By Nick Kendall
(247 SPORTS) – Football is back, baby! The Denver Broncos start their 2018 campaign with football action this coming Saturday against the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings.
Despite preseason game one being one of the more meaningless games as far as the starters on both side of the ball are concerned, it still is Bronco football and many questions that have been lingering for what feels like forever will begin to be answered. Coming off of a dreadful 5-11, the Broncos have plenty of questions marks as they take the field against a talented Vikings team.
Of course, the main storyline for this matchup will be the quarterbacks. The new quarterback — Case Keenum — versus his former team and the player to whom the Broncos were heavily tied this offseason — Kirk Cousins. After the starters are taken out, former first-round pick — and bust-to-date — Paxton Lynch will take on the quarterback who repeatedly beat him out while leading the Broncos to two sad seasons in Trevor Siemian.
Finally, to close it out, Broncos Country’s new favorite third-string seventh-round quarterback Chad Kelly will go up against former Broncos undrafted free agent Kyle Sloter. The stories write themselves. While of course the quarterbacks will receive the headlines, it should be elsewhere that fans of the Broncos and the game should direct their attention while the game is unfolding.
Keep in mind, as Coach Vance Joseph said on Thursday, Denver’s first-team unit is only expected to take the field for “maybe” two series in preseason Game 1. But here’s what matchup we should all be scrutinizing.
Outside of the monumental struggles the Broncos have had at quarterback over the last few seasons, the next area of weakness they’ve struggled at has been the offensive line. The unit the Broncos put out in 2017 was better than the group that took the field in 2016 without a doubt, making large strides in run blocking, but the pass blocking was still erratic and it left the team and fan base wanting.
However, after another year of adding talent to the roster and coaching staff, the Broncos’ offensive line should theoretically be ready to take another step forward.
2017 first round pick Garett Bolles has added another year of experience and more time to develop his NFL body, which will hopefully allow him to grow into a quality starting left tackle. He will need to cut down on his penalties, but the mentality and athleticism are undoubtedly there.
Helping Bolles tremendously will be the move of Ronald Leary from right guard to his preferred position of left guard. Last season the cement feet and slow mental processing speed of Max Garcia hampered Bolles on many occasions, so putting the savvy veteran Leary next to him should help a lot.
Matt Paradis, approaching a contract year, is the stalwart of the Broncos offensive line and is another year removed from hip issues. While not a perfect fit for the OC Bill Musgrave’s power run scheme, Paradis is technical and sound and a top-five center in the NFL.
Right guard is likely the biggest question mark for Denver’s offensive line, but there are viable options to try at the least. Connor McGovern, while a tad smaller in terms of mass for a power right guard, is very strong and athletic for the position and has held down the position all through camp. There were reports that Menelik Watson had been pushing him until he was injured, but McGovern at the least will be viable.
Finally, and perhaps the culminating piece the offensive line has been missing, is the addition of right tackle Jared Veldheer. Veldheer is a long-time NFL veteran who has spent his career in Oakland and Arizona so far.
Last season he made the transition to right tackle from left, leading to mixed results. The transition from left to right is not easy, but it is even harder when battling injury. Hopefully for his sake and the team’s, Veldheer will be healthy and help the Broncos to one of their best offensive lines the team has had in years.
Denver’s first-team offensive line is going to need to step up when on the field because the Minnesota Vikings boast one of the top-five starting defensive fronts in the entire NFL. Starting at the edge, the Vikings have veteran Everson Griffen coming off a career-best 13 sack season, who will mostly go up against Garett Bolles.
Griffen is not a true speedster off the edge, but rather a technical power player that uses his hands, strength, and leverage to hold the edge and dispose of blockers while working his way to the quarterback. Bolles will need to show added core strength and the ability to maintain blocks if he is to hold up against the highly effective Griffen.
On the other side of the line, the newly-rich and uber-talented young pass rusher of Danielle Hunter will show the team right away whether Veldheer is a legitimate option at right tackle. After receiving a contract extension of $72 million for five years, the 23-year-old pass rusher will look to return to 2016 form where he accumulated 12.5 sacks.
While not as technically proficient or powerful as Griffen on the other side, Hunter combines a ridiculously long fame with flexibility and bend not seen for his size. Veldheer, possessing less-than-ideal arm length, will have a heck of a time trying to bottle up the edge rusher and stay in front of him. If he can, that should speak volumes to the improvement at right tackle the Broncos should have this offseason.
While the Vikings possess two high-level starters at edge for the defensive line, Minnesota’s starting defensive tackles are also extremely talented and will provide a tough test, and some insight on the Broncos’ interior. Linval Joseph is perhaps a top-five nose tackle in the NFL and is both disruptive and a block eater for the Vikings.
At 6-foot-4, 323 pounds, Joseph is a mountain of a man who is almost impossible to move off the point of attack. Despite his size, he accumulated 68 total tackles last season while racking up 3.5 sacks.
The Vikings defensive front also boasts a new starter this season at defensive tackle in Sheldon Richardson. Richardson, not known for being the best in the locker room, may have finally found a home in Minnesota after playing last year in Seattle and before that in New York for the Jets — the former first-round pick.
Early in his career Richardson showed to be one of the better interior pass rushers in the NFL, but has had disappointing seasons in 2016 and 2017. Despite the sack total dipping, he still possess elite burst and penetration ability for his size and will give the Broncos’ interior a heck of a test on Saturday.
No one should expect the Broncos offensive line to be outstanding and a pillar of the team this season — there are just too many questions based on development (Bolles and McGovern) and health (Leary, Paradis, and Veldheer) for anyone to realistically expect a top-five unit in the NFL. However, given the struggles of the unit over the last few seasons, a league-average offensive line should be a welcome site for the team and fans alike.
Health and development are of course key, but how the Broncos’ first team offensive line holds up against the extremely talented Vikings front should be a strong indicator on how the unit will perform this season.