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Disappointing trench play raises some long-term questions for Denver

After the poor showing against the Raiders, it’s time to ask what the long-term outlook of the Broncos’ trenches looks like.

DENVER BRONCOS VS LAS VEGAS RAIDERS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The hope of the 2021 Denver Broncos was that a ground game led by a Mike Munchak-coached OL with star backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, when paired with a stellar Vic Fangio defense, would be enough to propel Denver into a playoff bid.

Unfortunately, the investments made in the trenches have been a bust so far, and nothing showed that more than the disappointing game against the Raiders in Week 16. The offensive line was virtually overwhelmed all game, and the defensive line got pushed around.

This game was just one of a season-long trend of middling play in the trenches on both sides of the ball that has cost this team in several key games. This level of play is unacceptable for a playoff-level team, and it might have been the thing that kept them out of the playoffs after all.

This level of play has created questions that need to be answered moving forward as the offseason draws nearer.

Offense

The right tackle situation needs to be addressed

Left tackle Garett Bolles was extended last December on a deal that currently has him as the seventh-highest paid left tackle and the sixth-highest AAV. Unfortunately, he’s not played anywhere close to that level this season (or even last season, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere). He wasn’t the biggest issue for this team in Week 16, and I thought it was one of his better games, facing a tough task in Yannick Ngakoue. There might need to be a conversation in the future about him if this extends into next season, but the main issue at hand is the right tackle spot. It should be a rather large concern moving into the offseason.

This game was particularly troublesome for Bobby Massie at right tackle. Massie faced off against Maxx Crosby most of the time and it...didn’t go so well. PFF charted Massie with 4 pressures allowed and honestly it felt like if the game plan didn’t have so many quick passes he would have allowed more. Guys worked off of him pretty regularly in the run game, and the Raiders’ stunts got him throughout the game.

Overall this season, Massie has been “OK.” He’s had good games and bad games throughout the season and has been a better run blocker than pass protector. As a stop-gap, the Broncos could certainly have done worse than Massie. It’s important to acknowledge his contributions to this team while also pointing out that he’s just not the guy long-term.

GM George Paton was put in a tough situation with the Ja’Wuan James debacle that happened in May here. Massie and Cam Fleming were added to the team as free agents. As far as stopgaps go, they could have done worse. However, Paton doesn’t have an issue like Ja’Wuan James this year, and the stopgaps need to, well, stop. There needs to be a long-term option here. You don’t win with poor tackle play in the NFL. Finding that long-term right tackle would go a long way towards helping this team win, regardless of their quarterback.

Whether they add a guy early in the draft like Charles Cross or a later pick like Abraham Lucas or Daniel Faalele or pursue an option through a trade/free agent signing (good luck, right tackles are a premium), there needs to be something done about this spot.

What’s going on with Dalton Risner?

Many of us were encouraged by Dalton Risner’s tape throughout his tenure in Denver. His 2020 tape was particularly stout, and had me intrigued to see where he could go with another year playing under Munchak.

He went somewhere...just in the wrong direction. Risner has regressed, and it’s particularly noticeable this season. He’s had issues sustaining blocks all season long, and I remember writing after the Week 1 Giants game that it “felt like his play strength evaporated.” The Raiders were exposing the interior in the run game, and Risner was a big part of that. The best play at left guard this season came when Quinn Meinerz filled that role for a game.

It could be he’s fighting through some nagging injuries that just don’t show up on the injury report. That’s certainly a plausible explanation, as guys don’t typically regress to that extent without some sort of explanation like that.

Yet, that doesn’t explain the regression of Garett Bolles as well as the iffy at best development of Lloyd Cushenberry III and Quinn Meinerz. Even Graham Glasgow was a bit of a disappointment this season. Did every single one of the offensive linemen get hurt? Was it COVID-related? We don’t really know. As such, there’s a question mark that remains unanswered, and likely won’t be till after the season (if that).

What are they going to do about the center spot moving forward?

Cushenberry III has been a bit of a disappointment for the Broncos in his first two years. Meinerz was drafted in the third round as competition (and many thought as an outright replacement) for him at the center spot. Yet, Meinerz hasn’t played center once this season after spending all offseason. He’s filled in at left and right guard due to injuries. Naturally, this constant adjustment hasn’t exactly aided his development into the NFL. He’ll produce some quality reps, but then a mental error or two will kick in simply because he’s playing a different position than he’s used to.

