Mile High Roundtable: Identifying Broncos' Best Option at RT to Overcome Ja'Wuan James Opt-Out
The Denver Broncos have to fix the offensive tackle position. Some media and many fans pounded the table for the Broncos to do anything possible to secure one of the top tackles in the 2020 draft.
Others were asking the Broncos to go to the free-agent market and secure a player like Jack Conklin or trade for a player like Trent Williams. None of those things happened, leaving the Broncos with three starting options — Garett Bolles, Ja’Wuan James, and Elijah Wilkinson.
With James deciding to opt-out of the 2020 season, alarm bells are sounding at Broncos HQ as the team's decision to virtually ignore the offensive tackle position this past offseason is now coming back to bite them and could derail the season.
The Broncos are not completely out of options, as crazy as that might seem. None of the potential solutions to the glaring right tackle hole are going to bring in an All-Pro-caliber type talent, but the team could put a band-aid on the problem and hope it holds together for one season. Today, the Mile High Huddle crew goes around the table to find the right solution to the Broncos right tackle woes and preserve the 2020 season's prospects.
The Broncos have been blindsided by the developments with the costly James decision. Band-aid-caliber help is out there but will not be particularly youthful or cost-effective.
Donald Penn could be an option to perform swing tackle duties, even at 37 years old. Oh, what John Elway wouldn't do to secure Jason Peters right now.
The one option that I can't get behind for the Broncos as the team moves forward at the tackle position and that is doing nothing. Even if the Broncos are banking on Wilkinson and Bolles to start, the team still needs a quality swing tackle. Looking at the options inhouse, there is no one that brings any kind of confidence that they could accomplish much if called upon for game action.
When it comes to the current free-agent pool, there is one name that really sticks out to me — Demar Dotson. He started 15 games last year in Tampa Bay on one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Dotson was not perfect by any means, but I've watched a few of his games and he holds his own better than anything the Broncos fielded at the right tackle position last season. He's unlikely to cost much and brings a veteran presence to a young offensive unit.
The other option is the Broncos calling up the Pittsburgh Steelers to see what Chukwuma Okorafor would cost. He spent his rookie year working with Broncos O-Line Coch Mike Munchak when he was in Pittsburgh and showed some real promise in college, even though Okorafor didn't pick up the game of football until his junior year of high school.
Adding Okorafor would be a huge risk, but at one point, Munchak told his former team to pull the trigger on this kid so he must see something in him. I'm not sure what it would cost to acquire him via trade, but I'm also not sure what the 2021 draft will offer up with so many college players opting out of the 2020 season. Draft picks might not be as valuable as years past and Okorafor could offer some future upside with him only being 22-years old.
In dire straits, the Broncos may decide to fill the void in-house with hopes that the team will hit pay dirt with one of the young options on the roster. It's slim pickings on the street with signs pointing to possible aging vets like Donald Penn or Jared Veldheer.
Either way, a once-promising O-line just took a staggering body blow. Elway is probably not going to take a huge chance on a young unproven player and go with a familiar face. Veldheer recently retired and based on social media posts, he has already lost a lot of his playing weight.
What a pickle. Unlike the cornerback position, relying on the unproven youth on the offensive tackle depth chart to rise to the occasion does not feel like a winning solution. Necessity is the mother of invention, which means the Broncos are going to have to get creative because outside of Cordy Glenn, there aren't any quick-fix solutions on the free-agent market. And even Glenn is less-than-ideal.
Although I doubt it happens, if I were in those coaches meetings, I'd be advocating to kick Dalton Risner over from left guard to right tackle. Risner was a stud at right tackle for multiple years at Kansas State and meets all the size/measurement requirements to hang at the NFL level.
Two downside risks present themselves when it comes to moving Risner. One, any team is loathe to risk upsetting the apple cart by risking derailing the momentum of a promising young player. Risner had his ups and downs as a rookie but started all 16 games at left guard. He established an impressive foundation with which to springboard off of in Year 2.
The other risk is upsetting the chemistry Risner has built playing next to Bolles. Bolles really showed improvement down the stretch last year and while I'm inclined to attribute it more to the insertion of Drew Lock at quarterback and the coaching impact of Munchak, having the steady presence of Risner playing next to him likely played some role in the turnaround.
