Posted Mon Apr 18th by Jon Heath
In 2010, the Denver Broncos had the 26th worst rushing attack in the NFL and much of the blame was placed upon the offensive linemen, somewhat fairly so. The offensive line also allowed 40 sacks (a gruesome number when you consider the team’s 2008 squad allowed only 12 sacks).
In their defense, throughout much of the season that offensive line was playing with inexperienced guard Stanley Daniels and fellow back-up guard Russ Hochstein, among others. The running backs also weren’t doing much to help the cause (images of Laurence Maroney dancing in the backfield for half a minute before finally hitting the hole which had since been closed by the middle linebacker flash through my mind).
When, towards the end of the season, the original line was back in place (Clady, Beadles, Walton, Kuper and Harris), Denver’s rushing attack improved week after week and the quarterbacks (mostly rookie Tim Tebow) received more time in pocket – which resulted in better decision making and an improved offense.
Continuity will be the key if the Broncos’ offensive line is to continue to improve next season, (if there is a season). For an offensive line to be successful, the group has to mesh and work together well, and that’s just what Denver’s offensive line did at the conclusion of 2010. The Broncos should do everything in their power to keep the offensive line in tact, retaining all of the above mentioned original five starters.
“I’m really excited about what we have going up front,” said Broncos starting left guard Zane Beadles on Saturday. “I think we have a lot of young talent and the more we play together the better we’ll get.”
When right tackle Ryan Harris was down with an injury at the beginning of last season, it was easy to tell the offense and the offensive line (especially the running game) sorely missed him. When he returned and started in ten games, the entire offense improved. Harris allowed 3.25 sacks (the second lowest number among the five starters, rookie center J.D. Walton allowed only 3.0), and was penalized only twice. Penalties were one thing that greatly hurt the Broncos’ line last season.
On the other side of the line, left tackle Ryan Clady had an off year (by his standards). For the third straight season Clady started the entire season, while being penalized a career-high five times and allowing 7.0 sacks that went for another career high 46 yards lost. While he was not quite as productive as his first two seasons, Clady has remained a leader on Denver’s offensive line and one of the best left tackles in the game.
A rookie offensive guard, Zane Beadles was one of just four rookie offensive linemen last season to start 14 or more games (fellow offensive lineman J.D. Walton was one of the other three), and he did not disappoint. A well disciplined offensive lineman, Beadles was penalized only twice and allowed six sacks – really good numbers for a rookie offensive lineman. At age 24, Beadles looks to become a pivotal part of Denver’s line for years to come.
Fellow guard Chris Kuper, who entered the season with three years of starting experience, has remained Mr. Reliable and according to Broncos former Head Coach Josh McDaniels, the leader of the offensive line. Suffering from the poor performances around him, Kuper, like the other three veterans, had a bit of a down year. Being penalized five times and allowing 5.0 sacks (both career highs) were both very uncharacteristic of Kuper, who recently signed a contract extension with the team.
Anchoring the line last season was rookie center J.D. Walton, who was the only rookie center in 2010 to start all 16 regular season games. Although he was penalized seven times, Walton allowed 3.0 sacks and played extremely well all things considered (being thrown into a patch-work offensive line as a rookie isn’t an easy thing to do). Walton showed promise and looks to build off last season heading into the next.
Looking for depth
Behind the front five, the Broncos don’t have many offensive linemen who are ready to fill the void when a starter goes down (as was so thoroughly exposed last season). In addition to that, the team may not retain right tackle Ryan Harris; that would hurt the offensive line which has meshed together well and place a huge hole on the depth chart.
Versatile Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins could be targeted by the team, who had him in for a private workout last month. During his collegiate career, Watkins played tackle but at the Senior Bowl he was asked to play guard and center, which he did – extremely well despite having little to no experience playing at those positions. As a result, his draft stock has skyrocketed.
The downside to Watkins is that he’ll be turning 27 mid-season this year, which means the team that drafts him would not get as many productive years out of him as they would a younger player. He is projected to go in the early to mid rounds. Other options in the draft include TCU’s Marcus Cannon and Florida State offensive lineman Rodney Hudson.
Working under a new coaching staff
Denver’s offensive linemen have a new Head Coach in John Fox and offensive lines coach in Dave Magazu, who Fox brought in from Carolina. Both coaches are known for producing dominating rushing attacks, something Denver hasn’t been able to do in recent years.
Magazu could be the man to get Denver’s offensive line back in shape after a sluggish 2010 season. An excerpt from his Bio at Panthers.com can be seen below:
Under Dave Magazu, Carolina has fielded some of the best offensive lines in the NFL in recent years, and the numbers prove it. However, he may have been at his best in 2009 when the Panthers became the first team in NFL history to have two running backs each rush for more than 1,100 yards despite playing the last four games of the season without their two starting tackles. Also, center Ryan Kalil earned his first-career Pro Bowl selection under Magazu’s guidance.
The Panthers’ 2,497 rushing yards and 123 rushing first downs last year marked the second consecutive season that they set team records in those categories, and their average of 4.76 yards per attempt and 18 rushing touchdowns stand as the second most in franchise history. A year earlier, Carolina established team records of 4.84 yards per attempt and 30 rushing touchdowns while rushing for 2,437 yards and 118 first downs as tackle Jordan Gross was chosen to his first-career Pro Bowl. In addition, the Panthers set a team record for the fewest sacks allowed with 20.
That’s quite a track record. With an expected improved running game, the Broncos passing attack should see signs of progression as well. Whether it’s mobile second year quarterback Tim Tebow, veteran Kyle Orton or someone else, Denver’s starting quarterback should be better protected in 2011.