There are five starters on the offensive line. It’s rare for all five to start all 16 regular season games. In fact only one team had all five offensive linemen start 16 games in 2019, Indianapolis. Buffalo was close with only one missed game from a starter (rookie Cody Ford started 15 games). The Broncos offensive line had three guys start all 16 games - Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner and Connor McGovern. Bolles and McGovern played every single offensive snap. Risner missed 38 for the season.
A starter-game is when a player listed as a starter (defined as starting 8 or more regular season games) starts a game. The Broncos offensive line had 72 of a possible 80 starter-games this season. Elijah Wilkinson and Ron Leary both started twelve games. Those other eight starts were made by Austin Schlottmann (four), Ja’Wuan James (three) and Jake Rodgers (one). Were you to argue that James was the starter on paper, you would be correct, but since I did this particular OL starter-games missed analysis for the entire league, I wasn’t able to go as in-depth into every team’s roster like I can with the Broncos. So Wilkinson is counted as our starting RT since he started 12 games there.
|TEAM||2019 OL Starter-games missed||OL Starter-game %|
Why should we care?
Having a group of five offensive lineman who have played together for a long time, who know each others’ strengths and weaknesses and who can communicate goes a long way toward having an above average offensive. This adds something to the calculus of whether or not the Broncos pay to retain McGovern, to cut or not cut Leary and to bring in OL free agents. Mike Munchak has a history of getting the most of lowly drafted (fourth round or later) offensive linemen and undrafted offensive lineman. So maybe he will try to coach up Pat Morris, Austin Schlottmann and Elijah Wilkinson.
Mike Munchak has now been an NFL offensive line coach for twenty seasons. His first year as an NFL OL coach was 1997. FWIW, Mike Munchak was an offensive line coach in the NFL before Noah Fant was born (11/20/97).
I went back and looked at the starters for all twenty of Mike Munchak’s offensive lines to see how many of them were drafted in the fourth round or later (including undrafted guys). Back then the draft was not split into three days, but in current times, players who are drafted in the fourth round or later are sometimes called “day three” guys. From here on out “day three” will refer to players drafted in the fourth round or later and players who were undrafted. In most years, three of five starters for Munchak are “day three” guys.
From 1997 to 2010 he was the OLC for HOU/TEN, from 2014 to 2018 he was with PIT and, of course, in 2019 he was with DEN. The total column is the total number of starts made by day three guys for Munchak by year. The percentages is that value divided by 80.
Because this wasn’t an easy study to run, I did not have time to run this analysis for every team every year, so I don’t know how this compares to other offensive lines and other offensive line coaches.
The 2019 Bronco offensive line had 45 “day three” starts:
Wilkinson - 12, Leary - 12, McGovern - 16, Schlottmann - 4, Rodgers -1
In 2010 the Titans offensive line had 64. Their only highly drafted starter on the OL that season was Michael Roos who was a second round pick. Their other starters were drafted in the fourth, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds. As an aside, all of the starters on that offensive line were drafted by the Titans with the exception of Jake Scott, who was drafted by the Colts in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. Scott is interesting because he was one of the lightest offensive lineman at the combine this century to be drafted. Scott, who went to the NFL combine as an offensive tackle, weighed in there at 281 lbs. There have only been four drafted offensive lineman who weighed 290 or under at the combine drafted this century, but one of them is Jason Kelce who has been first team All-Pro the last three seasons. Mass is important for offensive lineman, but there are rare exceptions of light offensive linemen in the modern NFL.
Take a look at a few of the other 2019 offensive lines (AFC playoff teams):
- the Chiefs had 51 of 80 OL starts made by lowly drafted (or undrafted OL players) - 64%
- the Patriots had 56 of 80 - 70%
- the Titans had 15 of 80 - 19%
- the Texans had 26 of 80 - 33%
- the Bills had 32 of 80 - 40%
- the Ravens had 43 of 80 - 54%
This speaks a little bit to the draft capital that different teams choose to invest in their offensive lines. Up until fairly recently with Bolles and Risner, the Broncos have not been investing draft capital in the OL.
Bringing this back around to the 2020 Bronco offensive line, there is rumor that Mike Munchak does not want to bring Connor McGovern back. Here’s the rumor from Walter Football:
According to some team sources, Broncos veteran offensive line coach Mike Munchak may want the team to go in a different direction at center. Connor McGovern is set to be a free agent. but sources tell me Munchak may not be crazy about the idea of keeping McGovern around. Instead, Pat Morris could get a longer look at center while the team looks to upgrade at the position. Munchak holds a lot of weight on Vic Fangio’s staff, and Munchak’s opinion could be the reason why McGovern wasn’t extended last season after the team re-worked Joe Flacco’s deal. The Broncos ended up signing Andy Janovich, but the money is there for them to get McGovern done and perhaps even Justin Simmons.
Munchak is widely regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches around the league, and he had a challenging time in his first year with Denver. He was tasked with trying to get left tackle Garett Bolles to improve, develop rookie starter Dalton Risner at left guard, and deal with injuries to veteran right tackle Ja’Wuan James. Denver’s offense provided some signs of optimism for 2020 with the way rookie quarterback Drew Lock played to close out the season.
Even though Munchak may not want McGovern to return, the Broncos could re-sign McGovern if he has a cheap price. It will be interesting to see how Munchak would respond to that, but the veteran coach is likely to remain with Denver regardless.
Let’s assume James stays healthy enough to start the majority of the games next season at RT and let’s assume that Wilkinson moves back inside to guard. That still gives the Broncos two “new” starters (counting James) on the OL. One is you don’t count James. This scenario assumes that the Broncos do not bring back McGovern who will likely get 10-11 million per year (or more) as free agent center.
According to another stathead that I follow on Twitter, the Broncos had the 16th ranked offensive line in 2019.
Put together this OL ranking, which combines pressure%, time to throw, adjusted sack%, yds before contact, adjusted line yds/carry, & PFF's team pass/run block grades, scoring each team in every category from 0-10.— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) December 30, 2019
Jets check in at 31st, well behind every team outside of Miami pic.twitter.com/TQD9cmJ2se
So overall the Broncos had an average offensive line in 2019, which was not bad considering they started a fifth round pick (McGovern) and four different undrafted free agents (Leary, Wilkinson, Schlottmann and Rodgers).
Given Munchak’s track record of getting good offensive line play from lowly drafted (or undrafted players), I would not be surprised if the Broncos started 2020 with Pat Morris as the center and Elijah Wilkinson as the starting guard. I would also not be surprised if we ended up with a rookie day three draftee starting at right guard instead of Wilkinson.
Pat Shurmur’s offense tends to favor lighter agile offensive linemen who can pull. Wilkinson was the heaviest offensive lineman on the team in 2019 (listed at 329 lbs) and was probably the slowest offensive lineman on the team both in terms of straight-line speed and quickness. I can’t say that I remember him ever being used to pull (even in 2018 when he played some guard), or being effective when he was asked to get out in space (either trying to block at the second level, or blocking on a screen pass). His relative lack of both quickness and speed might preclude him being a starter in 2020. Austin Schlottmann, OTOH, was used as a pulling guard multiple times in his four starts and was fairly effective when doing so.
Who will start at C and RG for DEN in 2020?
This poll is closed
McGovern and Wilkinson
McGovern and Schlottmann
McGovern and Leary
Morris and Wilkinson
Schlottmann and someone new
Schlottmann and Leary
Morris and Schlottmann
new C and new RG
an option I didn’t mention