If you listen very closely you might hear, at a distance, a faint, almost imperceptible sound.
In the wake of resigning C Casey Wiegmann to a two-year, five-and-a-half million-dollar contract, one could be forgiven for suspecting that this sound is the dismay and despair of defensive lines throughout the league who must now contest with what is arguably one of the strongest, most coherent and most productive offensive line units in the NFL. Within that unit, no group works together more closely, or relies on each other as much as the guards and centers.
Casey's return, combined with the returns of LG Ben Hamilton and RG Chris Kuper, would do well to inspire a certain level of despondency in Denver's 2009 opponents, as it was an interior unit which ranked 1st overall in ALY (Adjusted Line Yardage), and 5th overall in ALY solely in the cramped spaces between the right and left guards. When one factors in the added emphasis on pulling guards that is a hallmark of the McDaniels offense (ranked 2nd overall ahead of Denver for guard-to-guard ALY in 2008), and the addition of multiple blue-chip RBs to the stable, the Denver rushing attack should indeed be fearsome.
But the sound that can be heard on the edges of training camps around the league are not the wails and moans of teams who fear having to do battle with such a proven unit. This is the NFL. What the sound portends is the approaching storm. A league full of defensive lines who desire nothing less than to tear apart this line's reputation and cast it down to the perceived depths of incompetence that the rest of the team is rumored to have reached. They will believe, fully, that annihilating Denver at the point of attack will reduce the Broncos to an afterthought that can be easily tossed aside. These defenses have made up their minds to do battle, and they will be focused, louder, more terrible, less relenting. Like Northerlies they will blow in every week, where they must be rebuffed by Denver's varied, complex schemes, swift, repeated blows and confusing attacks which resemble withdrawals.
But even early success against such hordes won't be enviable. The opponents will bristle with hostility at every loss, as if upset by human intelligence, and the attack will be renewed again.
This will be a season of such storms, and the guards and centers are the prow of the ship that Denver must steer steadfastly into them...
One year removed from a season-long absence due to post-concussion syndrome, Ben Hamilton saw his reputation take a bit of a hit in 2008. Of course, he was still elite, but perhaps the expectation was that, as the longest-tenured member of the Broncos line, he should also be its best member. As it stood, he gave up the most sacks and was flagged for the most penalties, and in a way seemed to be the weak link. Yet, as noted above, the line still managed to clock in as one the finest units in the league, in every measurable statistic.
Maybe he really wasn't that bad?
He certainly has to be looking forward to his contract year, especially in conjunction with his run of good health and the line talent that has been amassed around him. He has been nothing less than a pro's pro, beginning with his first season starting for Denver, where he played both center and guard, covering for an injury to Tom Nalen. He also has been exceptionally durable, and except for the 2007 season (a case where toughness is trumped only by long-term concern and care taken for the unknowns involved in post-concussion symptoms) has yet to miss a start in any game the Broncos have played since he was promoted to the active roster after a stint in NFL Europe.
Of interest is that since the final game of the 2003 regular season, Hamilton has yet to log any more snaps at center. With the accrued depth at center over the last two seasons, there is a developing chance that Hamilton may not be the first name called upon if Wiegmann were to go down with an injury (though it is likely he would be the second name called up.)
Hamilton's leadership on the line, too, should not be overlooked; with a contingent of new, young guards behind him, it is imperative to hang onto the veteran player in order to smooth their transition into the Bronco's complex scheme. Next year, Hamilton's story should be quite interesting in the offseason; but for now, it's steady as she goes.
With the restructured contract handled with significant professionalism, Casey Wiegmann looks to continue his streak of 8,046
consecutive offensive snaps (tops among offensive linemen). He is nothing if he is not durable, and as his battle with Kris Jenkins
will attest to, he is playing with as much savvy and intensity as could be asked for from a 34-year-old lineman.
When a soul refuses to yield to the weaknesses of the body, it is a source of immense power, and Wiegmann has certainly learned how to tap that, regaining in tenacity what he loses in vigor. But he also benefits greatly from his natural physicality, as a smaller lineman with good girth and strength, which allows him to move fluidly and easily within the confines of his area of work, which goes part and parcel with the demands placed on the center in an offense which features pulling guards (as it is usually the center who must execute the athletic 'trap' part of the block). He was well suited to a pure zone-blocking scheme, but he is eminently suited to the new wrinkles that McDaniels has brought into town for this offense, including being an above-average snapper in the shotgun.
With his experience doing the line calls, and spearheading multiple league-leading rushing and passing offenses (2003, 2006 and 2008) the offense is in completely capable hands with Wiegmann.
Chris Kuper is what I would consider an almost-ideal starting guard for Denver's system. Big and athletic, very strong and terrifically balanced only begin to describe Kuper. He is also versatile, having started his career with Denver on the left side subbing for Chris Myers
(who had been subbing for Hamilton in 2007), before moving over to the right side to replace Montrae Holland
. In both instances, he made the most of his opportunities, and can be counted on as a player who rises to meet expectations. He also slid over to left tackle during his senior year in college, and showed that in addition to being a sound technician as a guard he could also show the athleticism and awareness to adequately man the pass-protection schemes. He isn't likely to see any snaps at center.
