I admit I've been among the skeptics when it comes to the strength of our O-Line as the Broncos approach the preseason.
And if I'm skeptical, it either means there's a lack of information out there to say otherwise, or we're in real trouble. Because when it comes to the Broncos offense, I'm the eternal optimist. It used to be the D that brought out my eternal pessimism, but all the news this offseason (save the soft playing in the scrimmage yesterday) renders that view dead wrong - thankfully!
So the question becomes - Is the fact that we hear more news about our defense dominating than our offense holding them back because Orange Crush 2.0 is just that good, or is there reason to worry about our O-line?
If you watched the Summer Scrimmage yesterday, it was certainly good news for the offensive side of the ball - solid play, several scores.
But it was going up against our second defense. So how good - or not - is the offensive line going to be this year?
Before answering that, one more confession - I'm no offensive line expert and I have no actual OTA/mini camp/training camp viewing to rely on (ok, I guess that was a couple of confessions). But I have read, interviewed and paid attention to those who have paid attention to the little evidence we have so far.
If I were going to "grade" the O-Line so far, I'd go with a solid B-/B - good but plenty of room for improvement and not great enough yet to handle a No. 1 defense. So here's what I've learned, and why I'm not too worried...until I need to be.
Coaching staff isn't worried
Ever since free agency and the draft, many at MHR have been questioning why Fox and John Elway didn't grab a bigger or better offensive lineman sooner. And we've questioned (at least a little) the shift of current O-line personnel after the free agency exit of four-year starting guard Zane Beadles.
But if we've learned anything over the past three years, we should have at least learned to believe in the research, the film review and the evaluation by Elway and the coaching staff for putting together a team that will win now.
And after a week of training camp, Fox was very positive about his offensive line and its attitude going into a new season after a little reshuffling.
Broncos shuffle O-Line after Super Bowl gouging
Attempting to shore up a more powerful offensive line, the Broncos move players.
"I like it. I liked it as soon as they made the change because I have a lot of faith in those guys up front," Fox said. "They're truly competitive. They're the first ones in to the meetings. They understand that everything goes with them and starts with them up front."
And offensive coordinator Adam Gase added on Friday that even though there are days the offense takes a step back, it always comes back the next day and accelerates.
"That is what we are looking to do," Gase said. "As long as we keep moving forward every day a little bit, that is the goal."
OK, so it'd be nice to hear, "They are strong, tough and aren't going to let anyone get to Manning or the running backs."
But having a competitive O-line that understands its importance in the long-term scheme and is making positive strides will be good enough this early.
In seven weeks, let's hope to hear the latter.
Orlando Franklin is looking good at Left Guard
Here, I am deferring mainly to the TC scouting of our fearless leader Kyle Montgomery and super scout Kaptain Kirk, who both confirm what Franklin himself is telling us - he's fine at left guard, a position he hasn't played since his junior year at Miami.
In Kyle's words, "Franklin is looking fine - if not great - at guard."
Franklin is actually bigger than Beadles and has the potential to improve the blocking for our much-anticipated run game with relatively untested running backs. In 2012, No. 74 allowed the fewest sacks out of all linemen who played 16 games.
The fourth-year offensive lineman has the basics down again for his return to guard, and he's just trying to work on little things every day to improve.
"Right now I'm just working on basic little things. I'm working on getting my feet right and getting my hands inside," he added. "You're talking about going up against bigger and thicker guys, so I have to keep on hammering down and working on keeping my hands tight and keeping my hands inside."
Basics are good. He will be fine.
And the Kaptain agrees.
"This was a good move," says Kirk. "Manning is most vulnerable when pressured up the middle. Orlando will fortify Manny Ramirez in order to shore up that area."
Chris Clark is 'not nearly the liability' many think at Right Tackle
That assessment is thanks to CH74, who has scouted Clark some and remembers seeing Clark "straight up own JJ Watt in pass protection."
Consider also that Clark was thrown into arguably the most important position on the O-line last year (responsible for protecting Peyton Manning's blindside), so his learning curve as a tackle increased exponentially.
He should only be better this year and back in a position he is likely more comfortable with. Although several at MHR aren't as high on Clark at RT, I'm willing to defer to the coaching staff on this one, and frankly, anyone who has paid close attention to the offensive line.
With some talented back-ups getting good prep to be ready if necessary - including rookie Michael Schofield - Clark is going to be working hard to keep his position.
"This O-line is very deep, and the depth has some talent. Pass blocking is not the issue with Clark, especially on the right side. If a team wants to put their speed rusher on him, let them and he'll run right over them. I know a little bit about what to look for and I'm not panicking." - CH74
The Kaptain is a little more skeptical, noting that Clark is a "finesse guy" so his strength is in the pass blocking more than run blocking.
"I'm not sure at this point if he will equal Franklin's success at RT, but he definitely won't as a run blocker," Kirk points out. "If the Broncos want to run to the right, they will likely bring Virgil Green in motion or line him up next to Clark. Or run behind Louis Vasquez, which is always a good idea."
Ryan Clady is back - and mostly healthy - at Left Tackle
The excitement by the entire offense and coaching staff about Clady's return following a Lisfranc foot injury in the second game of the 2013 season is well-documented...and well-deserved.
But how Clady is doing after a nearly a year in injury recovery is the big news. Though he admitted this week to still having some pain, he's also said his goal was to be 100 percent by the home opener against the Colts and he's right on track for that.
