Why the Broncos have to consider taking a tackle next week

Now that we've completed our rundown of this year's top offensive tackle prospects, let's take a moment to revisit whether it makes sense for the Broncos to take one of them in next week's draft.

David Fleming recently did a nice job of laying out some of the realities of the current pay levels for the differing positions along the offensive line. The advent of NFL free agency in 1993 started a run on increasing the salaries for offensive linemen and especially tackles, benefiting the left tackles in particular. Teams were consistently putting their best rusher on the offensive left, so the blind side protector soon got more money.

Tackles are harder to find, and that may keep their pay somewhat higher - but not stratospherically so.

Ryan Clady is one of the best left tackles in the business. His pass blocking, as extolled by Ben Muth, can be a thing of beauty. He’s one of the players whom you can set out on an island, and trust that he’ll still find a way to protect the quarterback. His current skill set includes some greatly improved run blocking as well - that’s an aptitude that has taken him years to fully develop. Denver used its franchise tag on Ryan, and he's yet to sign it yet, but the team may want to hold onto him for the long term, given his multiple skills and the fact that he’s arguably one of the top five left tackles in the game.

One reason that Clady’s run blocking took more time to develop was that Denver was changing coaches and schemes on a constant basis. With hard work and a second season of training under line coach Dave Magazu, Ryan’s run blocking became substantially stronger in 2012. The question that’s going to have to be answered in the next year is whether the Broncos want to spend the kind of capital that an elite tackle can command on the open market, or whether they want to develop a second option. They’re also looking at both Pro Bowl left guard Zane Beadles and starting center J.D. Walton going into their own contract years in 2013, with Orlando Franklin’s contract expiring the following year. Denver has some tough decisions to make in the near future.

Consider this:

In Orlando Franklin’s first year, a lot of people questioned his use at right tackle. He was too upright and heavyfooted:  he was also having trouble adjusting to kick-sliding out to the right, having been at LG and then LT in college. While there was good reason to consider moving him inside before Louis Vasquez was signed, that’s a solved issue.

Franklin also got a full year of good coaching, and worked his tail off to become a much better pass protector last season. Could he move to left tackle next year or the one after? I believe that he could. It would take him a little time to go back to doing everything in reverse, perhaps, but he was a heck of a good LT during his senior year with the Miami Hurricanes. You can win the Super Bowl with a good, but not great, left tackle, as Ted has mentioned countless times. Lots of teams do. Your quarterback’s release time has a lot to do with it, and Peyton Manning’s is lightning.

If Franklin can soon cover either tackle slot, the option of taking any one of several good tackles has to have some interest for the Broncos as a backup plan to keeping Clady.

There are players like David Quessenberry, Menelik Watson, Reid Fragel, Dallas Thomas, and Terron Armstead, any of whom may be able to start this coming season, but who can certainly fill a tackle’s role with some coaching. The Broncos also may choose to stand pat (although I continue to hope for an upgrade over reserve tackle Chris Clark) if they feel comfortable with their dialogue with Clady’s agent. Denver’s going to have to spread their capital across most of the line in the next two years: Clady (once he signs his tender), Walton, and Beadles all have contracts up after next year, and Franklin will be up the year after.

There are only so many dollars to go around, especially with decisions looming on Eric Decker and Wesley Woodyard, and the incomparable Von Miller first eligible to be extended next offseason.

Since we first opened the discussion on tackles, our readers have consistently wondered why left tackles are worth so much more in today's NFL. At this point, with defenses flip-flopping rushers, and tight ends playing on either edge, it’s harder to justify. It made sense when formations stuck with a tight end on the offensive right, but those days are going quickly. Edge rushers once were generally on the offensive left. Now, the pressure and the rusher might come from anywhere. You have to have a competent line across the five positions. A single weak position along the line that leaves a path into the backfield can lose games for your team .

I love having Clady on the Broncos' line, and I’d like for them to keep him. At the same time, it’s a business. In a year when 8-10 draftable college tackles could handle either side within a short period of time, you have to consider where your dollars will give you the best return. I’ve been watching college film of them for several months now. There’s a lot of value out there. Like houses, stocks, and all other players, left tackles are only worth what someone is willing to pay them. If Denver chooses to go with a younger player to avoid putting too much of their costs into the line, I could understand it.

The Ravens went on a Super Bowl run, not because of a single bad play by several of the Broncos, but by consistently shutting down Denver’s pass rush and effectively attacking the Broncos’ O-line protection. Denver also just had a bad game; the intense cold did appear to affect PM’s arm, as well. The Ravens offensive line also helped them shut down the Colts and Patriots. Later, the 49ers matched Baltimore’s O-line player for player. Both teams’ play suggest that the OL is still an important part of a winning playoff team, and it doesn’t always come cheap.

The 49ers recently signed right tackle Anthony Davis, who was under contract through the 2014 season, to a five-year contract extension averaging $6,519,880 million per year. That makes him the second highest paid right tackle (based on average yearly salary) behind Gosder Cherilus. It’s still quite a jump from there to the money it will take to retain Clady.

As soon as free agency opened last month, Denver moved to get Louis Vasquez to man their right guard, shoring up an unacceptable weakness.  He signed a four-year, $23.5 million contract that contains $13 million in guarantees, including a $5 million signing bonus. With Clady at left tackle, Franklin solid at right tackle, Beadles playing at his highest level, Walton returning from injury, and the addition of Vasquez to them, the current line is as good as they’ve had in a decade. Walton remains a wild card only because he missed most of last season, but he had shown substantial improvement in his short time active.

But the trick in the modern game is to maintain that high quality over time.That’s the financial rabbit that the Broncos will have to keep pulling from the hat each year. I think that changing how teams value each position and pay people is going to be a part of that.

It may also affect who Denver drafts this year and next, and it won't be long before we see if that's the case.

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