I know you all were afraid that CH74 had started his offseason a little early just like the Broncos. But not to worry, he has another post for this season, and it will have you salivating for August because it's all about talking next season's offensive line.
And what could be better than talking the future, right? After all, who's still talking about this season besides cheaters?
We've got a new coach who bleeds orange and blue, has a history of improving the offensive line and is excited about being back home. If all goes as planned, that should make next year's starting quarterback - as well as CH74 and all of us - rest a little easier.
"He's a tremendous offensive mind, and he's become a tremendous leader." - Elway on Kubiak's strengths. pic.twitter.com/AiHPc3rrZa
— Laurie Volkmann (@docllv) January 20, 2015
Welcome Back, Zone Blocking?
With the hiring of Gary Kubiak, a lot of the Broncos faithful have been welcoming back the zone blocking system made famous by Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan in the mid-to-late 90s.
But if you are just now welcoming back zone blocking, you are a little late to the party! Zone blocking has been a big part of what the Denver Broncos have been doing on offense since 2011. In fact, zone blocking has been a part of the offense over the last 19 years. Except for a brief period of time under embattled Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, zone blocking has been the bread and butter in the Broncos' running game since the system's heyday under Shanny and then-OC Kubiak.
ZBS has evolved over the years. Stricter rules on cut blocking and leg whipping have prompted some changes. In the zone schemes we see now, there is often a mix of zone and man concepts. The system I have grown accustomed to seeing the Broncos run over this past season used both man and zone concepts when blocking in the run game, with zone blocking being the predominant flavor.
Let's take a deeper look at what makes the system go and who on the Broncos fit the scheme:
How the System Works via Alex Gibbs Cut-Ups (Warning: harsh language!)
The beauty of the zone blocking scheme is simplicity. In a man blocking system, the blocking rules change dependent on the front of the defense. In the zone system, an offensive lineman is only concerned with whether he is covered or uncovered by a defender. The play-side tandem block, which is another way of describing the play-side double team, is what makes the system go.
Continuity and communication are paramount because one of the blockers in the tandem will be responsible for peeling off and blocking at the second level. Cut blocking was once a staple of the system but has grown out of fashion due to the tightening of rules on cut blocking.
Gibbs talks about the rule changes in the cut-ups above. What was once considered a legal block will now be called clipping. That rule change took some of the bite out of the old system, thus we see a hybrid of both man and zone blocking schemes.
Brute force is not as desirable in a zone blocking lineman as sound footwork, but strength is still a factor. The goal is to get the defensive front moving laterally and peeling off to the second level at the right time to open up a crease for the runner to exploit and pick up yardage.
In a man system, the designed lane is predetermined, but in a zone system, it's up to the back to read and find the best lane or the soft spot on each particular play. A back with good balance and vision can excel in this system.
The optimal QB for the system has to have a little mobility to open up the entire playbook. The ability for the QB to rollout and run with the football helps to freeze the backside safety and take a defender out of the mix. This can also be accomplished by using a two-back set and misdirection.
Who Fits the System?
Currently, the Broncos have a mix of offensive linemen, but they have all shown an ability to zone block in the run game with differing degrees of success. With the evolution of the system, the prototype zone lineman is not as relevant as it was when Gibbs was coaching the offensive line.
In today's game, a 320-pound mauler can still be a zone blocker if he is athletic enough. Subsequently, a 300-pound lineman with club feet might not be a good fit. Let's look at which players the Broncos have under contract for 2015 and how well they would fit the zone blocking system employed by the Broncos' new head coach.
Ryan Clady: Clady has been known for having solid footwork. He was drafted into the zone blocking system employed by Shanahan in 2008. At 6'6" and 315, Clady is definitely a good fit for Kubiak's system. Hopefully he can return to the dominating blind-side blocker we all know and love!
Manny Ramirez: Ramirez is a brawler at 320 pounds, but his footwork isn't as sharp as it could be. ManRam was the weak link on the offensive line down the stretch. He can zone block, but it isn't the optimal situation for him. Manny's biggest flaw was getting to the second level in the run game. That won't cut it in a zone system under Kubiak. One drawback to cutting Ramirez loose - the only other player currently on the roster with experience at center is Matt Paradis, a rookie who spent 2014 on the practice squad. Look for the Broncos to draft a center that will fit the system in the early rounds.
Louis Vasquez: At 6'5" and 335, Big Lou isn't your prototypical zone blocker, but he had good enough footwork to fill in at tackle. I think the Broncos will have to find a way to make it work with Vasquez. Putting Lou back inside is a must for the Broncos and Vasquez in 2015.
Chris Clark: Chris Clark is a good fit for a zone system with his 6'5" 305-pound frame. The one aspect of Clark's game that has always stood out is his footwork and that is a big plus. I know a lot of Broncos faithful aren't very high on Clark, but the truth is, we'll probably never know all the reasons behind his benching. Clark is still under contract and will more than likely stick with the team. He's on a relatively cheap deal, and he has starting experience.
