Nalen and Lepsis Anchor the O-Line
The Offensive Line for the Denver Broncos has become the stuff of lore. Just listen to the way other players, coaches, TV people talk about the Broncos line. The cut-block became a mainstream term in the American football conscience because of the Broncos O-Line. Add to it the groups long-standing policy of not talking to the media and these guys have taken on a super-human mystique. The problem is, some of these guys are starting to get up there in age and their play on the field has dipped below the gaudy standards set in the late 90's and early in this decade. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however, and the future does indeed look bright starting 2007. The Broncos O-Line is primed to become a dominant force again and help catapult the Broncos offense back into the upper echelon of the NFL.
A change in quarterback is never easy for anyone. The effect on the O-Line is seldom discussed, however, and until Matt Lepsis mentioned it a few weeks ago I have to admit I gave little thought to it as well. The Broncos O-Line struggled a bit last year, especially after the move was made to Jay Cutler. Watch the 49'ers game if you need proof. Lepsis admitted that protecting a player like Jake Plummer is easier because of his escape-ability. Jay Cutler, on the other hand, is more of a pocket passer which by nature puts more pressure on the O-Line to hold their blocks longer. It will be an adjustment all season, but the solid mix of vets and young talent along the front should make the transition a smooth one.
Let's take a look at the big-uglies along the front -
Tom Nalen(6-3, 286) -- Easily the most underrated offensive lineman of this generation, Nalen has been and continues to be the stalwart of the offensive line. Not only was Nalen a 7th Round pick in the 1994 draft, but he was the third 7th Rounder the Broncos chose that year. His 5 Pro Bowl appearances are the most of any Broncos offensive lineman in team history and under his watch the Broncos have rushed for more yards(25,022), more 1000 yard seasons(10) and 100 yard games(82) of any team in the NFL. Nalen has played in 189 out of 207 possible team games, and missed only nine games in his career due to injury. While Nalen's pure blocking ability may be slipping a bit with age he continues to be an above-average anchor in the middle. Nalen figures to be the starting center for the Broncos as long as he'd like to be, yet I look for 2007 to be the final season for Nalen and will enjoy watching him lace them up one more time. Without a doubt, Nalen will one day be honored in the Ring of Fame and should get Hall of Fame consideration after his playing days are done.
Chris Myers(6-4, 300) -- Myers heads into his third NFL season as someone to watch on the Broncos O-Line. After spending time on the Practice Squad in 2005, Myers saw action on Special Teams in the final 9 games of that season, and got on the field in all 16 games in 2006. Myers biggest strength is his versatility, being able to play both guard positions, center and right tackle. Heading into 2007 Myers figures to be Tom Nalen's primary backup, though he will get pushed from behind by Greg Eslinger and Mark Fenton. The Broncos always seem to have a young guy waiting in the wings and Myers, along with Chris Kuper and Erik Pears are the next in that long line. I like Myers for his steady, if not spectacular play, and he should become a solid member of the offensive line in the very near future.
Greg Eslinger(6-3, 290) -- The first thing that strikes me about Eslinger is his similar body build to another late round draft pick from the past, Tom Nalen. Eslinger also followed the path of another Broncos lineman, Ben Hamilton, coming from the University of Minnesota. Eslinger won a host of awards while with the Gophers and started every game of his college career. Eslinger was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2005 as well as the Outland Trophy (Outstanding Interior Lineman) and Rimington Trophy (Outstanding Center) winner. The Broncos placed Eslinger on injured reserve last season but Greg has come back strong in NFL Europa starting all 10 games for the Cologne Centurions. To me Eslinger is the future of the Center position for the Broncos, and at the very least will follow the career path of Hamilton, who was once brought in to replace Tom Nalen yet settled nicely into the Left guard position. A name to watch in 2007 and beyond for the Broncos.
Mark Fenton(6-4, 295) -- Mark Fenton joined the Broncos as an Undrafted Free Agent in May, '07. Fenton starred up the road at the University of Colorado, where he earned honorable mention All-Big 12 from the Associated Press despite being limited to six games due to a fractured fibula. He started the season on the watch lists for the Lombardi Trophy, Outland Trophy and the Dave Rimington Award, presented to the country's top center after being a finalist for the award in 2005. Fenton fractured his fibula after four games, but returned to play the final two contests, including as a starter at Nebraska. Fenton will probably spend the year adjusting to the NFL game on the Practice Squad if he shows he can handle the Pro game, but his talent is unquestioned and Fenton would probably had been drafted if not for his injury.
