2008 Denver Broncos - Breaking Down The Roster #3 - Offensive Line


Nalen's health will be a huge question in '08

Under Mike Shanahan, the Denver Broncos have been known for a couple things. A strong running game and a solid, if a bit too quiet, offensive line. A group that has been synonymous with imposing their will, despite their lack of pure beef up front, the Broncos' O-Line was an area of the football team that fans could hang their hat on. Over the past several years, however, injuries and age have started to take their toll. Let's look at two different areas that are an indication of O-Line performance. Are these hardened rules when it comes to evaluating an O-Line? Of course not, but I like to keep it simple and let you guys and gals decide.

First, we'll look at sacks allowed, and where the team ranked from 2003 through 2007 --

Sacks Allowed --

2003 -- 25 Sacks -- #6
2004 -- 15 Sacks -- #3
2005 -- 23 Sacks -- #3

2006 -- 31 Sacks -- #13
2007 -- 32 Sacks -- #16

The space between 2005 and 2006 indicates the entrance of Jay Cutler at quarterback, and there is no doubt the combination of youth, and Cutler's style as more of a pocket passer than Jake Plummer had a negative effect on the O-Line.  Need proof?  Cutler was sacked 13 times in the 5 games he started in 2006.  Plummer had been sacked 18 times in his 11 starts.  On average that is a sack a game more with Cutler.  In 2007, that number got even worse, though in my opinion this was more attributed to injuries and youth on the O-line as much as it was to Cutler's "never say die" attitude in the pocket.

How about the running game?  The Broncos have seen a dip that that area, too, during the past 5 years --

Rushing Yards --

2003 -- 2629 yards - 164.3 ypg - #2
2004 -- 2333 yards - 145.8 ypg - #4
2005 -- 2539 yards - 158.7 ypg - #2

2006 -- 2152 yards - 134.5 ypg - #8
2007 -- 1957 yards - 122.3 ypg - #9

Again, there was a lot of consistentcy until 2006.  There are a lot of reason for that, but for the sake of keeping it simple other teams simply stacked the line of scrimmage and forced, at first Jake Plummer, then the rookie Jay Cutler, to beat them.  The Broncos defense wasn't very good either, thus the Broncos were forced to play from behind.  But anyone who watched the games will also admit something was definitely missing from the Broncos running game.  While functional, it wasn't dominant.  Make no mistake, while Mike Shanahan likes to create shock and awe with the passing game early, he wants to smash it down a team's throat late.  Unable to do that, the Broncos offense has sputtered, especially in the red zone and short yardage.  The O-line, with age and injury, has been part of the cause. 

The winds of change are blowing through Dove Valley, however, and the Broncos are addressing their O-Line.  High draft picks(Clady and Harris) along with solid free agent acquisitions(Holland) have injected youth and talent.  Will it be enough to make a difference in '08?  Let's take a look at who will need to move the pile....

CENTER

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TOM NALEN (6-3, 286 / 15th Year)

The biggest question facing the O-Line, bigger even than Ryan Clady starting at LT as a rookie, is the health of Tom Nalen.  If Nalen can come back, be healthy, and play at a high level, everything else on the line falls into place.  If Nalen cannot come back, or struggles ala Matt Lepsis in 2007 it could be another long season.  Nalen has been a stalwart on the Broncos offensive line for longer than Mike Shanahan has been coach, but coming off the second season-ending injury of his career, compounded by a knee injury suffered during the off-season, has me leary at best about the long-term prognosis of Denver's center.  

Nalen enters 2008 ranked second in Broncos history in career starts (188) and third in games played (194), totals that both are the most in franchise annals among offensive linemen.  With youth all around him, Nalen will be relied upong to play 16 games at a high level if the offense as a whole is going to improve upon the numbers discussed earlier.  As Nalen goes, so go the Broncos.