Since coming to Denver he has improved significantly in one particular category: reach blocks. Early in his career he would extend too far when blocking away on reach blocks or when moving to the second level, and while his athleticism and quickness still made him a force against the linebackers, he has since learned to use his long arms (a major asset) to get into his blocks under control, where he can use his strength to redirect. He is also an excellent pulling and trapping guard, who will be perfect for the new offense, and he strengthens any interior unit that he is a part of with his ability to switch off and onto blocks during defensive stunts and blitzes, a combination of intelligence and quickness. He makes his center's job easier by a large margin.
In addition, he is durable and exceptionally tough, maintaining a starting streak by playing with a broken hand last year that looked like a side of ham strapped to his wrist. Depsite the injury there was simply no noticeable dropoff in his play. He is the type of player that refuses to be the weak link.
There can be an expectation that the Denver line will fall a bit short of the elevated level of play last year, due to both the schedule and the idea that teams will be gunning for them. However, I think that Kuper, being in his prime and entering a contract year, has the goods to be even better than last year, and will catch on around the league as one of the premier free agents at guard in 2010. Denver should be in the top two or three teams in the league when running off his flanks. Like with Hamilton, 2010 will be another story, especially during the offseason; but for now, we are exceptionally solid.
Kory Lichtensteiger is a player who is used to being the best: best lineman on his high school team, then district, then division, then college, and most recently the Rimington Award winner in 2008 for the nation's best collegiate center.
After seeing action in every game as a rookie, Kory doesn't look to be slowing down or tailing off anytime soon, having logged special teams contributions in all 16 games of 2008, while lining up as an H-back on numerous goal-line formations, most of which were scoring plays.
Looking forward, the first thing you see is his ideal somatotype for center: squat, stocky, long arms, thick upper body and strong lower body. His quickness makes him highly effective in tight spaces, and his intelligence (awarded the Falcon Medal of Honor, which is given to a player that exemplifies sportsmanship and scholarship) makes him a consistent contributor in terms of properly reading and making line calls. He made a name for himself in college by leading the NCAA's centers in sustained blocks, which is a measure of tenacity, strength and will. He finished first in this category in 2008 by a wide margin.
He did primarily shotgun snapping at BGSU, and it was all quality work, which fits well with the expected offensive scheme. It remains to be seen how prepared he has been for the classic under-center exchange, but as it is a function of hand quickness, it can be expected that he will adapt and perform well in this area, as he shows excellent hand quickness and placement on reach blocks and when locking up the body of the defender.
His versatility is the opposite of Chris Kuper's, being as he is eminently suited for interior blocking. As a guard he registered 184 knockdowns in his first two years at BGSU, mostly on pulls and traps; so again, he seems to be a perfect fit going forward. He is not quite the quick lateral mover that Kuper is, and so it is expected that Kory will not see time subbing on the outside, and also that he will likely have a learning curve in pass protection slightly behind his run blocking.
Lichtensteiger is an excellent prospect to have in the wings who will be ready to contribute as a starter sooner than later.
Before you say roster fodder
, consider his unique brand of versatility. He played DT at Colorado, and logged snaps there for both St. Louis and the Jets
before a knee injury landed him on two different versions of IR in two years (due to NFL Europe rules at the time).
In an effort to stick on a roster, McChesney went through a position switch to OG, where he has noted that his intensity and aggressiveness, while helpful, have needed to be dialed back, a task which has taken up most of his learning curve since the switch in early 2007, but which has improved enough to get him a look from 2008 Miami Dolphins
architect Bill Parcells.
But most of his learning curve was taken up by figuring out how to deal with the loss of his little brother, who died in an accident on the Roaring Fork River
. Those kinds of events change people, and McChesney is no different. By going back to his roots (he dreamed of someday playing for the Denver Broncos when he was a kid in the South Stands screaming his lungs out for them) and being close to his family, he hopes to break onto a roster where there is already top talent and very little room for error.
Described as "tough and smart," he seems to fit the general mold of players that McX are looking for, and might make his dream come true in 2009's Training Camp.
After leading SDSU to a Great West title, Mitch Erickson made it to Denver's practice squad where he is working on adding bulk and improving his balance. With the five starters well established and over ten backups vying for spots on the line, he will need to show that he spent 2008 picking up on all the little things.
His flexibility is of the guard-to-tackle variety, where he logged starts in all 44 of his career college games. At his height and weight, he seems better suited to back up LG, or moving out to back up the RT position. In the 2008 training camp he got most of his reps at RT, and is quite similar to former Bronco Eric Pears, in both build and playing style, with some of the same shortcomings.
My gut says that while Mitch probably has the right attitude, and is a tough player, he may a bit too much of the Shanahan mold. I would expect him to have a very difficult time making this roster.
