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Breaking down the Broncos’ offensive line room

Is 2021 the year Mike Munchak coaches a dominant Broncos’ line?

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Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Bolles development gives the Broncos’ line a cornerstone
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Perhaps no position group in football is misunderstood more often than the offensive line. Without a single all encompassing stat to point to regarding the group’s success, fans and most journalists reach for numbers to cling to that justifies their opinions. So to say there’s a bit of confusion surrounding the Broncos’ offensive line feels like an understatement.

My hope is digging into the weeds here helps to clear some of it up. First and foremost, if you have any questions about the Broncos’ run concepts I wrote about it earlier this offseason. In it I went back through the staple plays from Mike Munchak and Pat Shurmur’s rushing attack last year. This could be very helpful when it comes to understanding why I believe what I believe about the position battles as well as what to expect from various starters this year.

In addition, I want to share a few metrics I care about. No one stat perfectly encapsulates the offensive line. At the same time it’s unrealistic to try and watch 31 other teams to compare where Denver really falls leaguewide, so I tend to lean on these to give me a ballpark and check against my own bias.

In short, the Broncos offensive line was more bad than good in 2020. This happened as Garett Bolles had the best season of his NFL career and earned recognition as an All Pro. It happened as Vic Fangio said Dalton Risner deserved some consideration for the Pro Bowl. It happened after Graham Glasgow played 13 games during the first year of his 4-year $44 million contract.

It happened because the offensive line is what I call a floor position. It’s only as good as its weakest links, and thanks to injuries 10 different players made starts. The only starter who didn’t miss a snap was also the biggest liability: rookie third rounder Lloyd Cushenberry.

It also happened because the Broncos started 3 different quarterbacks, all of them bad. Defenses were able to send all manner of pressure down the pipe because they weren’t concerned Drew Lock, Brett Rypien, or Jeff Driskel would make them pay with any sort of consistency. The issues fed off each other, so it should come as little surprise the Broncos had the worst third and fourth down DVOA in the NFL.

Will the OL improve in 2021?

Arguably the biggest question no one is talking about in regards to the Broncos is how this unit will fair in the third year under Mike Munchak. I’m optimistic things move towards solid, maybe even good if everything breaks Denver’s way.

Left Tackle: Garett Bolles was very good a season ago. While the way the league deemphasized holding penalties didn’t hurt him by any means, his season wasn’t dependent on that. He did a much better job reacting to stunts, wide rushers, and technicians, the three issues that most often haunted him early in his career.

Bolles isn’t an overpowering run blocker, but his mobility is an asset on the second level which makes him an effective blocker on zone concepts.

Left Guard: If the center situation improves this year, Dalton Risner is going to look a lot better. He’s a good run blocker who is stout at the POA and a key component to the Broncos’ gap concepts with his ability to pull and lead block out in space.

Early in the season he showed issues picking up stunts, but that improved over the back end. One weakness that may continue to haunt him is when he’s matched up against twitched up defenders. This showed up against Buffalo and Green Bay in 2019, and teams like the the Titans and Steelers took advantage last season. Looking ahead to the 2021 schedule, Risner could be in for a rough go against the Jets’ Quinnen Williams and the Browns’ Jadeveon Clowney, Washington’s fearsome front could also be a challenge.

Center: By PFF charting, Lloyd Cushenberry was abysmal a year ago. He allowed 29 pressures, which tied for fifth most by any center, and he was the worst run blocker. While I don’t always agree with the way PFF grades offensive lineman, it’s hard to argue with their assessment of Cushenberry if you pop on the tape. He was straight up bad for most of the season. So much so that his performance hurt both the guards.

I expect Cushenberry to have a fight on his hands in camp. Rookie Quinn Meinerz was a third round pick and looks like a better fit for the gap concepts that turned into staples for the Broncos’ run game a season ago. The question will come down to the mental side of things, where Cushenberry has a full season’s worth of experience under his belt while “The Gut” is making a jump from Wisconsin-Whitewater, a division three school that didn’t have football in 2020 because of Covid-19.