2007 Season Notes: Nalen centered a Broncos line that blocked for an offense that ranked sixth in the league in rushing yards per game (138.8) and second in yards per rush (4.8) in the five games he started before being placed on injured reserve on Oct. 9 with a torn right biceps injury... Anchored an offensive line that helped the team average 5.3 yards per rush (171 yards) at Buf. (9/9)... Moved past Tom Jackson (191) into sole possession of third place on the team’s all-time games played list when he took the field vs. Jac. (9/23)... Finished the game vs. S.D. (10/7) despite suffering a torn right biceps injury during the contest that ultimately ended his season.

 

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CASEY WIEGMANN (6-2, 285 / 13th Year)

The Broncos did protect themselves a bit in case Nalen is unable to make it back by bringing in Wiegmann.  While not expected to be a starter, Wiegmann has plenty of experience having played every possible regular season and postseason snap (7,062) since early in 2001 campaign, marking the longest active streak among NFL offensive linemen.  An impressive stat that, should the Broncos stay healthy, will end this fall.  Like the Broncos, Wiegmann's Chiefs had alot of success running the football, and with Wille Roaf and Will Shields, the Chiefs O-Line was considered one of the best in football.

Wiegmann was highly productive in K.C. until Herm Edwards brought a power-based running scheme, moving away from a movement based system that played into Wiegmann's athletic-style of play.  His skills, even at age 34(35 when the season starts) seem to fit what the Broncos do on offense perfectly.  A versatile backup, Wiegmann is solid insurance in case Nalen goes down or is slow out of the gates.  With Chris Myers now in Houston, the Broncos will use Wiegmann to solidify the interior of the O-Line.

2007 Season Notes:   For the sixth consecutive season, Wiegmann started all 16 games at center for Kansas City... Named to the USA Today ‘All-Joe' Team for the sixth year in a row... Started his 100th consecutive game vs. Jac. (10/7).

 

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KORY LICHTENSTEIGER (6-3, 295 / Rookie)

Two centers with a combined 28 years of experience in the NFL means the Broncos need to find an eventual successor to Tom Nalen or Casey Wiegmann.  Enter 2008 4th round draft pick Kory Lichtensteiger, who, on the surface, looks to be the perfect fit heading into the future.  Sure, K-Lich may have played at Bowling Green, but a 4 year starter that was all-conference in the MAC each year means he has a ton of experience and was solid at the college level from Day 1.  In his career at BGSU, K-Lich was credited with allowing only 2.5 sacks and four penalties in his collegiate career according to NFLDraftScout.com while posting the highest blocking consistency (85.6 percent) of any center in the country during his time at Bowling Green.

Like alot of Broncos linemen, K-Lich has experience at guard, playing his first 2 seasons at the position before being moved to center as a Junior in 2006.  When you look at how NFL Draft sites rate K-Lich, you get the sense that he'll fit the Broncos mold perfectly -

"POSTIVE - Super smart with excellent awareness...An outstanding technician...Intense with a great motor...Strong...Plays with terrific leverage...Positions his hands well...A hard worker and leader...Quick and moves his feet well...Nice balance...Versatile

NEGATIVE - Doesn't have the ideal size that you look for...Has short arms...Is not stout at the point of attack...Doesn't get a great push in the run game...Is not overly powerful or dominating...Has trouble recovering when beaten...Upside is most likely limited."

Sounds like several past Broncos linemen.  Not real big, not real powerful, but very smart and excellent athletically.  K-Lich also has that mean-streak that I like to see from linemen.  While K-Lich may not make an impact in 2008, the Broncos have proven in the past they can develop offensive linemen.  Don't forget, the Broncos drafted another solid college center in the 4th round of the 2001 draft and he turned out OK.  Look for Lichtensteiger to be part of the plans in 2009 or '10.

2007 Season NotesLichtensteiger started all 13 games for Bowling Green State at center as a senior and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy (nation’s top center) as well as a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection… Served as team captain for the second consecutive year… Awarded the inaugural Falcon Medal of Honor following the year as the BGSU male athlete who exemplifies the characteristics of scholarship, athletics, service and leadership… Graded out at a career-best 88.1 percent blocking consistency, the top mark among major college centers… Helped the Falcons rank second in the MAC in passing offense (278.9 ypg.).