Ben Hamilton(6-4, 283) -- After being drafted in the 4th Round in the 2000 draft, Ben Hamilton has done nothing but play solid football for the Broncos. Hamilton has started and played in every game for the past 5 years for the Broncos, and after playing Center at the University of Minnesota Hamilton has become a solid contributor at Left Guard. Like Eslinger, Hamilton also spent time in NFL Europa, playing for Berlin in 2002 the same year Hamilton was inserted into the starting lineup. When drafted, Hamilton was considered to be the greatest center ever to play for the Gophers and many of his benchmarks were overtaken by Eslinger. Every successful team has guys like Hamilton, and like many of his linemates Hamilton has the flexibility to play nearly every position on the line. While I think his future with the Broncos is at Guard, his ability to play Center, which he has done in the past for the Broncos, makes him an invaluable member of the team. The best way to describe Hamilton is as a solid, consistent force on the O-Line.
Montrae Holland(6-2, 322) -- 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 Right Guard.
Chris Kuper(6-4, 302) -- Kuper is the one young guy that keeps getting a lot attention from coaches and fans alike. Chris is an impressive looking athlete with a thick chest, broad shoulders, excellent arm length and the quickness to consistently get into the second level as a drive blocker. A three-year starter in college, Kuper is the consummate team player, sacrificing personal success for that of the team. After starting 29 consecutive games at right offensive guard at North Dakota, Kuper switched to left offensive tackle midway through his final campaign. It proves, once again, that the Broncos prefer team first guys that can play multiple positions along the front. Right now, Kuper will be given the first shot at the starting Right Guard position, with Holland waiting in the wings if Kuper proves he isn't quite ready for primetime. There is a lot of excitement surrounding Kuper, but until he gets on the field and proves he can do it there will be questions. There is no doubting his size, and it appears he has the athletic ability to start in the NFL, but it remains to be seen if he can be consistent on a team whose aspirations are the Super Bowl. I for one think he'll be the next in a long line of solid Offensive linemen Mike Shanahan has plugged ouot of no-where.
Matt Lepsis(6-4, 290) -- The biggest question heading into the 2007 season, and it is a BIG question, is the health of Matt Lepsis, a stalwart at the Left Tackle position until suffering a knee injury against the Browns last season. Before the injury, Lepsis had started at Left Tackle for every game since the start of the 2004 season. Before then, Lepsis was the starting Right Tackle, missing only one game in 5 seasons starting in 1999. If Lepsis comes back healthy and plays at his pre-injury level the rest of the Broncos line falls nicely into place. If not, the Broncos may be forced to shuffle the deck a bit. All indications this off-season are that Lepsis is on pace to return, but anytime you have a lineman, with 10 years in the league, trying to come of a knee surgery you have to be a bit concerned. Lepsis has been a solid contributor for the Broncos since coming into the League as an undrafted Free Agent in 1997 and is one of the few remaining members of the team that were on the roster for the 2 Super Bowl Titles. I certainly hope Lepsis comes back strong, but feel better should he not because of the experience of the next guy on this list....
Erik Pears(6-8, 305) -- There is no other way to describe Pears other than to say he is a physical specimen. At 6-8, Pears is one of the larger men to grace an NFL sideline at any position. His wide wingspan make it very difficult for defenders to get around him, and Pears uses his size to his advantage, getting leverage and essentially laying down on pass rushers. Another in a long line of undrafted free agents on the O-Line, Pears was forced into action after the injury to Lepsis. Starting at Left Tackle can be intimidating enough for any player, let alone a guy who is essentially a rookie, but Pears' play was solid and the Broncos didn't really suffer that much from Pears being in there. A positive result of the Lepsis injury was the experience Pears was able to accrue and should a similar situation arise this season Pears should easily step in and perform. The Broncos seem to have found their Left Tackle of the future, it just depends how soon that future begins.