Michael Schofield: Schofield was drafted in the third round. That is relatively high for an offensive lineman, so he will definitely factor into the Broncos future plans, even though he was a game-day inactive for the entire 2014 season. Only weighing in at around 301 pounds, Schofield was in need of time to develop some strength. I wouldn't be surprised to see Schofield crack the starting lineup in 2015. He has all the tools to be a good offensive lineman in the NFL and he fits the system.
Matt Paradis: Having spent the 2014 season on the Broncos' practice squad, Paradis is a huge unknown. He fits the prototype of a zone lineman, and if he has developed over this last season, he could figure into the mix. As a late-round draft pick, we can't afford to hold our breath on waiting for a Paradis-sighting in the starting lineup. My feeling is Paradis will have to work his way up.
There are a couple Broncos left hanging in our group of Big Uglies.
Orlando Franklin, as most of you know, is an unrestricted free agent as is Will Montgomery. Franklin is in the prime of his career, and Montgomery is getting long in the tooth for an offensive lineman.
Montgomery would make sense in Kubiak's system if he decides to stick around and the Broncos will have him. Franklin could also do well at guard in a zone-heavy system because it would limit his one weakness and old nemesis - trap blocking.
We'll have to see where the Broncos plan to take the team; any moves involving Franklin and Montgomery will be very telling on what direction the team is leaning.
Paul Cornick is a restricted free agent. He fits the physical mold of a zone blocker, but his footwork is seriously lacking. I think Cornick will have to be coached up a great deal to be a good fit in the system. More than likely he will get tendered. He has some starting experience and makes sense as a depth player at this point.
Ben Garland signed a futures contract at the end of the 2013 season and he ended up being a steal; logging snaps as an extra blocker and filling in for injured players. Garland is an intelligent player, and he has solid footwork. He could flourish in a zone blocking system if given an opportunity. He is an experienced player who could be signed on the cheap. I think the Broncos will bring back Garland and continue to develop him.
C.J. Anderson has shown good vision and an ability to find the open lane. Anderson has the potential to explode in this system. Ronnie Hillman has also shown good vision and an ability to hit the right crease. These guys could become household names in this system.
Montee Ball is an unknown right now. In his limited snaps in 2014, he did not show good vision, and his work ethic is a big question mark. With both Hillman and Anderson showing good zone running chops, Ball will need to fight his way back to relevance and a place at the table.
Juwan Thompson has also shown the ability to be a one cut and go guy, but I don't think he is physically as talented as the backs ahead of him. Look for Thompson to put on some bulk and transition to more of a fullback-type role in Kubiak's system.
The Tight Ends:
The Broncos will need to address this position in the coming weeks and months. Julius Thomas, Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme are all free agents. Thomas had been targeted by Elway as a priority, but things have changed since then. Given the circumstances, Green might be a higher priority.
With JT's late-season fall off in the passing game and his well-documented issues with blocking defensive ends, that could be money better spent elsewhere. Tamme may still prove to be a useful player, but I would also look at targeting Owen Daniels in free agency.
My original thoughts on a Manning/Kubiak pairing are that it wouldn't work out well, but Jake Plummer had some valid points on the situation in his recent interview. Manning and Kubiak could find a way to coexist, if the future Hall-of-Famer wants to. That is where we are right now - Peyton has to buy in. If Peyton does buy in, the Broncos will blend the offense to accommodate what Manning does well. I don't expect the run game to open up dramatically if Manning is under center in 2015, but I do feel Kubiak will show more of a commitment to the run than we sawe with Adam Gase.
If you want to know how Manning will affect the run, just watch the Gibb's cut-ups for an explanation of the importance of the roll out in the system. Hiring Kubiak speaks volumes to how the Broncos view Brock Osweiler. Kubiak's system is tailor-made for Osweiler's skill set. The future looks bright for Osweiler on the team.
No drastic overhaul
Basically, the Broncos do not need to drastically overhaul the offensive line to fit Kubiak's system. Given the state of the players currently under contract, new blood will be inevitable going forward. I will be looking at the top five college prospects at each position along the offensive line in the coming weeks and give you all the scoop leading up to the draft.
Peyton Manning can coexist with Kubiak if he wants to. The Broncos have a solid nucleus of offensive players to make the system work - and work well.
There are still a number of unanswered questions that should become clearer as the dreaded offseason rolls on. Whether you love or hate the hiring of Gary Kubiak, he's a Bronco again, and we all need to accept it and roll with the punches. Hopefully, the Broncos can land a strong defensive coordinator to complement what Kubiak and Rick Dennison will bring to the offense.
One thing is definitely clear - we are in for yet another interesting offseason. GO BRONCOS!!!