If Risner did get moved to right tackle, the Broncos have several in-house options to plug in at left guard, including Wilkinson, who started seven games at right tackle in 2018 where played the best ball of his career. Austin Schlottmann would also be an option. It's a pick your poison proposition. Would you rather your O-line weakness be inside at left guard or on the edge at right tackle? Based on the plague the right tackle position has been to the Broncos offense over the last few years, the answer is self-evident.
The Broncos seemed to gamble on the tackle position this offseason, failing to address it in free agency and the draft; and so far that decision is coming up snake eyes. Even with Wilkinson coming off the PUP list, Denver’s options at tackle are dire.
Given the not-so-secret rumors that the team is in financial hardship, with plenty of cap space but lacking actual cash to spend, Denver might be most prudent to simply roll over the cap savings from James this year to cover his costs next year. If the Broncos can find a warm body to start at right tackle for no more than $4 million, the team should look, but the lack of cash and then thin market likely means no big moves are imminent.
While there are several free-agent options available, none are that appealing. However, Jeffrey Essary of Mile High Report had an interesting suggestion. Chris Hubbard lost his starting right tackle job after the Browns signed Jack Conklin and he renegotiated his contract. Hubbard wasn’t particularly good in 2019, but he has played for offensive line coach Mike Munchak before, so he wouldn’t have much of a learning curve.
The Broncos should certainly talk to the Browns to see if they are interested in dealing Hubbard. If not, Cordy Glenn may be the best free-agent option, because he's just 28 years old and has had experience at multiple positions. Otherwise, the Broncos are likely to ride it out with Wilkinson and hope for the best.
Is anyone in Broncos Country really surprised that James will not be available in 2020? While nobody could have predicted a global pandemic, I respect James' right as a man to opt-out of the season under the newly-amended CBA. My biggest frustration comes with Wilkinson moving back to right tackle.
Much like last year, Wilkinson will be playing an unnatural position. The NFL is anything but fair or forgiving. The biggest miss in the rear-view mirror must be that Denver decided not to draft an offensive tackle this past spring. I'm not a fan of moving Dalton Risner at all. Risner at left and Graham Glasgow at right guard will assist rookie Lloyd Cushenberry as the projected starting center.
The interior of the O-line is intelligent and strong. Bolles is the incumbent left tackle and for this season, is not going anywhere. There are many questions surrounding James' heart and the love of football. However, this is a decision James had to make as a man with a family and that should be respected.
I've said it multiple times over the past several months, and it especially bears repeating after the news today: the right tackle position is the biggest liability on Denver's offensive line, not Bolles. Whether that was the unknown health condition of James or the inconsistency of Wilkinson, right tackle was a massive question mark heading into 2020.
This is certainly a much different scenario than James having the injury bug strike yet again and while I don't blame him for his decision, Denver desperately needed James on the field this year. It sounds like the Broncos are looking in-house first when it comes to plugging this hole.
Wilkinson, Jake Rodgers, and Quinn Bailey are going to have to battle to sort it out. I'd rather see Elway utilize some of the cap space that was freed up by James opting out, but options are thin. The aforementioned Dotson and Glenn look to be the best options available, possibly even Veldheer, the former Bronco.
While this isn't my favorite option due to moving so many pieces, moving Risner may be the best road for Denver to put their best five out there on the O-line. He played the position at a high level in college and is frankly better than the depth pieces the Broncos currently have. He possesses natural tackle traits, unlike Wilkinson.
To fill in at left guard, Denver can look to Wilkinson, a natural guard, Schlottmann, Patrick Morris, or even the rookie sixth-rounder Netane Muti, if he is cleared medically to play. Simply put, the Broncos have more options to replace Risner at left guard than they do at right tackle without plugging in a natural guard at right tackle, who was terrible there in 2019.
Signing an outside player is an option, but with the salary cap poised to be reduced in 2021, it might be better to save the money to help limit that impact. It's about getting the best five out there, but also in putting players in the best position to succeed and moving Risner is the best way to achieve that. It's not ideal, but it's the best solution available to the Broncos.
• Carl Dumler organized this article.