 

GUARD

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BEN HAMILTON (6-4, 290 / 8th Year)

For those paying attention, it was Ben Hamilton the Broncos drafted with a 4th round pick in 2001.  Hamilton played center at Minnesota and was brought in as the heir-apparent to Nalen who was coming up on free agency.  Nalen stayed and Hamilton became a damn good guard.

Like Nalen, Hamilton comes into 2008 with his own questions after missing all of 2007 after suffering a concussion.   Hamilton has been given a clean bill of health, and he says he feels great.  We won't know for sure, however, until he straps it on for real and get hit in the head a bit.  The best case for the Broncos is both Nalen and Hamilton come back and play at a high level.  If not, the experience factor goes waaaay down.  With Hamilton, Nalen and Wiegmann, the Broncos O-Line, as a group, averages 5 years of experience.  Remove those three, and that number drops to 3 years.

Prior to the injury, Hamilton had started every game from 2002 to 2006, a total of 84 in a row.  That is the Ben Hamilton the Broncos need.  We've seen these things go either way.  Can Hamilton come back or will the concussion-bug re-emerge during camp.  Only time will tell.

2007 Season NotesHamilton did not see any game action with Denver due to concussion symptoms that first occurred during training camp... Declared inactive for the first three games of the season before he was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 29.

 

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MONTRAE HOLLAND (6-2, 322 / 6th Year)

Alot has been made of the free agent moves Shanny has made that have blown up in his face.  Montrae Holland is one we can put in the kick-ass column.  Holland signed with the Broncos without a whole lot of fan-fare, except where MHR was concerned.  In my 2007 Roster Breakdown, I sung the praises of Holland --

"Most good teams build an offensive line from within.  The Broncos are no exception but have no problem bringing in guys who think fit the mold of what the Broncos are trying to do.  Holland fits that bill.  Holland brings a rare combination of size and athleticism to the Broncos, as well as some much needed depth and experience.  

The Broncos have talent, but a lot of it is unproven.  Holland brings some experience to the right side and can fill right in at Right Guard should some of the young guys falter during camp.  After being selected in the 4th Round of the 2003 draft, Holland went on to start 30 games at Right Tackle for the Saints over the next 4 seasons.  Holland also has had NFL experience at the Left Guard position, providing the Broncos with more of that flexibility I keep talking about.  

You can never have too much experience along the offensive line, and with the departure of Cooper Carlisle and George Foster the Broncos needed to add a player with some NFL starting experience.  They succeeded with the addition of Holland.  He will battle hard to get the nod at RG."

Maybe I should play the lottery.  Holland ended up starting all 16 games at right guard and provided stability to the offensive line that was in serious flux.  Blessed with amazing athleticism for a man of his size, Holland seems to be closer to what the Broncos are looking for in the future on the line.  With defensive tackles getting bigger and faster, the o-linemen need to do the same and Holland fits that bill.  Fresh off a new contract, I expect Holland to be a solid member of the Broncos for a long time to come.

2007 Season Notes:  Holland started all 16 games for the first time in his career during his inaugural season with Denver, opening up every contest at the right guard position... Blocked for a Broncos offense that ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per rush (4.6) and ninth in rushing yardage (122.3 ypg.)... Helped Denver become one of four clubs in the league with two 650+yard rushers (Selvin Young-729 yds., Travis Henry-691 yds.)... Started his Broncos debut and blocked for 171 rushing yards on 32 carries (5.3 avg.) at Buf. (9/9)... Part of an offensive line effort that cleared the way for a season-high 223 rushing yards on 36 carries (6.2 avg.) at Ind. (9/30)... Helped the club total 215 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.3 avg.) vs. K.C. (12/9)... Started on a line that cleared the way for 128 rushing yards on 27 carries (4.7 avg.) vs. Min. (12/30), which entered the game with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense.

