How different could the Denver Broncos’ offensive line look in 2023?
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the offseason gets under way, we’ll be taking a look at each position and where it stacks up.
STATE OF THE ROSTER: OFFENSIVE LINE
Russell Wilson and the quarterback position drew the bulk of the attention for the Broncos’ 2022 woes. But the state of the offensive line seemed to best encapsulate all that went askew in Denver’s 12-loss season.
Injuries, ineffective coaching and instability stultified a unit that needed to be a strength. The Broncos went through 10 different starting combinations up front, absorbing a tsunami of injuries that began with Tom Compton and Billy Turner being unable to play at the start of the season due to injuries that carried over from OTAs or the previous campaign.
Not once did the Broncos have their intended starting lineup. By the time Turner made his debut, Garett Bolles’ season was over. He fractured an ankle in the Week 5 loss to Indianapolis.
The line was maligned. Depth was stretched to the maximum. So, even the Broncos’ sizable investment in the offensive line couldn’t pay dividends. Denver went into the season with a first-round pick at left tackle and Day 2 picks at both guard spots and center. Only right tackle — the perpetual revolving door — remained an apparent second-tier priority.
The swing backup, Graham Glasgow, signed for $26 million in guarantees in 2020. And, of course, the Broncos made a huge swing and missed on Ja’Wuan James in 2019.
But now, the line might be at the cusp of as significant a reset as the coaching staff. Just two positions appear set, and at one of them, a 6-year starter — Bolles — has a major injury to overcome.
Left tackle: Bolles will spend much of his offseason rehabilitation from the ankle injury. He said Jan. 9 that he hopes to resume football drills later in the winter. But he’s going into the third year of his contract, which means he has reached the point where the cap savings of releasing him would outpace the dead money created by cutting him. The injury means that a release is unlikely, but Bolles is very much in the same kind of prove-it mode as he was in 2020 when John Elway did not give him the fifth-year option.
Left guard: Dalton Risner ended the final season of his rookie contract on injured reserve after battling through multiple injuries. In a Week 18 press conference, he sounded much like someone who knows his future is elsewhere. “If the Broncos value me and they want to keep me here and be a Denver Bronco, I can’t wait. That’s going to be one of the biggest things,” Risner said. “But at the end of the day, it being a business, me entering this next area of my life, it’s like, ‘OK, where am I going to be valued at?’ Is it going to be the Broncos? Is it going to be somewhere else?” He expressed excitement for the possibility of hitting free agency; indeed, this is probably his best chance of securing his most bulbous pro contract. If the Broncos don’t value him, they’ll have a new left guard.
Center: Graham Glasgow started the second half of the season, but with a $14 million cap charge for 2023, he could be released to create $11 million in cap space. Lloyd Cushenberry started the first eight games before suffering a groin injury. But this is Cushenberry’s contract year. It’s gotten late early for the LSU product. “It feels like I just got here, through COVID and everything. But it’s gone by very fast,” he said.
Right guard: Here’s the one position that looks stable. Quinn Meinerz trimmed some size off “The Belly” in the offseason. But he lost none of the power he displayed in his promising rookie season. He transitioned smoothly to the zone concepts installed last year. Now, he appears on track to get a second contract in the next two years.
Right tackle: Amazingly, the Broncos didn’t add any names to the lengthy list of starting right tackles since the team moved Orlando Franklin to guard after the 2013 season. That’s because Turner and Cam Fleming both had previous experience starting for Denver at RT — in 2018 and 2021, respectively. That gives Denver 19 starting right tackles in the last nine seasons. It makes the tally of 11 post-Peyton Manning starting QBs look comparatively quaint. The Broncos have tried virtually everything here since 2014 — big-ticket free agents (James), moderate multi-year free agents (Donald Stephenson, Menelik Watson), a trade acquisitions (Allen Barbre, Jared Veldheer), one-year free-agent stopgaps (Fleming, Turner, Demar Dotson, Bobby Massie), Day 2 draft picks (Ty Sambrailo, Michael Schofield), scrap-heap flyers (Cyrus Kouandjio), converted guards (Louis Vasquez), and more — except a Round 1 pick.
Look for change in at least two spots, perhaps three — and maybe four, depending on Bolles’ recovery and the new coaches’ view of the 2020 second-team All-Pro.
The fact that interim coach Jerry Rosburg canned offensive-line coach Butch Barry spoke volumes. Rosburg didn’t even wait for the end of his first day before moving on from Barry, under whose watch players appeared to palpably regress.
“I made that move because I wanted to move in a different direction with the offensive line,” Rosburg said Dec. 28. “I wanted to make an impactful move on the offensive line. We needed to get better there to help all aspects of it.”
For whoever becomes the Broncos’ next coach, reaching out to Mike Munchak should be one of the first items of business. Munchak has proven to be a scheme-independent coach. After all, the Broncos initially hired him for an offense that emphasized outside-zone concepts in 2019 under then-offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Munchak also worked well teaching gap concepts before joining the Broncos then.
Dismissing Munchak was Nathaniel Hackett’s first major misstep.
Munchak is likely to have multiple opportunities as staffs become settled. He first joined the Broncos in 2019 — after interviewing for the head-coaching job then — because of family considerations. But the Broncos should look to mend fences and bring back Munchak, whose more deliberate, measured style was an excellent fit for the players in the room.
GARETT BOLLES: Under contract through 2024.
If Bolles were not injured, Denver could save $9,823,529 of cap space by cutting him, with $8 million of dead money. A post-June 1 release would increase the 2023 savings to $13,823,529, with a dead-money split of $4 million over two years. This year could be everything to Bolles under the current terms; Denver could save $16 million with $4 million in dead money by cutting him in 2024.
DALTON RISNER: Unrestricted free agent.
The relatively soft guard crop in free agency and new sets of eyes in the coaching staff could change the dynamic, even though all signs point to a departure.
BILLY TURNER: Unrestricted free agent.
CAMERON FLEMING: Unrestricted free agent.
Fleming was more durable than Turner. He remained unsigned last year all the way until training camp began. Don’t expect that to be the case again, as Fleming re-established himself as a valuable swing tackle who should have a role on someone’s roster in 2023. The Broncos would be well-served to bring him back.
QUINN MEINERZ: On rookie contract through 2024.
LLOYD CUSHENBERRY III: On rookie contract through 2023.
GRAHAM GLASGOW: Under contract through 2023.
He played on a restructured deal last season. His cap number of $14 million for 2023 — with a savings of $11 million if cut before the new league year begins — makes him a prime restructure candidate. Otherwise, his contract is an obvious one to cut.
CALVIN ANDERSON: Unrestricted free agent.
TOM COMPTON: Unrestricted free agent.
If Munchak returns to the staff, Anderson would be more likely of these two UFAs to return. Recurring back issues could mean the end of Compton’s career.
QUINN BAILEY: Exclusive-rights free agent.
Look for the Broncos to bring him back, giving him a chance to compete for a swing backup spot.
LUKE WATTENBERG: On rookie contract through 2025.
CHRISTIAN DiLAURO: Under contract through 2023; exclusive-rights free agent in 2024.
WILL SHERMAN: Under contract through 2023; exclusive-rights free agent in 2024.
Denver also signed Parker Ferguson and Hunter Thedford to reserve-future deals after the regular season concluded.
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