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The Denver Broncos have found their quarterback! Well, at least for the 2020 season. 

In the Broncos’ end-of-season press conference, John Elway was asked whether Drew Lock was going to be the team’s starter next season.

“I don’t see any (other) options right now," Elway said. "He finished and did a heck of a job and won four out of five games and played well, but he still has a long way to go. He has a lot of work to do. We’re excited about where Drew is. [I] don’t like to show our hand, but I think it’s unrealistic to say that we’re going a different direction.”

The Broncos are heading into an offseason knowing who the starting quarterback is? That hasn’t been the case since Peyton Manning was listed as No. 1 on the depth chart heading into the Super Bowl season of 2015. As Elway stated, Lock does need to improve and grow to prove he can be the starter for the next decade, but even having the quarterback position ‘set’ heading into 2020 is a nice place to be considering the purgatory of quarterback play Broncos Country has endured since Manning rode off into the sunset.

So without the quarterback position to debate across the entirety of the offseason, which area is likely to emerge as the team’s whipping boy for the masses? The answer is probably rather obvious — the offensive line. However, does the Broncos' offensive line deserve to be constantly besmirched? Not according to Pro Football Focus and their final offensive line rankings for the 2019 season.

PFF releases offensive line rankings before each preseason and at the end of every regular season. Despite the struggles along the Broncos’ O-line, playing through a number of injuries, a first-year coordinator in Rich Scangarello, and blocking for three different quarterbacks with different styles, the unit still was ranked as the 12th best to close out the 2019 season behind the Eagles, Ravens, Colts, Cowboys, Saints, Packers, Buccaneers, Titans, Steelers, Patriots, and Lions. 

Obviously, 12th isn’t great and perhaps to some is a bit too high of a ranking, but the Broncos’ O-line was easily closer to ‘average’ than a bottom-tier unit. Here's what PFF's Ben Linsey said. 

The Broncos didn’t have the offensive line that they initially pictured coming into the season due to an injury to free-agent acquisition Ja’Wuan James. His replacement, Elijah Wilkinson, was the weak link of the group. Wilkinson’s 10 sacks allowed were the fourth most of any tackle this season. All was not lost for Denver, though, as its offensive line ranked in the top half of the league in pass-blocking and run-blocking grade under first-year coach Mike Munchak.

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The Right Coaches Make all the Difference

Elway and the Broncos made a number of moves to help improve the unit this past season, but no acquisition moved the needle for the offensive line than obtaining the renowned offensive line coach Munchak. It was always going to take a bit of time for the Munchak hiring to really show it’s worth as it takes time for an O-line to gel, but the unit improved as the season went on and appears to be in great hands. 

Furthermore, the team also added long-time Bronco guard Chris Kuper from the Miami Dolphins to be the assistant O-line coach under Munchak. This could be seen in a move in the right direction, but the Broncos’ 2018 O-line coach duo of Sean Kugler and Chris Strausser were no slouches themselves, as both were gobbled up by other teams immediately and found success this season.

Kugler and Strausser did a solid job in 2018 on the Broncos' O-line, specifically in the ground game where the line blasted open holes and created space for Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman both, despite Denver’s ineptitude at quarterback. Even if the run blocking was good, the pass blocking was not good and a constant thorn in the heel of the offense.

Biggest Offseason Acquisition Busts

Coaching wasn’t the only way Elway and the Broncos attacked the O-line last offseason, but the team also used both premium cap space and draft capital to add two potential high-end players in former Dolphins tackle Ja’Wuan James and Kansas State’s Dalton Risner. James’ was signed to a four-year, $51 million dollar deal that is easy to get out of after 2020 if Denver so chooses, while Risner was drafted with the 41st overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Alas, James’ season did not go according to the Broncos’ plans. Only playing a grand total of 63 snaps on the entire season, James’ suffered a knee injury Week 1 vs. Oakland and he never was able to get right. Despite the Broncos’ medical staff giving him the green light to go play, James never felt comfortable with his health and stated his knee was buckling when he tried to return in the Texans game Week 14. 

When pressed on what the future holds on the James situation, Elway stated was circumspect.

“He’s going to determine that," Elway said. "They’re in charge of their bodies. They one thing I don’t want do is I don’t want to question it. It’s ultimately up to Ja’Wuan and I think the trust factor is there. For us, we have to trust the player and what the player says that he can and can’t do. No matter what the doctor says, it’s still up to the player. Hopefully, that knee tightens up for him when he comes back and be what we think he can be.”

A Gem Upfront Emerges

On the other end of the spectrum is Risner, who only missed time this season after becoming very ill with influenza and being pulled Week 16 vs. Detroit, but he still started all 16 games at left guard. Risner began the season strong, but suffered an ankle injury Week 12 at Buffalo and was obviously dealing with that to close out the season, on top of perhaps hitting what is known as the ‘rookie wall’. 

Risner was good all season and appears to be a long-term cog for the Broncos' O-line going forward. Earning a 63.5 PFF grade on the season, he struggled and hobbled his way down the stretch.

