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Analysis: Russell Okung completes Broncos' O-line makeover

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Coming on the heels of the addition of Donald Stephenson, the Broncos' makeover of the O-line continued.

Russell Okung

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- None of what has happened on the offensive line so far in the new league year should come as a surprise.

It shouldn't, because Head Coach Gary Kubiak and Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway made it abundantly clear at the NFL Scouting Combine that the line was the area most in need of improvement after an injury-riddled, inconsistent performance in 2015.

"Obviously it's a position that we feel like we need to improve upon offensively," Kubiak said Feb. 24.

"Obviously that’s an area where we need to get better," Elway added one day later. "That's going to be a focal point for us this year as we go into free agency as well as the draft."

The Broncos now hope that different = better.

With the release of Louis Vasquez, the free-agent departure of Evan Mathis and the additions of Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in the last eight days, the Broncos' line is guaranteed to have a dramatically different look than it did in Super Bowl 50 -- or at any point before. Only Matt Paradis is projected to be back at the position he started on Feb. 7.

Okung is immediately penciled in as the starter at left tackle, having handled that role for the last six seasons in Seattle, one of which saw him in the Pro Bowl.

Although he has dealt with injuries in his career and has not played 16 games in a season, he has missed just five games in the last two and a half seasons since returning from injured reserve midway through the Seahawks' 2013 world-championship season.

Most importantly, his health is on the upswing. The shoulder injury he suffered in the Seahawks' divisional-round loss at Carolina in January will be fully healed well in time for training camp.

That contrasts with Ryan Clady, with whom Elway was talking about a restructured contract. While Okung's durability has improved the last three years, Clady has played in just 19 of a possible 55 games (including postseason) since signing a contract after the Broncos gave him the franchise tag in 2013.

With Okung on the left side and Stephenson likely to start on the right side, Ty Sambrailo's immediate future appears to be at one of the guard spots, with fellow 2015 draftee Max Garcia handling the other position. Sambrailo is expected to be back to full strength later this spring after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered in Week 3 of last year.

Michael Schofield, who started 16 games from Week 4 through the Super Bowl at right tackle, can be a swing tackle, but has some position flexibility to work at left guard, where he saw some work at Michigan.

But with Okung and Stephenson, the Broncos have two tackles that they feel fit their zone-blocking scheme perfectly; they are long, athletic, intelligent players with quick feet.

Okung's experience in zone-blocking dates back to his rookie season. The Seahawks' offensive-line coach when he was drafted was Alex Gibbs, a long-time Broncos assistant who implemented this scheme. Gibbs retired before that season, but the Seahawks used zone principles throughout the last six seasons.

With their experience on the outside and three players who just completed their first active regular seasons on the inside, the Broncos now have a combination they feel can be a long-term answer, while providing the improvement Elway and Kubiak wanted — and the consistency that last year's line lacked.