 

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CHRIS KUPER (6-4, 302 / 3rd)

This is a big year for Chris Kuper.  Kuper started the final 11 games at Left Guard with mixed results.  The Broncos were happy enough with his performance, however, to trade Chris Myers to Houston.  There will be competition, however, with the Broncos signing FA Dylan Gandy after his release by the Indianapolis Colts.  Gandy has a Super Bowl ring and provides solid depth.  With Hamilton back to secure the LG slot, Kuper will have to find a starting spot elsewhere, perhap at Right Tackle.

Kuper had been slated to be the starting Right Guard in 2007 but struggled during training camp, opening the door for Montrae Holland.  Kuper got his second chance, this time on the left side, when Chris Myers was forced to center when Tom Nalen was injured.  Kuper was solid, but I still have questions about his long-term ability to play at a consistent level.  Having Nalen and Hamilton back in uniform will undoubtedly help, but with Gandy in the fold the leash could be short.  His prospects at a starting job look to be the most tenuous of anyone.

2007 Season Notes:  Kuper played on special teams in the Broncos’ first five games of the season before starting the club’s final 11 contests at left guard... Became a starter for Denver’s sixth game of the year in place of Chris Myers, who was forced to move from left guard to center to take over for Tom Nalen when he suffered a season-ending injury... Denver ranked sixth in the NFL in yards per rush (4.4) and 15th in rushing yards per game (114.8) during Kuper’s 11 games as a starter... Made his first pro start at left guard on Sunday Night Football vs. Pit. (10/21)... Contributed to the offensive line clearing the way for 215 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.4 avg.), including 156 yards from rookie Selvin Young, vs. K.C. (12/9)... Blocked for an offense that gained 128 rushing yards on 27 carries (4.7 avg.) vs. Min. (12/30), which entered the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense.

 

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DYLAN GANDY (6-3, 290 / 4th Year)

Dylan Gandy joined the Denver Broncos on May 16, 2008 after being released by the Indianapolis Colts.  Gandy only started on game in 2007 for the Colts after starting 11, including Super Bowl XLI in 2006.   Gandy will bring some competition to the Left Guard situation, battling Chris Kuper for the starting job.

I like the acquisition of Gandy on a number of levels.  Obviously the guy has some talent to start in the NFL, much less for a Super Bowl Champion.  I always say, "Winning begets winning" and that ring is going to look great walking around the Broncos locker room.  Face it, there aren't a lot of players on the Broncos that can show off a serious piece of jewelry, and while seeing a coach with a pair of rings is nice, seeing a fellow player wearing a huge ring is the best form of motivation.

Gandy provides depth and is a fresh face and name on an o-line that grew stagnant with a bunch of guys going no where.  Even if Gandy doesn't start, his special teams experience will be valuable to the Broncos as well.

2007 Season Notes:  Gandy played 10 games (1 start) for Indianapolis... Saw time on special teams in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game vs. S.D. (1/13)... Recorded his only start of the year at Atl. (11/22)... Did not play in three games and was inactive for three others.

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P.J. ALEXANDER (6-4, 297 / 6th Year)

Alexander is entering his 6th season, and is currently in his 2nd stint as a Bronco.  After returning to the Broncos in October, 2007 Alexander was active for 11 games, playing exclusively on special teams.

Alexander's career looked promising until a knee injury suffered during an offseason basketball game in 2005 ended his season.  After being released by the Broncos in 2006, Alexander was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, starting 4 games.  Alexander went to Training Camp with the Falcons in 2007 with high expectations, but failed to make the team and was released on September 1.

Alexander's role with the 2008 Broncos is hazy at best.  In my opinion, the Broncos did a great job addressing the depth of the o-line, both in the draft and in the free agent market.  Alexander's experience at Left Guard, where the Broncos have Chris Kuper and Dylan Gandy.  That will be the battle, Gandy V. Alexander, and to me the experience with the Colts and winning a Super Bowl, coupled with the special teams knowledge, should give Gandy the edge.  Come September 1st, Alexander will probably be looking for a job.

