Denver Broncos must find a permanent solution at right tackle

The Denver Broncos have to find a permanent solution at the right tackle position. Menelik Watson recently headed to injured reserve…

The Denver Broncos didn’t have their permanent solution at right tackle to begin the 2017 season, but the recent placement of Menelik Watson on injured reserve is the final nail in the coffin; the position has to be a major area of focus this offseason.

The right tackle position is not a position of weakness due to lack of effort in upgrading it. There have been plenty of scouting and player development issues in addition to talent issues.

Let’s take a look at how we got here…

When John Elway took the team over in 2011, he identified the right tackle position as an area of weakness, and used a second round draft pick on Miami’s Orlando Franklin.

Side note: This pick really set the tone for what Elway and his front office like in offensive line prospects. Heavy handed, strong, bullish, not the ‘dancing bear’ type, susceptible to speed off the edge, tweener guard/tackle…

Franklin was an immediate starter on the 2011 Broncos, which came as no surprise. He was drafted to be a starter in one way or another. That unit included left tackle Ryan Clady, who was still playing at an elite level at that point in time.

The Broncos would seemingly have their bookend tackles for years to come, as Franklin surpassed expectations of draft experts and those who had projected him as a guard only in the NFL.

With Clady at the age of 27 and Franklin 26 going into the Broncos’ incredible 2013 season, it appeared the offensive line was a non-issue for the Broncos at least as it dealt with the tackle positions. Franklin wasn’t as good as Clady on the right side, but he held his own and proved himself as a powerful run blocker, while improving every year in pass protection.

A devastating Lisfranc injury ended Clady’s 2013 campaign after two games. Clady hadn’t missed a ton of time on the field up until that point, despite suffering an offseason knee injury to his patellar tendon earlier in his career.

Clady’s injury in 2013 forced the Broncos do to some reshuffling to their offensive line in 2014, where the problems really started to add up.

Louis Vasquez, a Pro Bowl guard with the Broncos, was forced to play right tackle while Orlando Franklin moved over to the left guard spot. Clady wasn’t playing at nearly the same level he was in 2012 and early on in 2013, despite starting all 16 games in 2014.

This was, effectively, the beginning of the end as we now know it for the Broncos at right tackle.

In 2015, the Broncos lost Orlando Franklin to free agency. Franklin left for the (then) San Diego Chargers, and the Broncos simply couldn’t justify paying him what he was asking for.

In addition to losing Franklin in free agency, the Broncos lost Ryan Clady to a season-ending knee injury before the 2015 season even started.

Ty Sambrailo, who was drafted to essentially be the ‘next’ Orlando Franklin on the right side along with Clady, was forced to move to the left tackle spot after Clady’s injury. As luck would have it, Sambrailo also was lost to injured reserve after just a handful of regular season games.

It was a devastating season for the Broncos in terms of injuries along the offensive line, so much so that they ended up with a tackle combination of Ryan Harris at left tackle and Michael Schofield at the right tackle spot.

Clady’s injuries had added up to the point that he couldn’t play anymore. Ryan Harris left in free agency after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, along with fellow offensive line starters Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez.

Elway went out in the 2016 offseason and his first move was to add Donald Stephenson at the right tackle position. Stephenson fit the profile of what the Broncos have always looked for in tackles, which again is a big, strong athlete that is a little flat-footed but powerful and at least having some potential.

Stephenson was once thought of as a high-upside prospect out of Oklahoma, but hadn’t been able to stay on the field whether for injury or inconsistency in his play.

After an extremely poor 2016 from Stephenson, the Broncos fell into the same trap the next offseason, signing Menelik Watson to an even bigger contract than the one they gave to Stephenson.

Watson fit the same profile as a guy with high potential, but potential that hadn’t yet been realized because of injury and inconsistency.

We’ve seen how that has played out.

Elway has received a ton of criticism for his handling of the tackle position, and rightly so. The fact of the matter is, the Broncos’ right tackle position is in a shambles despite almost annual attempts at fixing it since 2014.

The Broncos felt like they had a combination that would still be together today when Elway started out with both Ryan Clady and second round pick Orlando Franklin in 2011. He signed Clady to a lucrative extension in 2013 after franchise tagging him, and Franklin was a high second round draft choice in Elway’s first class.

Problem solved, right?

Well…

Despite Elway’s numerous investments, both in the draft and free agency, the Broncos have been unable to find the right combination at the tackle positions, which is why the team spent its first round pick this past year on Garett Bolles, who looks like he can be part of the long-term solution so far.

With one piece in place with Bolles, the Broncos are now one more piece away from having a competent pair of tackles for the foreseeable future. The time for Elway to rectify that situation once and for all is rapidly approaching.

Since the Broncos have gone 12-12 following their Super Bowl win, Elway has received a lot of flak for how the team is/was constructed. Offensively, there’s no denying that he has been sub-par when it comes to drafting. In fact, Elway has not hit on many of his offensive picks. But with that being said, look at the investments he’s made at the tackle position alone since 2011, and at least acknowledge the effort has been there.

2011: Drafted Orlando Franklin (2nd round, 46th overall)
2013: Franchise tag applied to Ryan Clady (March); Long-term extension (July)
2014: Drafted Michael Schofield (3rd round, 95th overall)
2015: Drafted Ty Sambrailo (2nd round, 59th overall)
2016: Signed Donald Stephenson (Three years, $14M)
2017: Signed Menelik Watson (Three-years, $18.375M); Drafted Garett Bolles (1st round, 20th overall)

The Broncos had also been this close to pulling off a trade for Joe Thomas during the 2015 season, but couldn’t agree completely to terms on the deal.

It’s easy to criticize John Elway for the players he’s brought in. The talent is simply not there, and the approach in scouting players who fit this team has to be adjusted significantly.

Elway has tried virtually everything to correct the offensive line, investing a first round draft pick, two second round draft picks, a third round draft pick, and three big contracts in the position.

It just hasn’t worked out, and such is life in the NFL.

Elway will have the opportunity this offseason to go back to the drawing board with a key piece in place at left tackle in Garett Bolles. The right tackle spot, however, remains an unresolved issue.

It’s not easy to find good help at tackle in the NFL, but the profile and type of player the Broncos have targeted historically in Elway’s reign also doesn’t really help things. They need to adjust their approach, and rectify this problem quickly.