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A Center Worthy of Praise

Perhaps the decision of the offseason will be that of C Connor McGovern. After entering training camp with many concerned about McGovern’s ability to snap the ball, he played well at center for the 2019 season earning a 71.9 PFF grade and playing extremely well down after the bye week. McGovern is only 26 years old, has been a durable player for the team, and has shown he can not only play center at a solid level but guard as well.

There is a false narrative that McGovern has shown to be better at either center or guard, but he plays both at a solid level and any difference in his play level between the two is negligible at best. McGovern is a player the Broncos would likely love to retain, but he could easily be making close to $10 million per year given the center market and his previously listed attributes. It remains to be seen whether Denver thinks he will be worth that and what his market will shake out to be this offseason.

The Scapegoat

Last and perhaps most interesting is Broncos Country’s least-favorite player — tackle Garett Bolles. Despite his propensity to draw penalties and struggle inconsistency, Bolles was actually quite good down the stretch this season, finishing the year as the team’s highest-graded tackle at 76.0. 

Bolles is 27 years old, and still has at least one year left on his contract. He still needs to go out next season and prove that his improvements post-bye week this year were not a mirage and that he can keep this level of play up, but perhaps under Munchak and with gained experience Bolles has finally ‘clicked’. 

Either way, much like Lock starting at quarterback, it would be a massive upset if Bolles isn’t the starting left tackle come Week 1 of the 2020 season.

What the Future Holds

With Ronald Leary likely out the door with the Broncos’ ability to clear up $8.5 million in cap space by declining his team option, the O-line will likely be in some level of flux once again this offseason. Elijah Wilkinson played admirably at right tackle, but his performance was consistently an issue for the Broncos this season. 

Looking like a guard playing tackle, Wilkinson just didn’t show the athleticism to handle edge rushers consistently. He is very likely to get a shot to start at guard next season, but if not, he is a valuable, young, cheap and versatile depth lineman. It’s probably not circumstantial that the Broncos’ single best half of offensive football in 2019 came when they had James in at right tackle for Wilkinson, though.

So the Broncos overall did ‘okay’ on the O-line despite limping their way through injuries and quarterback changes, but was that a 12th overall caliber performance? Many will cry foul seeing the ranking, but in reality, that number is far more likely an indictment on O-line play across the NFL. There are a multitude of theories on why offensive line play is degrading across the NFL Landscape.

It's all Relative

One theory is that there are fewer schemes that demand NFL blocking in college, meaning fewer players are coming in with the technical skills to play early. With Air Raid and spread offenses being the norm in college football, the teaching of the O-line has been devalued. 

Another theory is that many of the freak athletes that used to play on the O-line are being funneled instead to the defensive line where one singular great player can make more of a game-to-game impact for a college team as opposed to one great offensive lineman.

Finally, another theory with legs is how the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in the NFL has led to less time with padded practices. Given how important those physical practices are in not only working on technique but establishing chemistry and cohesion between offensive linemen, less time working together in padded practices has led to less-developed units. 

Take the pulse of any fanbase, and only about five out of the entire league wouldn’t say they want their team to improve the O-line. It’s a league-wide issue and the Broncos are far from the worst upfront.

Broncos Can't Rest on Their OL Laurels

The Broncos may have the 12th-rated O-line according to PFF but that doesn’t mean anyone should feel comfortable with the unit going forward. Folks screaming about how bad the line is are probably not watching other units and seeing the sorry state across the league. The Broncos' O-line is likely right around average, a feat by Munchak considering the injuries on the line and changes in quarterback this season.

Given the fact that Leary is likely on his way out the door, the unknown that is McGovern and if he will be retained, the injury concerns with James and if he will be willing to go in 2020, and how concerning it is to depend on Bolles, the Broncos' O-line is by no means ‘set’ but it isn’t an ignore-everything-else level concern either. Anyone who tells you one or the other is looking at the O-line with a binary perspective, as opposed to the nuanced sliding scale that fits better in the real world.

In the end, the Broncos should head into the 2020 offseason much like they did last year, continuing to invest resources into the O-line and trusting the eye and coaching of Munchak. Under his tutelage, the Broncos can add players he wants while the line can continue to improve and grow over time. 

The Takeaway

Building a good offensive line is like building a fire. One must have the proper resources to get started, from dry wood and kindling, to matches and a proper structure. That fire may last for a bit, but without a watchful eye stoking the fire and continuing to feed it, it will eventually dim and go out.

The fire that is the Broncos’ O-line is just starting to give off signs of real, sustainable heat, but it will need to be continually fed. Is it the 12th-best offensive line in the NFL? 

Maybe, maybe not.

But it is far from the worst unit in the NFL. Even still, the Broncos should continue adding resources and letting the Broncos own pyromaniac in Munchak continue to fiddle with and stoke that fire so it can give off light and heat for years to come.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH and @MileHighHuddle.