2007 Season Notes:  Alexander saw action on special teams in 11 games for Denver after he was signed as a free agent on Oct. 10... Competed in training camp with Atlanta but was released on Sept. 1.

 

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MITCH ERIKSON (6-6, 290 / Rookie)

I'll be honest, I don't know a whole lot about Erikson so I'll "borrow" from the mothership -

Mitch Erickson is a rookie guard from South Dakota State University who joined the Broncos as a college free agent on April 28, 2008... Started at either guard or tackle in every one of SDSU’s 44 games played during his four seasons (2004-07) at the school... Was a first-team All-Great West Football Conference selection during each of his final three seasons and received first-team All-America honors from the Associated Press as a senior... Also tabbed his team’s offensive Most Valuable Player that year, helping South Dakota State average 34.2 points per game and allow only 12 sacks... Picked up third-team All-America accolades from the Associated Press as a junior and helped the school lead the conference in rushing as a sophomore, earning first-team all-conference accolades that year... Played all 11 games as a true freshman, earning honorable mention All-GWFC honors... Recognized as an all-state and all-metro choice as a senior at Hutchinson High School in Hutchinson, Minn., while twice being named as an all-conference pick... Also lettered in track during his prep career, setting a school record in the discus...

Erikson has good size and seems to fit the Broncos' mold.  A "diamond in the rough", Erikson would be practice team fodder in my book.  The Broncos have made a living with these types of guys, so Erikson's name is one to keep an eye on in the future.

 

TACKLE

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RYAN CLADY (6-6, 325 / Rookie)

IN a lot of ways, the Broncos are banking on Clady in 2008 and beyond.  I think it is safe to say, if the Broncos have a solid year in '08 it means Clady had a good year.  Such is life when you are a rookie playing Left Tackle. 

Despite all the pre-draft talk, it appears that Clady was the target of Shanny and Co. all along.  Clady has tremendous size, and even more impressive is his athleticism at that size.  His footwork  is advanced for someone with his experience and his lateral movement fits what the Broncos do perfectly.  On paper at least.  While in Denver I am going to be fixated on Clady, his footwork, the battles he wins, and more importantly the battles he loses.  How does he respond on the next play after he gets beat, or has a penalty called on him.  There will be failures and I always look at how a lineman reacts on the play after that failure, that is what demonstrates a player's mental toughness, something just as important as physical strength.

In college, Clady was an animal, starting 37 of 39 games, earning all WAC he final two seasons.  As a Junior in 2007 Clady was voted an All-American, starting all 13 games. Clady started at right tackle his freshman season before moving to the left side his final two years.

The list of merits go on and on, and while college success hardly ensures success in the pros, Clady seems to have that "it" that we always hear about.  I am excited about Clady's prospects in 2008 and beyond and look forward to the Boise State Bronco to excorcising the demons of George Foster.

2007 Season Notes:  Clady received first-team All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association and The Sporting News while earning second-team recognition from the Walter Camp Football Foundation as a junior at Boise State… Joined running back Ian Johnson (2006) as one of only two BSU players to earn first-team All-America honors since the school entered Division I-A competition in 1996… Also picked up first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors… Started all 13 games at left tackle… Finished the year with 122 knockdowns, leading the nation’s blockers with 21 touchdown-resulting blocks to grade 85.8 percent… Helped the Broncos rank 12th in the nation in total offense (467.4 ypg.) and fourth in scoring (42.4 ppg.)… Blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt in the second game of the season at Washington (9/8)… Helped the Broncos earn a berth in the Hawaii Bowl.

