ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have a problem, and it’s affecting everything they do on offense.
In fact, it has affected things for quite some time.
Quarterback? That’s always the conversation starter, and sure the Broncos have made no secret their top offseason priority is find a long-term solution at the position.
But as the last two seasons have reminded everyone – both playoff misses, including a dismal 5-11 in 2017 that featured an eight-game losing streak – the longest-standing problem the Broncos have on offense is the guys playing in front of the quarterback haven’t been the same from one season to the next.
“I think offensive line is always a priority," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “Outside of the quarterback, that’s always the big question for our football team."
That it is. There is always turnover in the salary-cap NFL. Most teams believe at least a third of their roster could change each offseason. But either due to injuries, coaching chances, changes at offensive coordinator or just bad decisions, their offensive line has been an ever-changing, often under-performing, inconsistent group that has stifled their quarterbacks and impacted their ability to score.
Consider the Broncos haven’t had their five starters in the offensive line start every game of a season since 2011 when J.D. Walton, Ryan Clady, Orlando Franklin, Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper started every game. And the Broncos haven’t had the same linemen start at least eight games together in back-to-back seasons since 2008 and 2009.
That was Mike Shanahan’s final season as coach and Josh McDaniels’ first, or three head coaches ago, or two years before John Elway began his current tenure as the Broncos’ chief football decision-maker.
Elway knows finding a quarterback is at the top of the to-do list. But after watching the Broncos’ issues in pass protection send their quarterbacks to the trainers’ room over the last four years, including Peyton Manning, it’s a fair assessment to say the development of players such as Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch has been impacted by the fact the Broncos haven’t found a consistent combination to play better in the offensive line.
This comes to light this year because it will be a difficult offseason to make repairs. It’s generally regarded in the league as a down year for tackles, especially, in the draft. And below the front-line free agents, things don’t figure to be particularly great in the open market either.
The Broncos hope Menelik Watson, who has never played more than 12 games in any season because of injuries and missed nine last season, can break those trends at right tackle, and they will consider moving Ron Leary back to left guard. Leary was forced to play at right guard last season because the Broncos could not find another player to perform at right guard well enough to keep Leary where he had excelled for the Cowboys.
“Menelik will be back, he’s the right tackle," Elway said at the scouting combine. “We’re talking about Ronald going back to left (guard), putting him back over there. Those roles always are fluid until we get there. Those are all ideas. We’ve got 10 (draft) picks. I think depending on how free agency falls -- we’ll dabble in free agency too -- we want to continue to get better there."
The Broncos have made some changes to the coaching staff and included in those moves was a decision to create more specific roles for the assistant coaches to help on the developmental side. This season Chris Strausser, who was simply an offensive line assistant last season, will coach the team’s tackles while new arrival Sean Kugler will coach guards and centers.
It means they’re hoping Garett Bolles can make a significant jump from being a rookie starter at left tackle last season to go with Connor McGovern, a 2016 draft pick, being an option at that right guard spot. McGovern started the last five games in ’17 at right guard.
“I’m excited about the new coaches we’ve hired there ... and what they’ll be able to do with the group that we have," Elway said,
In the end, as Joseph has put it, “it’s a group where you want to know the five you put out there work together week in, week out, perform at a high level and are a group you just rely on."