Who protects Manning in Denver?

With the Manning Sweepstakes in high gear, the quality of the OL play in Denver is something that’s been a peripheral to the circus itself. Without doubt, the quality of a team's receivers and offensive line will be part of the equation for Peyton as he chooses a new home. Of course, Peyton demands a high level of play from the players around him - he directs his troops with an iron hand and a sharp tongue on the field. It’s among the key reasons that he - much like John Elway did in his time - has annually driven players with lesser talents to the playoffs, winning a Lombardi Trophy along the way and making another Super Bowl appearance three seasons ago.

It's often been noted - here, elsewhere - and by Peyton himself - that Indy has had a rough time at pass protection in recent years. Yet, during Manning's last three seasons, he took just 40 sacks in 48 regular-season games. It's safe to say he's looking to go to a team where pass pro won't be so much of an issue. That considered, how does Denver's front five stack up relative to Manning's standard?

It’s not a secret that the play of the offensive line sets the tone for the entire offense. They can make good running backs better and give some of the very good ones a chance to be great. When passing, a top OL gives the QB the time to make his reads, set his feet, and throw unimpeded. Denver has a very young line, and they can either choose to let them develop over time or add pieces judiciously and establish competition for each position. This year, there are a series of quality veteran free agents available to help pursue the latter route.

Having spent much of last season lost in tape on the Broncos line, I grew to love their easy camaraderie. I like their blue collar ethic, and I think that some of the pieces are showing that they’re on track. Yet, some of the players could and should be given a chance to develop behind a better veteran. It’s a cold business sometimes, but the results do speak for themselves, and competition makes for better teams and better position play. Denver’s OL was a weakness too often last season. I didn’t like it, but there it was in flashing pixels and cold statistics. I couldn’t deny it. That’s what I saw all year. I’d like to see it come up a notch if Denver’s serious about winning.

The odd combination of Kyle Orton’s immobility and the slowing of his reads since late 2010, and the inventive-but-hard-to-protect mobility of Tim Tebow in the passing game was unquestionably a factor in the OL’s play. I don’t downplay the line's role in the #1 running game in the NFL, either - Willis McGahee and, for a time, Tebow, were a powerful unit and the line did well by them. Still, there were two elements where the OL struggled badly - pass protection and short-yardage situations. They couldn’t get a push in the latter, and they weren’t very strong as a whole in the former. J.D. Walton had four sacks against him, and that’s not the mark of a better center. If he were blowing DTs off the line in run blocking, it would be different, but he’s not.

A center sets the tone for the entire line. To be clear, I like J.D. - I love his attitude. He looks like an overachiever on film and I find I naturally root for the guy. I keep hoping to see him step up more, but the fact is that he doesn’t seem to have the functional strength or the athleticism right now that would make him a better player. He’s smart as heck and he’s relatively fearless - his issues aren’t in his attitude or work ethic. I’d like to see him get the time to learn both his much-needed technique and the development of his physical power to get him ready to start. In a more perfect world, that might be better achieved behind a better veteran.

Texans free agent Chris Myers stepped in for Denver when Tom Nalen went down in 2007, and he showed a lot of potential. But the Broncos inexplicably dealt him to the Texans in a sign-and-trade after that season, in return for a lousy sixth-round pick, essentially marking him as a mediocre player in Denver’s eyes. He would not come cheap if the Broncos decided they wanted to get him back,  since IMO he’s the best zone-blocking center on the market this year. He would, however, instantly make the line substantially better. I admit my prejudice for the importance of the OL, but Myers is one of the best centers in the game and he’s built for the Broncos' current system. He’s not exactly a Manning, but he is a guy who can make your entire offense immediately better. What’s that worth to you?

One of the sidelines of the situation with Peyton is that even though his OL kept him from being sacked, Peyton felt strongly that he had to throw too quickly to keep that stat in check over his last few seasons. Then-head coach Jim Caldwell was said to be blaming their Super Bowl loss to the Saints on that group (he apparently said this while exiting the field, immediately after the game), but GM Bill Polian bafflingly failed to respond with an offseason personnel change. He began to work on it for 2011, but it was a case of too little, too late. The OL was among many areas of weakness exposed when Manning missed last season. Denver might want to take a lesson from Manning’s background when they consider their own offseason and how much the line would draw a talent like his. There are a substantial number of superior offensive linemen entering the market. Some are relative bargains. It’s a chance to improve the team quickly, and for years to come. Here are a few examples:

Former Texan Eric Winston is one possible target, and he's a very good RT, as John McClain noted yesterday. It's not like I see the Broncos’ tackle roster is solid right now, so I’m looking at each option as it comes along. I recognize that Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin are likely to return next season. Even so, they didn’t grade out that well - if Denver were to attempt it, what would improve the line the most quickly? Myers is one consideration, Winston is another, and both are from the Texans, so they’re familiar with each other’s play. Winston’s had an up-and-down career, but he seems to have found his stride in the past two seasons. Either (or both) would improve the line immediately. As Khaled Elsayed points out, this is probably going to be the best pair to hit the market this offseason.

