Broncos Oscars Series: O-Line Needs “A Few Good Men” in Free Agency


Whether they can handle the truth or not, tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson likely won’t be getting any more “jack” from the Broncos after poor seasons up front. But which free agents may be cruisin’ into Denver to serve as their replacements?

This week’s 89th Academy Awards ceremony have a great many all over the globe in a silver screen state of mind. As it happens, this momentary preoccupation is useful to help characterize and define a litany of issues and storylines facing the Denver Broncos as they continue preparations for the 2017 league year. Let’s take a look at how select titles of past Best Picture winners and nominees can assist our understanding of where things stand.

A Few Good Men (1992): 

Center Matt Paradis was a one-man band as the nucleus of Denver’s offensive line last season. Conversely, his comrades at the tackle positions, Donald Stephenson (right) and Russell Okung (left), were marked letdowns after being critical signees in free agency a year ago.

On Thursday, the Broncos informed Okung they will not pick up the $1 million option that would have activated a four-year, $48 million contract with $20 million in guaranteed money. Under that deal, the seven-year veteran would’ve been the team’s fourth-highest paid player in 2017 (behind Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas, and Aqib Talib).

Amid persistent speculation in recent weeks that GM John Elway may attempt to retain him under a cheaper contract,The Denver Post reports the Broncos have not contacted Okung toward that end.

Forgoing Okung’s option will give the team an additional $11 million in salary cap space going into the 2017 free agency period.

Meanwhile, Denver’s predicament at right tackle is seemingly the league’s ugliest. Donald Stephenson graded out as the NFL’s worst offensive lineman last year in a recent Pro Football Focus survey–yet he was nonetheless viewed by the Kubiak coaching staff as preferable to backup Ty Sambrailo.

The Broncos are in crisis along their offensive line for the second straight year; only this time they missed the playoffs because of it, as opposed to the hilarious fortune of winning a Super Bowl in spite of it.

The pain at the tackle positions scream for quality changes. So what’s a team with championship designs and over $40 million in cap space to do with a thin free agent market in their area of need?

It’s a bittersweet solution, but the Broncos must overpay for the best of what’s around if they’re serious about contending with the better of two suspect young quarterbacks. In 2016, Denver’s offensive line ranked 24th according to metrics from Pro Football Focus; so even appreciable upgrades at the primary trouble spots could pay dramatic dividends in the running and passing games.

Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth is this year’s rock star unrestricted free agent at the position. Problem is, he could probably tell you where he was when Kurt Cobain died. The 6’7 and 335 pound Bengal mainstay will turn 36 before years’ end, so one naturally has to question his durability for the road ahead.

More from Predominantly Orange

Whitworth told SiriusXM’s NFL Radio earlier this week that he intends to test the free agent market. And although his age disqualifies him as a long-term solution wherever he lands, the Broncos are extremely desperate for a player of substance at tackle; so making a big play for Whitworth appears inevitable. A four-time pro bowl selection, he was Cincinnati’s fourth-highest paid player in 2016, earning $8 million.

On the right side, Baltimore’s Ricky Wagner appears the hottest commodity available to be wined and dined this offseason. At 27-years-old, Wagner is a versatile four-year veteran who also has professional experience at the guard position. He earned $1.7 million in 2016 with the Ravens.

As cumulative offensive line play in the NFL continues to deteriorate, the low-supply, high-demand character of this year’s market means the aforementioned names and numerous others will have suitors galore in a matter of weeks.

The Broncos have the money and the organizational clout to ink whoever they aggressively pursue. John Elway was averse to overpaying Brock Osweiler last year–and the decision proved wise beyond his years. But when the bidding wars for the big guys start next month, how determined will he be to avoid making affordable, yet risky potential repairs through the draft?

Other notable free agent tackles: Riley Reiff (Detroit) and Kelvin Beachum (Jacksonville).

Guards: Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati) and T.J. Lang (Green Bay).