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Mason's Mailbag: Making the play-fake bootleg work -- when it's used

(And before you ask, we shot the video Mailbag on Wednesday. That's why it reflects Antonio Smith as a possibility, not as a member of the Broncos.)

As always, you can tweet questions to me with the hashtag #AskMase, use the submission form or scroll to the bottom of this page.*

First of all, 40 time is irrelevant. A bootleg doesn't require straight-line running, and the quarterback isn't sprinting 40 yards. In the Broncos' case, a bootleg with Manning, if used, will lead to a pass almost all the time. What you want from the bootleg starts with a play-action, which gets the defense to hesitate in coverage and create open space.

"It's going to be something that we do," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said March 23. "I think it helps you run the ball regardless of who your quarterback is. If it keeps people honest on the backside when you're running the ball, it helps you run the ball better."

That doesn't mean it will be a crutch on which the Broncos' offense leans. Kubiak estimated that the Ravens executed bootlegs "25-28 times" last year when he was their offensive coordinator, and what the Broncos do this year will be based around the strengths of Manning. Foot speed is not among them, but deception in the play-action game is.

"How much can (Manning) do it? I don't know. But I know we'll run the ball and we'll play fast," Kubiak said. "Peyton's been one of the best play-action players in the game for many, many years. I think we can obviously do that well."

**

With Peyton Manning at the end of his career, is it even worth having him in Denver? He is showing many signs of age, his throwing isn't the same and he made some really stupid decisions on plays. I feel that the Broncos could get a solid rookie QB at a fraction of the price that could play at the same level.**
-- Alejandro Velasquez

Althought I am tempted to use an internet meme involving Jean-Luc Picard in this space, I will only offer this:

After the Broncos changed the emphasis of their offense in Week 12 to increase the focus on the running game, Manning had an 89.5 quarterback rating from that point until the end of the postseason. In four of the seven games in that span, Manning played hurt or ill. Among the 36 quarterbacks to throw at least 50 passes from Week 12 onward, Manning's rating was higher than 20 and lower than 15. The two quarterbacks closest to Manning's rating were Tom Brady (one-tenth of a point better) and Andrew Luck (three-tenths of a point better).

Your chances of getting a rookie quarterback who could replicate Manning's performance -- which has a decent chance of improving from the last seven games if the zone-blocking scheme works as it should -- are slim to none. And that says nothing about the team accomplishments since Manning arrived: three division titles and more wins (40, including postseason) in the last three seasons than in the previous five (36, including postseason).

So to answer your question, yes, it's well worth having him in Denver.

**

As a prelude to my question let me say, I am happy about Manning's return for another run. Now that being said, I saw a great number of Denver fans arguing this as a bad decision, and given the booing in the Colts playoff game, it appears the fans are not supportive of their Hall of Fame QB. How then do you see the support during home games, and will Manning have the same "quiet control" while shouting his "Omaha" snap counts? I hate to see him go out without his fans. Even if they are loyal, they didn't show it postseason and after. -- Randy Hulse**

I'll preface my answer with my time-tested refrain: booing isn't the worst reaction. Indifference is. Booing isn't disloyalty, although it should be used sparingly. (To wit: I moved to Tampa in 1987 at age 11 and became a Buccaneers fan. It took 188 games -- 121 of them losses until I finally booed the team, because it was apparent the team dogged it early in what would become a 28-25 loss to Detroit in November 1998. However, I booed referees and individual players who were criminal miscreants with vigor.)

I can't speak for what caused fans to boo during the divisional-round loss to the Colts, but I suspect it wasn't just about the quarterback. Maybe it was frustration over the way the game was going. But perhaps they sensed in the moment what John Elway expressed so well two days later: that the team didn't go out "kicking and screaming" in either of its last two playoff losses.

Will fans still be quiet when Manning makes his calls at the line? I expect that will be the case. Their goal is the same as Manning's: to win. I'd like to believe that when the games arrive, all of Broncos Country will pull in the same direction despite disagreements between fans over the state of the team, Manning's return, or any other pertinent topic.