It may take a little time to gel because both players are so young, but the hope has to be competition helps the position improve.

Right Guard: Graham Glasgow had a better 2020 than most believe, as he was the second best lineman for the early part of the campaign while Risner found his footing. He’s not on Risner’s level leading out in space, but he’s good at the point of attack with notable grip strength. It isn’t always pretty, but he’s steady in pass protection.

Right Tackle: Perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Broncos’ roster after starting quarterback. Paton chased cheap replacements to compete for the starting job after Ja’Wuan James suffered what appeared to be a season-ending injury shortly after the 2021 NFL Draft. As of right now, the competition looks as though it will come down to Bobby Massie or Cameron Fleming. Calvin Anderson or Quinn Bailey could surprise.

New Faces

Quinn Meinerz

A high school wrestler who also lettered in track, Meinerz was a no-star recruit who received one offer from a division two school before he committed to Wisconsin-Whitewater. After a redshirt his first year on campus, Meinerz started two seasons at left guard for the Warhawks and became a team captain his junior year. His senior season was cancelled due to the pandemic, but he continued to train and received an invitation to the Senior Bowl where he was singled out as the best offensive lineman on the National Team. George Paton admitted that his performance in Mobile helped him rise up the Broncos’ draft board.

“Quite a bit, I think he raised up everyone’s draft board because there were a lot of unknowns about him. When you see him in one-on-one drills blocking guys that are first-and second-round picks, it was pretty amazing. You don’t see that very often. The more you dig into the person, the player, Whitewater, and where he came from, I think that he rose on everyone’s draft boards.”

To get a real feel for Meinerz takes a heck of a lot of projecting because he played against future lawyers, teachers, and engineers two years ago. Since then he’s remade his body to better prepare for the NFL game. I expect him to come to camp with very good play strength, competitive toughness, underrated athleticism, and a barroom brawler’s demeanor. Only time and reps will tell if that’s enough.

Cameron Fleming

A 2014 fourth round pick who has played 112 career games with 44 starts. Fleming has spent most of his career as a utility lineman or primary backup before he signed with the New York Giants last March. 2020 was the first time in his career he played 16+ games in a season.

Standing 6’5, 323 lbs., Fleming has prototypical size for an NFL tackle. He combines long arms with very good play strength, a nasty demeanor, and good balance. He’s at his best on down blocks that allow him to create movement in the phone booth. He does a good job on reach blocks and could be an asset on the Broncos’ power, pin-pull, and counter OH concepts. When asked to block on zone concepts, he’s at his best when the actions headed his way. His grip strength is quite good and if he can latch on, he’s going to control a defender.

Fleming doesn’t hesitate to win ugly in pass protection, where he’s closer to solid than good. His strength, hands, competitive toughness are the assets he leans on to make up for issues with footspeed and most of the time it works. He’s got a good enough anchor to withstand bull rushes from Khalil Mack.

Where Fleming is going to have issues is in space and against twitched up wide rushers, as both will expose his athletic limitations. My biggest gripe with his game, however, is that he too often freezes up against games aimed at him. This issues was a huge factor in the 24 blown blocks SIS credits him with last year. More than anything else, it could be what keeps him out of the starting lineup, but I’m hopeful Munchak can coach it out of him.

Bobby Massie

Like Fleming, Massie also entered the NFL as a fourth round pick when the Arizona Cardinals selected him out of Ole Miss in 2012. He’s played in 122 career games with 114 starts since then. He’s played a full 16+ game season three times in his career to date, missing time because of various injuries as well as a substance abuse suspension in 2015.

Standing 6’6” and 325 lbs., Bobby Massie has prototypical size for an NFL tackle. He has vines for arms and combines it with good quickness and agility for a man his size. As a run blocker, he’s at his best on zone concepts. He’s a capable blocker on double teams and does a solid job locking out an steering defenders when he can land his mitts on them. He is also a solid pass protector who has the quickness to hold up on vertical sets when necessary, such as when the Bears asked him to block the Carolina Panthers’ Brian Burns.

