now, here's the thing. I know good offensive line play when I see it, and I've watched the Broncos closely enough to have a solid feel for where quality is and isn't, among our holdover players. I can't say the same thing for the draft-eligible guys, however. I've seen Jake Long the most, but he'll be long gone. Between Ryan Clady, Jeff Otah, Branden Albert, Chris Williams, and Sam Baker, I'm not really qualified to evaluate them. Whoever is deemed to be the best among them will be agreeable to me. I really believe that a commitment to better pass protection is vitally important though, and the protection over the last 4 games of last season was the worst I have seen from a Denver line since Mike Shanahan became the Head Coach.
To finish up, a quick point about not taking the wrong lesson from George Foster's not working out. I work as a financial analyst, but even a math novice can understand that a sample size of 1 is not particularly predictive of anything. "Missing" on the only lineman you ever took in Round 1, (and Foster is much closer to a simply average player than he is to a bust,) doesn't mean you'll miss on all of them. On a league-wide basis, OT is considered to be one of the most easily projectable positions, and it's really a shock when a Tony Mandarich or Robert Gallery fails to live up to expectations. There is generally a high success rate with taking first round Offensive Linemen, and being successful with it strongly correlates to competing for Super Bowl Championships.