Many Denver Broncos fans believe that the team is just 'a quarterback away' from taking the next leap towards consistent, postseason play. It's instructive to observe how new GM George Paton has operated, both in general and with respect to the QB position.
Under Paton thus far, the Broncos have emerged from free agency with an opportunity to build a roster that can compete immediately, simultaneously giving time for the organization to further players' development to morph back into a true title contender. Free-agent moves to keep key internal players in the organization (Von Miller, Justin Simmons, Shelby Harris, and Kareem Jackson) while adding veterans that match head coach Vic Fangio’s needs on defense (Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller), have given the Broncos a plethora of flexibility moving forward on to the 2021 NFL draft.
An important element of Paton’s approach to roster-building is avoiding complacency. You can observe this even at the QB level. Paton is taking steps to have contingency options if Drew Lock does not perform at the desired level.
The GM and his scouting department are performing their due diligence on evaluating different options at QB via free agency or the draft. There will be additional competition brought in to either push Lock into becoming the player the Broncos need as a franchise QB, or to showcase that it's time to move on from Lock as the starter.
Paton should apply this basic principle of competition to push players at all positions to be their best. The same amount of resources cannot be applied to all positions, but this approach needs to be applied with respect to right tackle, too.
In the spring of 2019, the Broncos made a truly impactful move by signing Ja'Wuan James to the largest deal a right tackle had signed to date (which was shortly after deposed by Trent Brown's deal with the Raiders); a four-year deal valued at $54 million. From then until now, James has only appeared in one season which resulted in a total of 63 snaps for the entire year.
In 2020, James chose to opt-out citing COVID-19 concerns. While it appears some Broncos players would welcome back James, a few others wait to see James prove his worth and earn back the trust of his teammates. No matter what, he must prove himself in more than just his play.
Just like Lock, the Broncos need to look towards the draft for a solution at right tackle that can bring the best out of James or demonstrate that he should perhaps be demoted to second on the depth chart. Even if James were to offer league-average play, the Broncos would be unlikely to retain him past 2021 when he'll be 30 years old.
If released before June 1, 2022, the Broncos would be left with $6M in dead cap money for 2022 according to Over The Cap. Conversely, if designated a post-June 1 cut, the dead-cap hit would plummet to just $3M.
This means the Broncos have to think ahead to life post-James. That said, it's reasonable to believe the Broncos will have to take a serious look at the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2021 draft class and perform a risk assessment.
Enter Northwestern's Rashawn Slater.
Rashawn Slater from Northwestern makes sense as a trade-down option or even at the No. 9 overall pick, which the Broncos currently hold. He could be that player that would bring real competition to the right tackle position.
Slater is a multidimensional offensive lineman who can line up wherever he's needed most. This is how Slater separates himself from other linemen. The Northwestern player has a tremendous ability to use his feet to set himself up for success against bigger and stronger competition. His footwork also allows him to play anywhere along the line.
As a true freshman, Slater played 13 games at right tackle. The following year, he started 14 games at right tackle. Finally, in 2019, he played in 11 games at left tackle for Northwestern. By playing on either side of center, he also makes for a great swing-backup at both the tackle and guard positions — if he were to lose out to James in an open competition for the starting right tackle gig. This would add another layer of protection to the Broncos' offensive line if a player gets injured. Slater would allow the Broncos to shuffle the line.
The Wildcats product does lack some measurables and teams will be scrutinizing the details closely when comparing him to other tackles. He stands at 6-foot-4, weighs 305 pounds, and is capable of benching 225 pounds 33 times.
One of his potential weaknesses is the length of his arms, which check in at 33 inches — the bare minimum many teams will consider for a tackle position. Some scouts say that arms under 33 inches are enough of a hindrance for a tackle to dictate that the player should be used as a guard.
So, Slater will have to gain some tricks to make sure he is better at the point of attack and can control defenders, especially those with length. That should be something that can be addressed with Broncos' O-line Coach Munchak and in the weight room.
Other top-tier tackles who might compete for the Broncos' interest in this draft class, such as Oregon's Penei Sewell, have played exclusively at left tackle. If Sewell has to transition to right tackle, his initial development would probably be hindered.
Meanwhile, Slater offers both a high ceiling and floor if he is required to move over to another position due to injury or if he does not usurp James. Again, true competition is needed at all positions for the Broncos.
The principle of competition shouldn't be limited to just the quarterback. Slater could push James to finally become the $52 million man the Broncos signed him to be, or just another guy on the bench.
Follow Jon on Twitter @JonKayMHH.
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