Denver Post Broncos writer Parker Gabriel posts his Broncos Mailbag weekly during the season. Submit questions to Parker here.
Hi Parker, I’m glad to see that the Broncos made a big splash in free agency by shoring up the offensive line. I feel like it’s been a long, long time coming. Maybe we’ll get to see Russell Wilson actually have some more time instead of instantly meeting pass rushers this year. Maybe we’ll actually see a competent offense. What do you think the front five will look like in Week 1?
— Mark, Arvada
Hey Mark, thanks, as always, for writing in.
Indeed, the Broncos did make a big splash in free agency. They agreed to terms with both right tackle Mike McGlinchey (five years, up to $87.5 million) and guard Ben Powers (four years, up to $52 million) on Monday.
Certainly the Broncos were inconsistent at times in 2022 protecting Wilson, but Denver’s league-leading 63 sacks taken were not all on the offensive line, either. McGlinchey and Powers can be a big help to Russ, but he’s also got to make quicker decisions and continue to adjust — not abandon, but adjust — the frequency with which he tries to escape the pocket and extend plays.
It’s still far too early to set about writing the Broncos’ starting quintet in pen, but the two big additions do give a much clearer picture of a potential top group. From left to right: Garett Bolles, Powers, Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz and McGlinchey.
The biggest potential wrinkles from here would be if Denver got an offer it couldn’t refuse on Bolles — doesn’t seem likely given he’s coming off a lower leg fracture — or if Payton and new offensive line coach Zach Strief decide they like Meinerz at center. There’s still work to be done up front, though, and as Broncos fans have seen up close and personal, depth pieces up front can end up playing critical roles. Right now, Denver’s got Luke Wattenberg and a bunch of guys who spent all or most of 2022 on practice squads: Will Sherman, Christian DiLauro and others.
Parker, welcome to covering the NFL. How does being the beat reporter covering the Broncos compare to covering the “pro” team in Nebraska, the Cornhuskers? How is covering the pro game and the NCAA game similar and/or different?
— David Brown, Silverthorne
Hey David, thanks for the warm welcome!
The two beats are similar in a lot of ways but also have significant differences. The short version is this: They are similar in the fact that both beats have a ton of people working them, from print to radio to television to blogs and pretty much everything in between. It wasn’t foreign when I got here and saw 25 people at an OTAs news conference. Just like Lincoln, basically. It is, predictably, more competitive (though the NU beat was, too).
The NFL has a reputation for being really good at staying in the news, and it is a relentless beat, though Nebraska has a unique way of always having stuff going on, too. That’s in part because of what you referred to as the “pro” nature of Nebraska. It’s the biggest show in the state and people are all in on it, even though I covered almost exclusively lean times (insane Scott Frost hype notwithstanding). Recruiting is essentially a year-round endeavor, so while the NFL has the edge in the never-a-dull-moment factor, NU wasn’t far behind.
Really, the biggest difference is in subject matter, which sounds strange since it’s all football. But college is much more coach-centric and the NFL is player-driven. It’s a lot different working a locker room of mostly grown men (some of whom make tens of millions of dollars) than it is covering kids from the time they start getting recruited — some before they can drive — through maybe being 22 years old or so. There are also differences in covering a public university compared to a privately owned organization, obviously. At the end of the day, it’s all about covering people and there are interesting people everywhere.
It looks like Shelby Harris and Calais Campbell are free agents. Any chance the Broncos will try to pick up either of them?
— Ron, Parker
Hey Ron, like all of the free agent questions in this mailbag, consider this very much at the moment. Things are changing hourly at this point.
Either would be interesting to me, Harris obviously because of his history with the franchise and Campbell because he’s still rolling after 15 years and has a reputation as being one of the very best people in the league.
The Broncos on Monday agreed to terms with former Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen, who at 25 has four years under his belt. Denver signed him to a three-year deal worth up to nearly $48 million. He is maybe the closest comp to Dre’Mont Jones on the free agent market and was paid almost as much as Jones reportedly got in his three-year, $51 million deal with Seattle on Monday.
Now, who will they put around Allen, D.J. Jones and a couple of young guys like Matt Henningsen and Eni Uwazurike? Perhaps veterans like Campbell or Harris. Perhaps another contract for DeShawn Williams. That’s probably the sandbox Denver will be playing in the rest of free agency now that Allen is in the boat.
