Broncos' struggles at quarterback have mirrored OL issues

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Since Peyton Manning decided to call it a career, most folks in and around the league have been quick to say the Denver Broncos have had a significant quarterback problem.

True enough. But as they’ve cycled through four different starters at the position in the past two seasons alone, it’s been abundantly clear they’ve struggled almost as much to put a consistent group of offensive linemen in front of those quarterbacks, whose chances to succeed eroded behind lines that often struggled to protect them.

And in many ways, this was an issue long before Manning’s retirement and is still on the front burner years later as the Broncos turn to Joe Flacco at quarterback.

“Without a doubt, we’re trying to get continuity in there," said Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “It’s a goal of ours. … We’ll continue to try and improve.”

Last season was just another chapter in a long story. The Broncos used six different combinations overall on the offensive line and at least two different starters at four positions -- left guard, center, right guard and right tackle -- on the way to a 6-10 finish.

And while injuries and movement up front is a bit of a football fact of life around the league -- the New England Patriots routinely shuffle things up front, and the Los Angeles Rams were the only team in the league last season to have all five starters on the offensive line play in all 16 games -- the Broncos’ struggles at quarterback have mirrored their struggles to build a combination they like up front.

“I feel like it will be a good group," said Ja’Wuan James, whom the Broncos made the highest-paid right tackle in the league this past week. “I’m excited about what could happen and what we can do if we get to work."

After the trade for Flacco, James was one of the Broncos’ first targets in free agency with a four-year, $51 million deal.

It’s also a big reason they worked so hard to persuade Mike Munchak, who interviewed for the Broncos' head coaching job earlier this year, to join Vic Fangio’s staff as offensive line coach. Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard in his playing career, is one of the most respected line coaches in the league, and the Broncos have also hired one of their best linemen over the past two decades -- Chris Kuper -- as assistant line coach.

Kuper has been with the Miami Dolphins for the past three seasons and has coached James.

“ … [Munchak] is one of the best in the business," James said. "I feel like he's going to help me reach my full potential."

But much like at quarterback, where the Broncos don’t currently have a player at the position they drafted, the team is not really a home-grown unit up front either. Since the 2013 draft, which was Elway’s third in his current job, five of the eight offensive linemen the team has drafted are no longer with the team.

The list of those departed linemen now includes former center Matt Paradis, who signed with Carolina in free agency last week after the Broncos had concerns about his recovery from a fractured ankle that ended his 2018 season.

And among the five who would be starters for the upcoming season, left tackle Garett Bolles and center Connor McGovern are former draft picks. The player who, pending the draft or any additional work the Broncos do in free agency, would start at right guard, Elijah Wilkinson, was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2017.

Asked last week how important it was for the Broncos to put a consistent group together in front of Flacco, Elway simply said “very important," and Fangio quickly added, “Simple question, simple answer."

Still, the answer hasn’t been all that simple for the Broncos. But with a 34-year-old starting quarterback in Flacco, who is the centerpiece of their offseason work to this point, the Broncos know they have to try again.

“There is no question that it is very important for us to try and protect Joe," Elway said. “Having played that position, if you give them protection, chances of being successful are a lot better."