When you think of where the Denver Broncos were, there is no doubt. When you remember where they were a season ago and the questions that surrounded this team, that should harden this belief.
The Broncos are better than they were a season ago.
Hold up, how can the Super Bowl champions be even better? Didn’t they lose two starters on defense and the quarterback of the future? And don’t they face even more questions on the offensive side of the ball? There also is the common belief there is no way the defense pulls what it did a season ago.
What gets left out of the equation is the Broncos offense and the work John Elway put in to improve that side of the ball. No, in this instance not the quarterback. I'm thinking bigger than that. It’s the most popular position in sports but not the most important. See: The 2015 Super Bowl champs. As I’ve stated numerous times, and will continue to pound home until the season starts, the most crucial position for the Broncos is the offensive line.
If this unit isn’t better than a season ago, it won’t matter who takes snaps or carries the ball. It won’t matter that Denver has implemented Gary Kubiak’s offense. The offensive line will lead this team to success.
When I showed up for the third day of training camp on Saturday at the UCHealth Training Center, that was what I paid attention to. What did the technique look like? How was the footwork? How did Russell Okung look as he continues to work his way back from that shoulder injury?
While it’s still early, the Broncos offensive line will surprise people with how good it is this season.
“I really like the way we are coming off the ball,” Kubiak said. “I know we have so much to do. I like to watch practice from the other side. I think we are coming off the ball really well. I think we have a chance to be really good up front. We have to settle those guys down.
“We are deeper right now, but I think it’s just a little bit of continuity. Even though Russell is new and he hasn’t practiced full time - you’ve got (Michael) Schofield, who started 12, 13 games, (Matt) Paradis had 1,300, 1,400 snaps under his belt and Max (Garcia). You can see that coming together.”
For the offensive line to reach that potential, it’s all about memory and building that cohesion. Each day should be a little bit easier and more comfortable. Each day, each of the five starters should have a little more trust in the guy next to him.
The offensive line, especially in Kubiak’s offense, is akin to a ballet. When the timing and trust is right, it’s a beautiful sight. When an offensive line doesn’t have those aspects, you see what you saw a season ago - an unmitigated disaster.
What the Broncos coaches and players hope for is that the guys on the offensive line remain healthy. Both Okung and Ty Sambrailo are on the mend. On top of that, Sambrailo has to learn a new position. He was at tackle last season and has made the switch to right guard.
“It’s different for him,” Kubiak said. “When you play tackle, people are away from you. When you play guard, people are right in your nose. I think he’s adapting to that. I think he’s getting better each day and he is in good health. He’s holding up. I think he has a ways to go, but he is adjusting to that environment.”
What Denver’s training staff does so well is ease players like Okung and Sambrailo back from injury. The last thing anyone wants is to come back too soon and push back any progress.
There’s also been some doubters when it comes to new right tackle Donald Stephenson. While there hasn’t been much talk about him, that’s a good thing at this point. If an offensive lineman is mentioned on the third day of camp, he either did something amazing (which is near impossible since they’re not in pads yet) or he made a boo boo (see Schofield).
Stephenson looks determined and takes to the coaching of offensive line coach Clancy Barone very well. Like Okung, he has great size, good footwork and strong hands. The key is consistency. When the Broncos go full pads on Sunday, we’ll get our first indication of where Denver’s offensive line really stands.
The huge benefit, and this cannot be stated enough, is going against the Broncos defense. That will force the offensive line and the offense as a whole to get better. Plus, this offense won’t face a better defense at any point this season.
“I tell them that every day,” Kubiak said. “It’s like I tell our receivers and tight ends: if you can’t beat man coverage, you are going to have a hard time making the Broncos because we play man almost every snap. It’s just so competitive.
“We are just so hard to throw against because of what we do coverage-wise. That’s what makes us good. I tell them that every day. You couldn’t ask for anything better. If you want to be as good as you can be, you get to work against it every day.”
The initial improvement of the Denver offensive line on Saturday was a good one. Kubiak acknowledges noticeable improvement from the spring.
The next step is Sunday in full pads, followed by the first preseason game in Chicago against the Bears on Aug. 11. That will be the sign this unit is indeed better than a season ago.
If it is, the Broncos will be better.
And that’s a scary thought.