There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it?
No, I’m not talking about the Force or Kylo Ren. This is all about the start of training camp and a merciful end to a very long offseason. The Broncos are going to start playing some actual football and there will be concrete stories worth discussing. We can finally put all of the pointless, high school drama behind us (at least until next year).
Naturally, most of the attention will be geared toward the quarterbacks. Everyone will be anxiously waiting for Mark Sanchez to screw up badly enough so that preseason darling Trevor Siemian or first-round pick Paxton Lynch gets a chance in the spotlight. Quarterbacks are always the top priority for the fans and media, even if they aren’t the most important one for the team.
Regardless of who winds up playing under center, it is imperative that the Broncos correct one of the weaknesses that has plagued them for the past couple of seasons: the offensive line. If they don’t, it’s not really going to matter who the starting quarterback is. They are all dead men walking.
Among the many advantages that having Peyton Manning at quarterback provided, one of the more underrated ones was his ability to mask and negate shoddy offensive line play. Pre-snap adjustments and a very quick release covered up the fact that for the past three years, the Broncos have been average at best up front. When injuries and Father Time took their toll on Peyton, this problem reared its ugly head to the point that the offense could barely sustain a drive, much less score that often and give the weary defense a break. Luckily, Peyton returned with enough left in the tank to keep the ship afloat all the way to the Super Bowl.
With Peyton gone, the Broncos can no longer afford to be so mediocre at the line of scrimmage. John Elway knows this. Gary Kubiak knows this. That’s why the oft-injured Ryan Clady was traded, why Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson were signed and why Connor McGovern was drafted, but it’s not all about talent acquisition. The Broncos had capable lineman on the roster last season, and yet injuries and inexperience prevented that group from ever becoming a cohesive unit. I cannot understate how crucial it is for those guys to build chemistry and get on the same page. Terrell Davis was a dominant player during his prime, but he would be the first to credit his success to the offensive line. Without Gary Zimmerman, Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and others paving the way, TD probably doesn’t become the greatest running back in franchise history.
That offensive line’s chemistry was indisputable, and that’s the standard that the current iteration needs to aspire to if the Broncos want to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Denver. Kubiak’s offense may be a run-first system, but at its core, a balanced attack is what makes it so efficient. It enables your team to line up in similar formations and packages without the defense being able to key on the run or the pass. Maybe you rely on one more than the other, as the Broncos did with TD during the back-to-back years, but they didn’t hesitate to exploit a favorable matchup throwing the ball when it was there.
This is no big secret, nor am I exactly going out on a limb when I mention that the offensive line is the key to that balanced attack. I’m just pointing out why I’ll be more concerned with how the big guys are performing than how many picks Sanchez has thrown or many reps Siemian and Lynch are getting. In my opinion, the Broncos won’t repeat as champs if they don’t get a lot more out of their offense than they did in 2015 and that won’t happen if the line doesn’t take a big step forward. No balance means no running game, and no running game means it’s up to a veteran trying to turn his career around or two kids whose next start at quarterback will be their first to carry the offense. Does that sound good to you? Yeah, me neither.
There isn’t a better time to build a rapport and push each other through competition than training camp. You can probably use a pen when you mark down Okung at left tackle and Matt Paradis at center, but otherwise you better keep your pencil handy. The other three spots on the starting line are up for grabs and that’s not even counting the swing tackle, which at this point is being manned by Michael Schofield. Yes, the guy who looked like a turnstile against Khalil Mack last year is the same guy who will jump in if either of the starting tackles go down. There better be competition for that job.
The good news is that looking for improved o-line play isn’t exactly setting the bar that high. There’s also the expectation that Paradis, Max Garcia and Ty Sambrailo will all upgrade their game considerably in year two in Kubaik’s system. If they can keep the running lanes open, C.J. Anderson and co. are more than capable of carrying the load and taking the pressure off of the passing game.
And you never know in football. Maybe Sanchez will have a career year playing for the defending champs. Maybe Siemian and Lynch can handle a lot more than I think they can.
Just remember to thank the line for any strides the offense takes in 2016.
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