Massie’s height is a bit of a double edged sword. His arm length doesn’t do enough to make up for his subpar play strength and he too often gives ground to rushers who can get underneath him and win the leverage battle. Like Demar Dotson before him, Massie’s more likely to force a stalemate than create vertical displacement at the point of attack. He also can have trouble against stunts when a looper swings hard inside because he’s forced to redirect off his outside foot.

Drew Himmelman

A 6’9” offensive tackle from the same Illinois State that produced Shelby Harris, Himmelman received the largest signing bonus of any undrafted rookie this offseason. His $25,000 signing bonus and $150,000 total guarantee doesn’t mean he’s a lock for the Broncos’ active roster, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t so much as find a spot on the practice squad waiting for him.

A 230 lb. high school tight end and defensive end who converted to left tackle during his redshirt year, Himmelman started for three seasons and would have made it four if not for the pandemic. Over the course of his collegiate career the Redbirds played one BCS team, so odds are he’ll need a similar incubation period as he adjusts to the league.

“When I was getting recruited by Illinois State, they told me I would start out as a tight end, but we were going to see what my body did when I got there. And they told me it definitely a strong possibility I’d move to offensive tackles. So, I showed up to spring 2016 as a tight end went through like three practices in spring ball and then one of the offensive tackles got hurt so they moved me inside and I never went back out.”

Nolan Laufenberg

An Air Force graduate who was set to become an acquisitions officer in the United States Space Force before he received $25,000 in guarantees to sign with the Broncos, Laufenberg was a three year starter in the Falcon’s triple option offense. He has plenty of experience pulling for gap concepts and could be in for a tough adjustment to the complexity of NFL pass protection.

The Castle Rock native turned down offers from Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers to sign with the Broncos, but he could have a tough time sticking in orange and blue. His limited exposure to snapping the football and short arms probably limit him to guard in the league, and Mike Munchak’s spoiled for choice among the guard prospects right now.

“I just felt like it was a really good opportunity for me to come into this system and try to make an impact and try to make a roster and maybe get in that lineup,” Laufenberg said. “I felt like it was a really good opportunity for me here kind of with the way the roster sits right now. And along with that, kind of the support system that I’ve kind of come accustom to here, it’s just really nice to have and it was hard to pass up, knowing that I have that here with me currently. The whole community here definitely has my back.”

How will the final depth chart look?

Recent history suggests the Broncos will carry between 8 and 10 OL onto the final roster. With so much unproven talent that could be scooped off waivers, I expect the number to be on the high end. There will also be at least a couple offensive lineman who wind up on the practice squad as well.

I see Bolles, Risner, Glasgow, and Meinerz as true locks and it’d floor me if any were cut. Cushenberry, Massie, and Fleming also look safe if for no reason beyond the dead money in their contracts.

So if we assume those seven make the final roster, the Broncos already have three spots dedicated to tackles and four dedicated to iOL.

I expect Cushenberry and Meinerz to eat up most of the center reps as they duke it out, which means Laufenberg, Netane Muti, and Austin Schlottmann will need to impress at guard. Muti was a 6th round pick last year who fell in the draft because of a checkered injury history, but he offers some exciting promise. Schlottmann’s played 674 snaps over the last two seasons, 530 of those coming on offense.

Risner’s versatility could be a big factor when it comes to deciding if there will be 4 tackles on the active roster. While he’s never played tackle in a game, Fangio and the coaching staff trust he could do it.

“He has always been an emergency tackle for us, especially in 2019. Not so much last year since we were able to dress eight players and we usually had four tackles. He was never on the radar much last year. If we ever had to have a fifth one, he would’ve done it. It’s something we always keep in the back of our minds when we make the 53-man roster and a gameday roster.”

If there’s another tackle spot for guys to battle for it will probably come down to Calvin Anderson vs. Quinn Bailey, barring a preseason from Himmelman that catches the eye of other teams around the league. Anderson made a start at each tackle spot a season ago and has nice movement skills for a man his size, whereas Bailey’s bounced back and forth from the practice squad since 2019.

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