Even when Cushenberry missed the Raiders game, the team elected to keep Meinerz at right guard instead of moving him over to center and starting Netane Muti at right guard. They played Austin Schlottmann at center over Meinerz, an experiment that ended poorly. Schlottmann got beat routinely on the inside and gave up several pressures and blown up runs.

Either this staff doesn’t trust Meinerz at the center spot, a position they drafted him as and played him at all summer long, or they don’t trust Muti to play a single game at right guard. Both of those thoughts are more than a little concerning.

What are they going to do with Quinn Meinerz moving forward? They’ve not played him at center once despite Cushenberry’s play, he’s lost an entire season of development at that one spot because of the shuffling, and they will still have Cushenberry, Risner, and Glasgow under contract next year. They spent good capital on him, and there’s plenty of good on his film this year to justify him starting next season. Will they? Where will they? Will a new staff want a guy who has played in a power-run scheme his whole career if it’s an outside-zone offense? We just don’t really know.

Defense

How are they going to handle the EDGE spot?

This team needs pass rushers. Bad. The Broncos have had a pleasant surprise in Jonathon Cooper, but he shouldn’t be a full-time EDGE 1 or 2. Malik Reed flashed in 2020, but has been bullied in the run game this year and hasn’t been close to as effective a pass-rusher in the opportunities he’s gotten. Bradley Chubb has flashed this year with some great plays, but he’s missed significant playing time with injury. There’s enough time missed and enough injuries to be concerned about relying on him consistently as an EDGE 1. Von Miller was their best pass-rusher, and he’s now a Los Angeles Ram.

I’m not particularly sold on the interior play as well, but that’s for later. The play on the outside has been particularly distressing, and in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, you better be able to rush the passer. They’ve not been able to consistently do so this season.

There’s options out there in free agency and in the draft. Players like Jadaveon Clowney, Emmanuel Ogbah, Chandler Jones, and Randy Gregory are all upcoming free agents Paton could go after. It’s also a ridiculously talented EDGE class in the 2022 NFL Draft, with plenty of talents across the board to choose from.

Where do they go from here? It’s tough to tell. If they make a big move for a QB, that likely eliminates their first-round pick to get an elite rusher like George Karlaftis or David Ojabo. That hefty new contract also might eliminate a big free agent spending spree. How they handle this critical position will be crucial.

How do they get better in run D?

It’s no secret Denver has been gashed in run defense this season. They’re giving up 4.4 yards a carry, are ranked 23rd in Defensive Rushing DVOA, are 27th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, 30th in stuff rate, 31st in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards over left tackle, and 32nd in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards over the middle.

Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris have flashed moments of disruption, but they are each tied at 55th(!) in run stops with just 13 apiece. Shamar Stephen and DeShawn Williams are both tied for 74th with 11, and Dre’Mont Jones is tied at 84th with 10. For comparison’s sake, D.J Jones, the No. 1 spot, has 34.

They’ve been pushed around in the run game all season long. How do they fix it? They could move on from Harris and Purcell as both are over 30 and haven’t matched their contracts, but opening up two significant holes might not be the right move for a team bent on chasing a big-name QB for a title and lacking premium capital as a result. It also doesn’t clear a ton of cap in 2022.

There’s options in free agency and in the draft, of course. The aforementioned DJ Jones, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and some older names like Ndamukong Suh and Akiem Hicks will be available. Some younger guys for potentially cheaper like Darius Philon, Michael Dogbe, Tim Settle, Bryan Mone, and Derrick Nnadi are upcoming free agents as well. In the draft, there are options as well. They shouldn’t spend a premium top pick on a guy like Jordan Davis, but guys like Phidarian Mathis, Perrion Winfrey, Logan Hall, and Devonte Wyatt are early names that could help boost them up front.

Unfortunately, there’s not an easy answer for this one. It’ll be tough to magically fix the Broncos’ run defense woes with their current personnel. Fangio defenses are always going to give up some against the run, but this team hasn’t been winning at the point of attack enough the last two years, and they simply have to get better at it moving forward.