Lessons learned: Offensive line makeover is coming

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Over 17 games, five months and more than a few bumps, injuries and dilemmas along the way, the Denver Broncos discovered some things about themselves and why they didn’t earn a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Today, is the third installment of a week-long look at those lessons, both good and bad, as they began with such high hopes in September only to be so cruelly disappointed in January.

For decisions that include positions Peyton Manning doesn’t play, the biggest item on the to-do list might be the guys in front of the quarterback next season.

Following their 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII last February, the offensive line was the one significant item left to be done in-house before the 2014 season. The Broncos splurged in free agency on the defense, and they used their first two picks of the draft on a cornerback (Bradley Roby) and a wide receiver (Cody Latimer).

They left the fate of the offensive line to players who had been on the roster the year before, save for center Will Montgomery, who was a late signing in free agency, to a one-year deal. This offseason changes are on the way, beyond the four moves the Broncos made during the season to try and get it right.

This is what executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said last week when asked if he believed the state of the offensive line would affect Manning’s decision to return for the 2015 season or retire:

"Having been a quarterback, he knows that I’m always going to try to take care of him and that offensive line. We always want to protect the quarterback. I think that a change of scenery for those guys might help them also, and we’ll do what we can do this offseason and try to help them also."

The key phrase there is "change of scenery," as in someplace else. The Broncos have two starters who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents -- guard Orlando Franklin and Montgomery.

New head coach Gary Kubiak’s arrival, with his playbook in hand, also means more zone blocking and a little more emphasis on movement skills up front. The starting point for rebuilding the unit is likely Louis Vasquez and Ryan Clady -- both have been Pro Bowl selections in the past two seasons.

Even Clady doesn't escape scrutiny as he simply wasn’t himself this season. He continued to work his way back from 2013 foot surgery early in the season, then closed the season trying to play through groin and thigh injuries. He ended up surrendering pressures and sacks to players who in the past wouldn’t have been within shouting distance of the quarterback.

Despite surrendering a league-low 20 sacks, opposing defensive coordinators believed they could consistently create pressure in the middle of the formation to disrupt Manning’s timing. The Broncos looked disjointed, out of synch, with players consistently unable to close down the gaps made by poor decisions, and on Oct. 12 against the New York Jets, the Broncos surrendered two sacks on three-man rushes in the same game.

The Broncos didn’t consistently win the point of attack in the run game either, particularly in some of their biggest games. The Broncos had 76 rushing attempts -- non-kneel-down plays by the quarterback -- that went for either no gain or negative yardage this past season, the playoff loss included.

That total, 16.4 percent of their rushing attempts overall, included 12 runs of negative yardage or no gain in two games against the Kansas City Chiefs combined, seven in the September loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and seven total in their two games against the Colts this season.

The Colts' totals should cause the Broncos to take notice after the Patriots rushed for 177 yards against the Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Kubiak’s offenses have routinely featured high-end run games with disciplined, well-choreographed play from the offensive line. And as he begins his Broncos tenure, the team’s offensive line will be one of first things to get squared away.