Adam Meadows(6-5, 290) -- After spending two years out of football, Meadows returned last season after signing with the Broncos. His season, to say the least, was a bit of a roller coaster, which was expected seeing how long Meadows was out of the game. Meadows was essentially inactive for the first 10 games of the season before starting at Right Tackle against the raiders on 11/12/06, replacing George Foster. Meadows injured his hamstring against the Chiefs and didn't play in another game the rest of the season. This figures to be an interesting training camp for Meadows, who, in my opinion, needs to prove he can stay healthy and be a contributing member of the team. I do like his experience, which some of the youth on the line desperately needs, but I also would prefer to see that youth get some experience and feel some of these guys are ready to produce. Right now Meadows seems to be penciled in as the starter at Right Tackle, but there are guys that can play on the right side that might push Meadows, especially if he gets dinged early in camp.
Ryan Harris(6-5, 292) -- Selected in the 3rd Round of the 2007 Draft, Ryan Harris injects even more youth into the Broncos O-Line. Playing at a big-time football powerhouse in college, Harris started at Tackle all four years at Notre Dame, starting 45 straight game for the Irish. Harris was twice named Notre Dame's O-Lineman of the Year, and was only the 3rd true-freshman starter in Notre Dame history in 2003. The scouting reports on Harris were mixed, however, hurting his draft stock. On the plus side, Harris is very athletic, with good quickness and agility. Harris is mobile, with good range and can get to the second level. Obviously Harris has a ton of starting experience at the college level playing against elite competition. Some of the negatives about Harris may not be such a bad thing playing for the Broncos - Harris doesn't have the ideal bulk, and may not be a strong as needed. The Broncos don't want their linemen to be big and bulky and Harris has the athleticism to fit the Broncos mold. Any player who plays as much as Harris did in college will get picked apart and I have a feeling that Harris could be a steal for the Broncos in the 3rd Round. Harris was going against NFL talent week in and week out and held his own. Possibly the most game-ready rookie the Broncos have Harris figures to battle for playing time on the right side with Adam Meadows. I really like Harris' prospects in the future.
Jacob Rogers(6-6, 312) -- Jacob Rogers (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) is a third-year tackle who most recently spent the 2005 season on injured reserve with Dallas. Selected by the Cowboys in the second round (52nd overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft from the University of Southern California, Rogers played two games (0 starts) as a rookie with the club. He was a consensus All-American as a senior at USC, where he was a three-year starter. Rogers was a first-team All-Pacific-10 Conference selection as a senior and received the conference's Morris Trophy as its top offensive lineman. Rogers is an interesting project player who was highly touted coming out of college. If he can come back healthy Rogers could become a viable option in the future.
My Proposed Depth Chart --
Of course, we'll assume everyone is healthy and ready to go....
RT - 1. Adam Meadows 2. Ryan Harris/Erik Pears
RG - 1. Chris Kuper 2. Montrae Holland
C -- 1. Tom Nalen 2. Chris Myers 3. Greg Eslinger
LG - 1. Ben Hamilton 2. Montrae Holland
LT - 1. Matt Lepsis 2. Erik Pears/Ryan Harris
My Shocker --
It wouldn't be a huge shock to me, but Ryan Harris could supplant Meadows at Right Tackle. I know, I know, rookies rarely play for the Broncos O-Line, but what is great about Mike Shanahan is he isn't afraid to play rookies. The best guys are going to play, period. I should clarify this by saying that I think Erik Pears could also get the start at RT, but then there is a huge hole at LT should Matt Lepsis struggle in his return. Just something to think about....
The hard thing about the Broncos depth chart is there are a lot of guys that could play multiple positions. That means you could see a guy like Chris Myers, currently the backup to Tom Nalen at Center, move out to Guard ala Ben Hamilton six years ago. If Myers is one of the best linemen on the team the Broncos will find a place for him. If there is one group worth watching this training camp it is the O-Line. The Broncos have a nice mix of old and new, and some of these new guys need to get some work at some time. Could that time be now??
The Broncos are likely to keep 9 or 10 Offensive Lineman. If Adam Meadows gets hurt early in camp he might be a casualty come September. The Broncos are likely to stash at least one guy on their Practice Squad. That's where Mark Fenton will likely end up. One name to watch is Jacob Rogers. Just remember I said it.
Time for your feedback!! Next up, the Defensive End position.