Hi Parker, the Chiefs said they’re not going to use the franchise tag on Orlando Brown. Assuming he doesn’t sign a long-term deal with the Chiefs before the franchise tag deadline, what do you think about Denver signing him and trading Bolles? Not sure what we would get for him but this scenario would give an upgrade at left tackle and add a draft pick this year. Thoughts? Thanks.
— Brandon, Rogers, Minn.
Hey Brandon, interesting thought. Seems unlikely for several reasons, but let’s work through it. I was told in recent weeks that Denver’s had no talks of trading Bolles. That can always change, but A) he’s coming off an injury and probably not at peak value to other teams currently; B) That leaves a hole at left tackle (your hypothetical addresses this); and C) Bolles would still count $8 million against the cap if he’s traded before June 1, which would be the case if you’re banking on getting a 2023 draft pick or picks for him.
Denver’s got cap flexibility, but taking on $8 million for Bolles plus whatever you’d have to pay Brown to get him would be steep, especially with McGlinchey now checking in with a $17.5 million average annual value (though likely a lower cap number in 2023) on the right side.
There’s a lot of offseason left, but Bolles to me looks like he’s approaching a crossroads year in Denver more than a trade candidate right now. He’s 31 and if his deal doesn’t get modified, the Broncos could move on after 2023 for $4 million in 2024 dead cap and net $16 million in cap savings. On the other hand, if he plays great under Payton and new offensive line coach Zach Strief, then no problem. Your left tackle is in place for a few more years.
What kind of offense does Sean Payton run? West Coast? Run heavy? Do they use the zone-blocking schemes?
— Ken G., Denver
Hey Ken, great question. Payton doesn’t have one thing that he never moves off of. Really, this is true for most play-callers, but 15 years in New Orleans has given him plenty of opportunity to show he can adjust based on the personnel he’s got at any given time. Even with Drew Brees for all of those seasons except for one, Payton called different styles of games in 2009 when the Saints won the Super Bowl than he did in 2020 when Brees was still putting up excellent numbers but with diminished arm strength.
All of that being said, Payton’s roots are in the traditional West Coast system. He said this during Super Bowl week in the midst of an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show:
“When I got into the league in 1997, it was under the (Jon) Gruden, Ray Rhodes (types). It was the West Coast, (Mike) Holmgren, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana. All of the cutups were Montana. It was the Bible. I still have all these tapes.”
He also said something illustrative recently about how most coaches run stuff from all different types of systems and a lot of what they refer to their “system” as depends on whether in their playbook they number protections and name routes or name protections and number routes. I couldn’t locate the exact quote from last month, but here’s a similar one from 2018 to ESPN: “”You’re really talking about a Mac vs. a personal computer,” Payton said, adding, “All systems can give you the same type of plays. It’s just, ‘How is it communicated? Are we naming the formation? Are we numbering the protection and then naming the route?’ It varies — and all are effective. All of us, though, are searching to streamline that constantly. So you find yourself with words that you’re implementing to be one syllable — you know, ‘wasp’ — or those terms that come out of your mouth cleanly and quickly.
“In your hurry-up or no-huddle, you might just say a word, and then everyone’s understanding, ‘It’s this play.’”
Also, consider this: On the first day of free agency with Payton as the head coach, the Broncos signed two offensive linemen known as road graders in the run game plus a blocking tight end at a total cost of more than $80 million guaranteed. What do you think that says about the kind of offensive philosophy he has in mind for Russell Wilson and company?
Any chance we pick up Trevor Siemian in free agency? I always liked him in Denver and he has a history with Sean Payton.
— Mike, Denver
Hey Mike, that would have been the kind of ballpark Payton wanted to mine for a No. 2 quarterback, but that spot is likely settled now with Denver agreeing to terms with Jarrett Stidham on Monday.
Are we going to see a Broncos-themed beer from offensive line coach Zach Strief’s Port Orleans brewery?
— Max, Golden
Maybe a partnership with a brewery around here, too? There are plenty of options. And if they call The Post for a story (and a tasting), all the better. Hopefully Zach reads the mailbag.
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