ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —Perhaps it's no surprise that following Ja'Wuan James' decision to opt out of the 2020 season, the bulk of our questions this week revolved around the tackle position.
In this edition of the mailbag, we take a look at the Broncos' options on the offensive line, how the salary cap relief could impact Denver and how James' departure could impact play-calling.
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How many players opted out? - Athala P.
Athala, the Broncos were one of 20 teams that had at least two players decide to opt out of the 2020 season. Reserve defensive lineman Kyle Peko qualified for the higher risk opt-out designation, while Ja'Wuan James was a voluntary opt-out. The New England Patriots led the league with eight opt-outs, while only three teams didn't have any players opt out. According to an ESPN report, 69 total players opted out of the season.
With Ja'Wuan James opting out, everyone is putting Elijah Wilkinson at right tackle because of what he did last year but, should we? Wilkinson has played better at guard and while I know that continuity is important, Dalton Risner did excel at right tackle in college. As good as Risner was at guard, could the combination of Wilkinson at guard and Risner at tackle be better than last year's Risner at guard and Wilkinson at tackle? - Jose B.
Jose, this is an interesting idea, and it's admittedly one I hadn't thought about. I've considered the pros and cons of moving Risner to right tackle, where he was an All-American at Kansas State. I figured that move depended on if Netane Muti would be able to step in at left guard as a rookie, but your suggestion may be more feasible. We'd have to see if Wilkinson was comfortable at left guard, because he played exclusively at right guard as he started the final seven games of 2018. If Wilkinson had to play at right guard, that would require moving Graham Glasgow to left guard — which would mean three players changing positions. That's probably more movement than the Broncos would want, especially given that an injury to one of those three players could mean the entire shift would have to be undone. I'm not sure what the future holds as Muti tries to prove his ability, but I would expect the Broncos wouldn't want to move Risner from left guard this season. He showed Pro Bowl and All-Pro potential as a rookie at that spot, and he and Garett Bolles formed some solid run lanes on the left side of the line of scrimmage. The other thing that I think works against Risner moving is the limited amount of practice time before the regular season. We've heard Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur talk about how the team will only have time to rep plays it expects to run during the season and won't be able to waste reps testing out different plays, as they normally might. I'd expect this would also mean the Broncos want to solidify an offensive line as quickly as possible. Moving Risner to tackle and testing that out for a few days or weeks is a luxury the Broncos may not have unless they're committed to sticking to that lineup for the season opener.
Hi Aric! With Ja'Wuan James' opt-out the Broncos have some spare cap room. Do you think Logan Ryan is an option on a short-term contract? - Jan B
Jan, the Broncos do get a fair amount of cap relief after James opted out of the 2020 season, but his contract tolls to next year. As you allude to in your question, that likely means the Broncos would be limited to signing a free agent to a short-term deal. According to Spotrac.com, the Broncos have the fourth-most cap space remaining for the 2020 season with north of $28 million available to spend. Presumably, that would make Ryan an option if the Broncos want to sign a veteran at the cornerback position. At this point in time, though, I would think the Broncos would spend at least the first week or so of training camp — perhaps longer — to see what they have at the cornerback position. If De'Vante Bausby or Isaac Yiadom or Michael Ojemudia prove to be sufficient, then maybe the Broncos decide against signing a big-name player. Unexpected situations — injuries or, in this case, James' opt-out — means the Broncos will have to use some of that cap space to sign players throughout the year. Given the uncertain future of the salary cap, though, perhaps the Broncos would be wise to roll over as much of the current cap space as possible.
Aric, can we expect a TE or back helping our RT leaving Bolles in more one on one situations this coming season? - William K.
William, that's always an option, but of course it limits what you're able to do in the passing game. If you keep seven men in to protect — including a running back and a tight end — you only have three players left to run routes. Luckily for the Broncos, those three players could be Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler (or Noah Fant if they're in a two-tight-end set), so Lock should still have options. There are times, though, when the tackles must survive on an island to give Lock more options. The good news for Denver is that Lock handled pressure quite well during his five starts. He was sacked just once per game, which would have led the NFL over the course of the season.
Will Phillip Lindsay keep his #1 RB spot ahead of Melvin Gordon? I think an [angry] Lindsay who has worked on his receiving abilities will give the Broncos the best option for the season? What do you think? - Adam E.
Adam, I'm excited for full-speed training camp practices to begin so that I can see how Lindsay responds on the field. He's clearly motivated, and we'll see if he's taken a step in the receiving game after Shurmur noted in January how much of an emphasis that would be for running backs. I don't mean to hedge here, but I truly believe the Broncos need both Lindsay and Gordon for their backfield to play at a high level. Each player does certain things the other one doesn't. Gordon brings the Broncos a physical back that can break tackles and is powerful inside the red zone. Lindsay, meanwhile, has game-changing speed and can squeeze through a small hole in the line of scrimmage to turn a 5-yard gain into a 50-yard score. The player that's on the field for the first offensive snap against the Titans could be very dependent upon the scenario and the personnel group. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a clear-cut starter for a few weeks.