The Denver Broncos are going to have a much different look up front on their offensive line in 2016. During their 2015 season, the Broncos had many different combinations in the trenches. The team ended the season with a win in Super Bowl 50 with a line that consisted of Ryan Harris at left tackle, Evan Mathis at left guard, Matt Paradis at center, Louis Vasquez at right guard and Michael Schofield at right tackle.
Now it looks like four of those five spots are going to be different in 2016.
General manager John Elway has been clear about his intent for the offensive line, and he said as much at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year.
“Obviously that’s an area where we need to get better. That’s going to be a focal point for us this year as we go into free agency as well as the draft. Ty [Sambrailo] will come back, and we think he’s going to come back and be healthy, and he’ll be fine.”
What could the Broncos offensive line look like in 2016? Let’s examine the possibilities.
After a move to sign veteran free agent Russell Okung to a five-year deal on Thursday, the Broncos appear to have a new starting left tackle. He was selected sixth overall by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Okung is a seventh-year player who started all 72 regular-season games played as well as 12 playoff contests at left tackle during his first six NFL seasons with Seattle, though he did miss 24 games due to injuries.
Okung says that he’s quite familiar with the zone-blocking system the Broncos run.
“I’m very familiar with the scheme that they run. I’ve been running the zone scheme since I’ve been a rookie. I understand all the concepts and just everything that they have here.”
Okung declared, “I hope I have something great to offer the team. Just in my understanding of the scheme and my level of play as well, too. I know these guys are a championship caliber team, and I’m glad I could be a part of it.”
Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo reports that Okung's five-year deal is actually a one-year, $5 million deal with a four-year team option.
With Clady refusing to accept the team’s proposed pay cut, ESPN.com is reporting that the veteran tackle is going to be placed on the trade block. Clady, a four-time Pro Bowler, injured his ACL last May and missed all of the 2015 season. Over the last three years, Clady has only played 18 games, and this injury history could cool down any potential trade market that’s out there for him.
If the Broncos can’t trade him, then he could get released. He’s got a $10.1 million cap number in 2016, but there’s only $1.2 million remaining in dead money. Either way, with Okung in the fold, the likelihood of Clady sticking around with the Broncos is incredibly small.
This spot has multiple potential answers, but the Broncos could turn to a player already on the roster to replace Mathis. Just this week, Mathis agreed to a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
Second-year pro Max Garcia could be the team’s starter at left guard this upcoming season.
A fourth-round pick out of Florida in the 2015 NFL draft, Garcia ended up starting a few games at guard when Mathis was banged up. That playing time has given Garcia valuable experience he can use to get a head start on the upcoming season.
Garcia is a powerful player who can control his man at the point of attack. He’s got strong hands and does a good job of stunting an opponent with a devastating strike after the snap.
Perhaps the only spot on the offensive line that is set for 2016 is at center. Matt Paradis played every snap possible for the Broncos in 2015, and he’ll lock down the position once again this year.
A sixth-round pick out of Boise State in the 2014 NFL draft, Paradis spent his rookie season on the team’s practice squad. The team felt good enough about his development to give him a shot at the starting center job in 2015—and he was able to win the job.
With Louis Vasquez getting released earlier this month, the right guard position has an opening. Elway wished Vasquez well after it was announced the team had released the veteran guard. “These decisions are never easy, but we appreciate the contributions Louis [Vasquez] made to our team, especially during our Super Bowl run.”
Mike Klis, from 9News.com in Denver, reports that Ty Sambrailo will kick inside to guard with the signings of Okung and Stephenson.
Sambrailo was a second-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft out of Colorado State. He was originally slated to start at right tackle as a rookie, but the injury to Clady forced the Broncos to move him over to left tackle. That’s where he remained until a shoulder injury forced him out for the year only a few weeks into the regular season.
A move inside to guard was always a possibility for Sambrailo, and now it looks like that’s going to come to fruition in 2016.
Like left tackle, the Broncos went to free agency to find a new right tackle. Earlier this month, they signed former Kansas City Chiefs tackle Donald Stephenson. A third-round pick by the Chiefs in the 2012 NFL draft, Stephenson has the versatility to play multiple spots on the offensive line.
Fifteen of Stephenson’s 21 starts have come at left tackle in addition to eight starts at right tackle and one start as a short-yardage tight end. He also saw snaps at left guard during his tenure with the Chiefs.
Stephenson is excited about the possibilities for the Broncos in 2016.
“I just want to join the party," he said. "I’m excited. The year right after the Super Bowl I get to be a part of something special, maybe do it again. I’m excited.”
With a revamped offensive line and running back C.J. Anderson with a new contract, the Broncos are building the foundation for what should be a strong rushing attack in 2016.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com.