Andrew Mason noted last week that Clady "has been effective much more often than not, but has allowed some pressure on Peyton Manning from time to time" in the last week. And the Kaptain says Clady is healthy after watching him all last week in training camp.
Clady, himself, sounded realistic and ready.
"I definitely need to improve a little bit - just moving around and adjusting to everything," he said, "but it's feeling a lot better for sure."
But if you really want to know how Clady is doing, ask a defensive end who goes against him in practice - DeMarcus Ware.
"I've seen how hard he worked during the offseason to really get himself back to health," Ware said. "I still see that tenacity that he has and that pop he has always had being able to get around a corner and pass rush."
Vasquez's beard isn't the only impressive thing from the Right Guard
With a lot of focus on the return of Clady, there's not been enough attention on the dominance Vasquez brings to this offensive line. But the 2013 Pro-Bowler has gotten some attention from a running back who knows a thing or two about good O-Lines - Terrell "I should be in the Hall of Fame" Davis.
Speaking to the Denver Post after watching some of the Broncos' training camp practices, Davis says Vasquez is not a typical guard who asks his running back to help him out by running a certain route.
"He seems to be very savvy as a guard. So he's got the game," the 1998 Super Bowl MVP said Wednesday. "What you see is a guy who's technical, a tactician, and the other thing is - you have to have the demeanor of a defensive-minded person, you have to be a nasty dude. And I get that from him."
Davis added that Vasquez is quick in his sets, has strong hands and "the guy just never loses."
Look, if TD is saying that about Vasquez, then I'm getting excited about the leadership and work ethic Vasquez is bringing to the table, er field, his second year with the Broncos.
And it's not just what Davis is saying. Vasquez tells the Post he is not just practicing his moves during practice, on the field, with his guys. He actually imagines game scenarios while he's walking down the street.
"It sounds goofy, but it'll hit me. I'm walking around and I'll stop and do a pass set - boom, boom - making sure the footwork feels right, and I'll say, 'OK, it's still there, feels good,'" Vasquez says. "I'm constantly thinking of scenarios where I might get in trouble, and I'll need to adjust something in my technique."
I love this. Boom, boom.
The O-Line itself sounds confident and ready to play
Remember that 12-year self-imposed silence from the Broncos offensive line? (yeah, the one the NFL mandated an end to in 2007?)
Despite being a member and defender of the media, I always respected that silent oath by the linemen. It didn't seem rude, just pragmatic and humble. I appreciated the motive behind it - it's not about them. The job of the line is to protect the quarterback and make room for the running game.
When you listen to the veterans talk now, you still get a sense of that humility and sense of calling that their job is to protect their leader - but with a bit of an edge.
I like that combo even better. Like TD mentioned, having a little bit of nasty in an O-lineman is a good thing.
But it's still a rare treat to get any media time with the offensive linemen. Receivers and defensive backs are paraded in front of the press all day. When Clady and Franklin get in front of the cameras, take note, because you don't see them often.
And what they're saying exudes confidence that we should all buy into - cautiously, perhaps, but whole-heartedly.
Franklin acknowledges that he had a "rough patch" early in OTAs and mini camp adjusting to left guard again, noting that he has a wider field to worry about now.
"At guard, you pull a lot more than you would pull at tackle but at the same time I think you have to be a lot smarter," he said, adding that sometimes he has to pull on the linebacker or get the Mike or be ready for a defensive end. "There are a lot of different combinations and you're going to pull for a lot of different people. I have to be on top of that."
So what could be the best possible way to prepare for that?
Oh yeah, go up against a top-notch defense every day. A defense with say, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Derek Wolfe? Yep.
"It's great. When I came into this league and I started going against Von Miller every day in practice; it made games so much easier," Franklin said. "With me at guard right now, I'm going against the top talent we have out there and it really helps me out and helps me get better."
The Kaptain also highlighted that defenses are always ahead of offenses at the beginning of training camp because their scheme is "reactionary" rather than one designed to call plays. The offense is still installing its playbook and getting the timing down.
"We should see the offense catch up this week," Kirk says. "But make no mistake, this may be THE best defensive line the Broncos have ever fielded."
Franklin noted that as a guard he has a smaller space to work in plus bigger guys to contend with. "At guard you're fighting in a phone booth...these are 340-350 [pound] guys, so you have to get your hands on them right away."
Part of his offseason work has included building chemistry with Clady.
"It's going well. It's a work in progress, for sure," Clady said. "We've had spring and a few days of camp, but we're definitely getting where we need to be."
Most importantly, Clady believes in Franklin's ability.
"I think he's doing a good job," Clady added. "He's definitely improving. He's going to be a good player, for sure."
Second-year center Manny Ramirez also has good things to say about the improvements in the line.
"I definitely like our progress. We just continue to work together," Ramirez, adding that he also enjoys the challenge of going up against a really tough defense in practice. "It just makes both sides even better."
Perhaps the best assessment is Clady's view that this O-Line is working against the best D-Line he's seen - which only bodes well down the stretch - and that says a lot coming from the three-time Pro-Bowler.
"This is probably the best [defensive] line we've had here since I've been here. They're definitely really good, and they're definitely challenged during practice."
So until there's hard evidence to believe otherwise, I'm putting my pessimism on hold and reverting back to my eternal optimism about this offense ... and assuming that any lack of news about the O-Line dominating is because our revamped defense IS just that good and our offense WILL BE by the start of the regular season.
Feel free to debate...but I can't wait to see what happens this year with arguably still the best offense in the NFL.