A better physical specimen in terms of what McX are looking for in a lineman, everything about Pat Murray indicates that he is at best an ideal candidate for the practice squad. His best attribute is his "jack of all trades" versatility, having logged most of his experience at RT in college, yet seeing extensive practice reps at both guard and center while in Green Bay and Seattle.
In general, his playing style and college play isn't ideally suited to the offensive scheme (it is more of a drive-blocking style) but there is no doubt that his versatility makes him a boon in practice and training camp in order to field 2nd- and 3rd-team lines in order to run drills.
But eventually those drills become pregame practices, and somewhere in that transition Murray usually gets lost. With the severity of the numbers crunch coming up for the interior linemen, Murray will need one heck of an opportunity to arise even to scratch back into the practice squad. Could quite likely be the first offensive lineman cut.
Seth Olsen is one of those naturally "big" linemen, the kind with the good bone girth as opposed to being just 'weighty', and he is well balanced in that area, having good strength in both his lower and upper body. He excels at using his hands, and his hand technique is the strongest part of his game. Intelligent, tough and resourceful, he was also trained in the art of zone blocking at Iowa, and so has an advantage in that department.
However, his second-level play is an order of magnitude below where it needs to be to compete with the current veteran guards, his most likely position. He will need to work on regaining leverage at the second level instead of leaving his feet to make a block, or extending out of control and thereby lunging past defenders. If he can bring that element of his game in line, his hand play should take care of the rest.
In a way, Olsen is a significant departure from the traditional "Shanahan" offensive lineman, and I see him as very much the product of the new scheme and philosophy ideas that McDaniels holds, so adjusting to Olsen's skill set may take a little while. Olsen is not the quickest player, and does not have the best lateral agility, something which was prized under Shanahan, and Olsen could even be accused of "trudging", something I haven't seen in the starting lineup since George Foster
But he is a smart, tough technician with an aggressive mean streak and the versatility to man both RG and RT, and even has experience at LT and LG. Ideally a right guard, he has the natural physical makeup to be the lead candidate for the first backup G/T combo player (with Kory being the first G/C combo), as he has the natural girth and trained leverage to effectively "sit down" in pass protection, a major boon when having to be inserted in case of injury to a starter.
Olsen has significant improvements to make to be a starter-quality player, but the backup job appears to be his to lose.
Denver's final pick in the 2009 draft, some immediately questioned whether Lichtensteiger had a future in Denver. Don't. Schlueter is an excellent find and a terrific opportunity to insure both the guard and center position, with a tenacious, mean and intelligent player.
He is a good size already to man the center position, but his body type is a bit different from Wiegmann (though similar to Hamilton) so he may need to add some bulk in order to play at Casey's level in the middle, and to anchor effectively in pass blocking.
Where Schlueter really impresses is his potential for special teams. You've seen it before, but here are his pro day numbers:
|40 yard dash
|20 yard dash
|10 yard dash
|225lb bench reps
|20 yard shuttle
|3 cone drill
This is an exceptionally athletic, and more importantly, driven young man. He is a wild card that will make it difficult for the coaches to settle on the eventual active roster, but with McDaniels' deep respect for the role of special teams, it seems quite likely that Schlueter will be part of the active gameday 45-man roster, which means he is putting significant pressure on backups like Murray, Erickson and McChesney.
If Schlueter can maintain his drive right through training camp, than just like his pro day, he will be impossible to ignore.
2009 looks to feature as strong a group of interior lineman as Denver could hope for in an offseason of significant tumult. The starting trio of Kuper, Wiegmann, and Hamilton have the combination of experience, talent and camaraderie that will keep the unit playing at a high level, while backups such as Olsen and Lichtensteiger give the starting offense confidence that the wheels will stay on in the event of injury. Players like McChesney and Schlueter will drive the above group even harder, and the additions of Murray and Erickson should keep the entire unit running smoothly throughout training camp, perhaps earning themselves a future look.
But when the leaves begin to fall, there will likely only be ten total linemen kept, including tackles, and only seven will be expected to be activated for game day. With players like Schlueter too talented to keep off of the special teams roster, and players like Licthensteiger (also a special teamer) too critical to risk leaving off the game day roster in the event of injury, good players like Olsen may find themselves in a tragic numbers crunch, which at best may keep them off the active roster, at worst may put them in danger of having to clear waivers just to make the PS, and even then they won't be completely safe.
One drawback to solid team-building philosophies are the roster limits and their unsympathetic treatment of excellent depth at a position. And with a major free agency period for Hamilton and Kuper coming up in 2010 these roster decisions will end up having far-reaching consequences. They have to be made with utmost care.
The battle from within can be as critical as the battle without, and the coming storm demands proper choices now. Forces amass against this unit, waiting for the smallest weakness to show up.
It has been said that Wind is all winds, Force is all force. The whole of that horde is now coming.
On one side, that legion.
And on the other?
We must be shrewd.