 

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ERIK PEARS (6-8, 305 / 3rd Year)

Most people have mixed opinions on Pears, but like him or not he is starting to become a valued member of the Broncos' offensive line.  Over the last two seasons, Pears starting 26 of the last 32 Broncos games over 2006 and 2007.  After starting 10 games at Left Tackle in '06, Pears moved over to the right side in '07 starting all 16 games.  Pears will once again open 2008 as the starting Right Tackle and as Training Camp opens I feel good about Pears' prospects of having a solid season.

It is true that Pears is a bit clumsy, but what he lacks in footwork he makes up for in brute strength.  While he uses he size to his advantage at times, Pears could still do a better job getting leverage on opponents as well as keeping opponents from getting inside on him.  These are all issues that young linemen deal with at the NFL level, and I expect Pears to continue to improve.  You can't coach size, and Pears has plenty of that.  Heading into Training Camp, it appears Pears will battle Chris Kuper for the starting RT spot.  I give the edge to experience, which in this case is Pears.

Look for Pears to continue to get better and have a solid season in 2008. 

2007 Season Notes:  Pears, in his second NFL season, started all 16 games at right tackle and helped the Broncos rank fifth in the NFL in yards per rush (4.6) and ninth in rushing yards per game (122.3)... Blocked for five individual 100- yard rushing performances... Started the opener at Buf. (9/9) as Denver totaled season highs in yards (470) and yards per play (6.5)... Part of an offensive effort at Ind. (9/30) that resulted in a season-best 223 rushing yards on 32 carries (6.2 avg.)... Paved the way for 215 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.3 avg.) vs. K.C. (12/9) and 128 rushing yards on 27 carries (4.7 avg.) vs. Min. (12/30), which had the league’s top-ranked rushing defense.

 

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RYAN HARRIS (6-5, 300 / 2nd Year)

Last season's 3rd round draft pick is still an unknown quantity heading into 2008.  When drafted, Harris was the eventual replacement for Matt Lepsis at left tackle.  That all changed when Harris injured his back and missed most of training camp and the early part of 2007.  While Harris was able to get back on the field, mostly on special teams, things were cluttered even more when Lepsis retired after the season. Any doubt was gone with the selection of Clady in the first round.

So what does that all mean for Harris in 2008?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Early on it looks like Harris will be the primary backup to Clady at left tackle, as well as to Pears on the right side.  Harris will have to prove in training camp that he is healthy and can play at the NFL level.  The Broncos seemed high on Harris last season, but as time went on that excitement seemed to wane. 

Harris is another lineman I will have my eyes on heading into 2008.  While he is projected to start the season as a special teamer and backup, chances are the Broncos will need Harris as some point.  Will he be ready??

2007 Season Notes:  Selected by the Broncos in the third round (70th overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft, Harris played primarily on special teams in 11 games (0 starts) as a rookie... Saw time in each of Denver’s final 11 games... Missed most of the preseason and was declared inactive for the first five games of the season after having back surgery... Made his pro debut on Sunday Night Football vs. Pit. (10/21)... Saw his first offensive action at K.C. (11/11), filling in for Erik Pears at right tackle briefly in the first half... Played at left tackle in the season finale vs. Min. (12/30) when Matt Lepsis declared as an eligible receiver.

 

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TYLER POLUMBUS (6-8, 310 / Rookie)

The Broncos always seem to grab a local boy and this year Polumbus is the guy.  Polumbus started 28 games at the University of Colorado after starring at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo.  This wasn't a charity signing, either.  Polumbus was a solid left tackle on the college level, and was the only offensive player for the Buffs to play every snap.  Polumbus earned 2nd Team All Big-12 his Sr. year and allowed only 1 sack all season.

Polumbus is another project that a lot of you are high on.  Again, the Broncos have had good success developing undrafted FA lineman. Polumbus will probably be designated to the practice squad.

 

For one second, imagine an O-line with Polumbus(6-8), Pears(6-8) and Clady(6-6).  Sounds more like the front court for the Nuggets than the o-line for the Broncos.  Things certainly are changing in Denver

Your turn.  What are your thoughts on the O-Line??

 

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