The Denver Broncos are looking to improve their offensive line after some unfortunate ups and downs last year. The Broncos' O-line had a premier player opt-out due to COVID-19, another would test positive in-season, while one would take a step back from his success the previous season.
And, the team inserted a rookie into the starting lineup, complicating things for the veterans on each side of him. However, Denver has to continue to grow upfront in order to help the offense get off on the right foot in 2021.
Here are three keys to that happening.
Start Faster Inside
The 2020 season for the O-line interior got off to a very rocky start last year. With the lack of OTAs and preseason, it hampered the interior trio's ability to hit the ground running.
At left guard, center, and right guard, the Broncos fielded a trio with zero experience playing together because two were new additions procured through free agency and the draft. Dalton Risner was joined by Denver's young third-round draft pick Lloyd Cushenberry at center with the free-agent acquisition Graham Glasgow stepping in at right guard.
Cushenberry struggled to adapt to the speed and strength of the NFL talent at center, and routinely had trouble maintaining his position, often being pushed back into the quarterback. It wasn't just Cushenberry facing this problem; it was something the entire interior dealt with.
Having said that, as time went on, the trio did begin to gel, and the rookie got better with each passing week.
Stay Healthy (Easier Said Than Done)
A team’s ability to remain healthy is vital to its success and there is a little luck involved. Denver had trouble maintaining all five of its starters on the field together for a myriad of reasons.
Ja'Wuan James opted out of the season and his replacement at right tackle — Elijah Wilkinson — would suffer a leg injury, forcing him onto short-term injured reserve, while Glasgow missed games with a foot injury, as well as testing positive for COVID-19.
The Broncos' starting five has to stay on the field together. Meanwhile, the team still needs to focus on developing its younger players in case the injury bug strikes again.
Adding Depth via the Draft
Denver will need to address the offensive line in the NFL draft to add depth and even consider adding a possible replacement (or successor) at right tackle. James’ constant lack of availability has become a problem for the team.
As a result, some mocks have the Broncos drafting offensive line as early as the first round with prospects like Northwestern's Rashawn Slater projected to land in Denver. Most think the team will address the needs on the O-line in the second or third round of the draft with talented players such as Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, Oklahoma State's Tevin Jenkins, or Wisconsin's Cole Van Lanen.
O-line coach Mike Munchak has had time this offseason to evaluate the weaknesses upfront and should be able to fine-tune the unit's shortcomings to match the legitimate talent the Broncos possess, especially with Garett Bolles turning the corner last year and Risner finally looking to have his own coming-out party in Year 3.
As the 2020 season progressed, the O-line really did show promise and progress. Denver will need to continue to build on the success it had late last season.
Allowing Drew Lock to have those few extra seconds to find the open receiver, without an inside rusher in his face, will be key to helping the third-year QB avoid all those costly turnovers. The interior trio coming together will give Melvin Gordon more opportunities to hit the holes at full speed and gain huge chunks of yards on a more consistent basis, mitigating three-and-outs and allowing the Broncos to dominate time-of-possession.
At the end of the day, the O-line will have to come together and stay healthy (for the most part) in order for the Broncos' offense to truly thrive in Year 2 of the Pat Shurmur era.
Follow Kenneth on Twitter @KennethMHH.
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