Who else is out there? RT/RG Geoff Schwartz is another very good option now that Carolina's let him go - I had to wonder if he and Fox have a good working relationship and whether Schwartz can pass a physical. Fox is generally well-liked by players, and Schwartz gave a higher quality performance in his last season (2010) than either of the ROL players than Denver has currently. He played well at both positions on the right side of the line in 2010 before missing last year due to injury, and he may come relatively cheap as a result of it. The physical would be essential, but he’s a player with a lot of upside if he can be healthy this season.

OT Levi Brown is expected to be released from the Cardinals, due to a large ($17 million) salary cap hit that’s come due this season. He’s well worth a look as well - He’s a 6’6”, 323 lb tackle who’s played both right and left tackle and will turn 28 this week. A swing tackle with predominately left side skills who can push the competition level higher for Denver and can step in at either slot according to need would be a huge help. I hope that Clady can return to his early form, but preparing for the eventuality that he doesn’t might - since there’s a chance that his struggles are medical - be simply sensible business. You’re not going to move Chris Clark to left tackle if there’s any way to avoid it, and should Clady continue to struggle, the Broncos need to have a backup plan in hand.

If you look at Clady’s play over the last two seasons, I think it would be a very good time to use that cash pad if the Broncos are serious about winning by providing improved OL play, regardless of who plays QB. Improving it might also be a selling point with Manning, but no matter that outcome this is an area that they could nail down for years with a decent investment in even one or two good young veterans. The team needs to improve the lines, and the OL is simply a work in progress. I’m not sure that the Broncos see things in that light, but I do. The Broncos’ discussions of looking for interior line depth don’t go as far as they probably should.

Vagabond guard Evan Mathis might be considered old at thirty, but he’s been underused in a strange situation over his years as a perennial backup and has played very well when called upon. When I’ve seen him, I’ve liked his work. He’s a low-mileage guy who hasn’t had much of an injury history and would be a solid two-year investment, and I’d expect him to play beyond his next contract.

The Patriots’ Dan Koppen would be a risk at age 32 despite his skills, and the Falcons' Todd McClure will be 34 next season. I can’t see Denver looking at either one. Myers and Green Bay's Scott Wells are serious talents, with the 6’5” Myers having the smarts and the technique to run and improve any zone-blocking offense. If his next team is Denver, they would be substantially stronger the moment the last stamp and signature go onto his next contract. It doesn’t hurt to dream.

San Diego’s Jared Gaither played better than either of Denver’s starting tackles in 2011, and he’s also an unrestricted free agent. He has had some past off-field issues and he wants to play left tackle; that combination likely takes him off Denver’s radar. He played very well for SD, though, and they’ve said they consider locking him up to be one of their offseason priorities.

Buffalo’s Demetrius Bell might be a good target if Denver wants to upgrade their guard situation, as they’ve indicated. The combination of Zane Beadles and Trash Can Walton together hasn’t worked out very well so far. I like both players, but they were tossed into a blender in Denver when they were drafted, and both need some seasoning before they could beat out the current available UFAs that Denver could plug in right now, if they wanted to. It’s equally true if you take the fan-popular move of putting Big O Franklin at LG over Beadles and shoring up the RT position. To bring this full circle, you can do that by inserting Eric Winston, Brown or Schwartz (if he passes the physical) there, and other options are emerging. More may come available as free agency continues.

To be clear, I think that both Beadles and Walton are starter material - just not fully formed yet. The improvement is visible over their rookie seasons, and it’s not unusual for OL players to take time to develop so I don’t see a need to let either go. I’d be very comfortable putting them behind better starting veterans as high quality depth who could eventually take over as starters again. I think that Denver’s committed to Chris Kuper at RG, and all reports are that he’s on schedule to make it to training camp and to start in September. Kuper lacks power at times, but I love his technique and it’s hard to argue with the two sacks, one hit and 15 pressures he allowed before his injury.

With the drop in Clady's play over the past two years as evidenced by his 12 penalties and 34 pressures in 2011, there’s reason for some concern with him. Chris Clark isn’t starter material. Adding in Franklin’s rough edges and slower feet at RT makes me think that adding at least one quality tackle this free agent period is just good football sense. I don’t see Denver moving Franklin yet, though. They love his run production and are convinced that they can coach him up to play the right edge. He’s needed a lot of TE help in pass protection, but I expect them to continue to compensate that way. They’ve tended to a max-protect option for their QBs anyway, and that’s likely to continue unless they upgrade the OL play.

I haven’t heard anything in this arena from Denver so far and I wouldn’t believe it at this time of year if I did. The team would probably want to keep their cards close until they are ready to make a move, and they’ve given no indication that they aren’t happy with the line’s play. Even so - you don’t score with the bottom feeders in pass protection and not have serious concerns about it when you’re ready to write a lot of zeros to gain one of the best QBs in the game’s long and storied history. As much as the Manning story is understandably dominating the news right now, considering how to make him happy if he chooses Denver is worth a passing thought. Making sure that he has time to pick the defenses apart is essential if the Broncos win this lottery.

The guys the Broncos have right now aren’t built for that. It’s just the way it is. Now they have to show how serious they are about winning beyond gaining one star player.

Not making the mistake that Bill Polian made would be a good start...

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