Denver Broncos: Remaining options at left tackle thinning out
The Denver Broncos seem to be running out of options at the left tackle position. What options are actually left, and what might John Elway do?
Two days into the 2017 NFL Free Agency period, fans have been left wondering — what in the world is John Elway doing at left tackle? The Denver Broncos have made two moves along the offensive line in the first two days of free agency, investing over $50 million in total money to Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson. That’s not a bad price when you consider that Matt Kalil, the left tackle for the Panthers, formerly of the Vikings, got $55 million in total money.
The Broncos appear to be ‘saving’ their money for something, but we’re not quite sure what. They took a big swing at Calais Campbell, the player I’d consider the best in this year’s free agent class, and they unfortunately couldn’t compete with a ridiculous offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
What a shocker…
The Broncos also were not in the mix (at least, not really…) for left tackles that received between $10-13.5 million annually, including last year’s starter Russell Okung, who trails only Trent Williams as the highest annual salary for a left tackle in the league.
With over $40 million in cap space, the Broncos didn’t really have to be frugal on the open market, so it was clearly a choice for them to not go after top tier left tackles on the free agent market. They made Ronald Leary their top priority, bringing his nastiness and ever-improving play over from the Dallas Cowboys.
On day two, they signed Menelik Watson, the ultra-athletic but oft-injured right tackle from the Oakland Raiders. Watson was drafted in the second round in 2013 with Pro Bowl potential, which he has flashed at times, but has also struggled to say on the field. The Broncos are hoping an elite training staff and the change of scenery can set the stage for his NFL breakthrough.
What’s become clear through the initial wave of free agency is that John Elway and the Broncos’ front office strategically stayed away from high priced tackles, at least for the price they have all signed for, and were okay not overpaying for a position of need.
The answer may already be on the Broncos’ roster. Incumbent starting right tackle Donald Stephenson is projected to slide over and play left tackle with Russell Okung departed, and the Broncos also drafted Ty Sambrailo as a left tackle out of Colorado State in 2015.
Sambrailo is entering his third year in the NFL, and has battled through some really tough injuries. However, entering his rookie season, he was projected to start at right tackle and presumably be the player of the future on that side.
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Unfortunately, Ryan Clady got hurt, forcing Sambrailo to be Peyton Manning’s blind-side blocker in his rookie season. That’s a scary position for anyone, but Sambrailo didn’t play all that bad initially. Then, the injury bug bit him hard.
Since his rookie season, Sambrailo has struggled badly with injuries and it’s affected his ability to stay in shape. Last year, he was more than a liability when inserted into the lineup as the right tackle. It was as though the Broncos were playing with four linemen at times.
But, the Broncos are clearly banking on their own strategy here, one that probably includes Stephenson and Sambrailo moving over to the left side and competing for a starting left tackle spot, along with possibly a rookie that could be drafted in the first three rounds.
The Broncos are going to exhaust all options, but with the first wave of free agency sort of over, the Broncos are left with next to nothing on the free agent market at left tackle. There’s always the chance they could try to trade for a veteran, but the only player that’s really out there is Jason Peters, and the cost could be prohibitive.
If you ask me, it looks like the Broncos are putting their confidence in the new offense and coaching staff running it. Jeff Davidson is the new offensive line coach, and he’s going to be expected to extract the best out of some of these guys. The offensive line in Denver is going to be a multi-year project, not a one-year fix.
The Broncos have a former second round pick on the roster who is still just two years into his NFL career. They signed Donald Stephenson just last year, and still have some type of hope in him.
Even if it’s delusional, the Broncos have to operate with patience on the offensive line, including the chance to draft someone. It’s obvious their strategy was not to spend too much money at left tackle, evidenced by their lack of willingness to pay Russell Okung $12M per year.
John Elway has a plan, and it’s unfolding. Just not how we all thought it might.