Don't hold your breath.

I don't see it happening as long as the NFL mandates that teams use only one helmet of the same color per season, unless there is a way to use computer/tablet-style "skins" over the current helmets without looking unprofessional. Any throwbacks under the current parameters would require having an incorrect helmet, and if you can't get the helmet right, it's not worth wearing throwbacks. The helmet issue is also why the Patriots, Falcons and Buccaneers no longer wear the throwbacks they used in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

With all the talk that Denver "MUST" draft offensive line help or possibly an edge rusher, aren't these positions that can be addressed pretty much anytime in the draft? Especially since the Broncos are drafting so low and blue-chip linemen will most likely be gone.

Why wouldn't you draft the best player available at your time of picking -- no matter what position he might play?

Say a player like running back Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon or even Ameer Abdullah is there. Why would Denver pass?
-- Tim Hannig

It's about the best player available, but it's also about the value that exists later. There are quality running backs available in subsequent rounds, and the history of the zone-blocking-intensive scheme that the Broncos will run is that effective runners can be found in later rounds, among undrafted players or on the scrap heap of veterans. Look at Justin Forsett in Baltimore last year. When he joined the Ravens, the news made barely a ripple outside of Baltimore. By the end of the season, he had 1,266 yards and more yardage than any running back with at least 60 carries.

Conversely, edge pass rusher is a premium position that dictates a premium draft point. In recent years, Bruce Irvin and Dee Ford were first-round picks, and both were widely considered one-dimensional players on the edge: potentially elite pass rushers who could struggle against the run. Quarterback is another premium position that, with the exception of Russell Wilson, has required a first-round pick to have the potential for success in the last nine drafts.

As for offensive linemen, yes, the blue-chip left tackles will be gone by pick No. 28. But right tackles and interior offensive linemen should have some top-drawer talents remaining. Further, Kubiak and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison are among the best at identifying mid-to-late-round (or undrafted) offensive linemen and developing them:

That doesn't mean the Broncos won't pick an offensive lineman in the first round; they used their first 2003 pick on offensive tackle George Foster. But along their offensive line, each position has at least one player with starting experience somewhere on the depth chart, and center, left guard and right tackle have young options the Broncos could develop, headlined by 2014 third-round pick Michael Schofield at right tackle.

What they did this week by trading for Gino Gradkowski and agreeing to terms with Antonio Smith was take care of two potentially pressing needs. The Broncos now have a center who knows Kubiak and Dennison's offense and a defensive end who provides the final piece of a four-man rotation.

You can look at the Broncos today and see a starting lineup and plenty of key reserves locked into place.

Long-term planning with regards to expiring contracts will play a role in Denver's draft strategy. But now the Broncos have the freedom to take the best player -- while also getting the best value from the pick.

And that brings us back to running backs. First-round RBs have struggled to justify this value, in part because of attrition and injury rate of the position. And the success of hordes of running backs in this offensive scheme makes running backs more fungible assets than players at other positions. The abundance of depth at the position also factors into the mix.

**

I have checked and can find old articles on how much salary cap we have in FA, but nobody seems to know. Why isn't that published more? Of course how much do we have as of this email? -- Platts Geraldf**

The NFLPA generates a daily report that it makes public on its website. However it doesn't include moves that were made public in recent days, because it takes some time for those to be finalized (for instance, Antonio Smith only agreed to terms Thursday). Therefore, the cap space shown as of Friday, April 3 ($10,609,568) does not reflect Smith or the trade for Gradkowski.

Because only the top 51 contracts count toward the cap-space calculation, it's not as simple as adding Gradkowski's cap value ($1.542 million, according to overthecap.com) and Smith's cap number ($2 million, per various reports) to the cap figure. Instead, you're adding the difference between their salaries and the $660,000 figures of players around the 51-contract cutline. That would leave the Broncos with $8.39 million of cap room. But with a draft-pick pool expected to be in the upper $5 million to $6 million range, the Broncos likely have somewhere between $2 and $2.5 million of working room left.

I have been an advocate of allowing the offensive Line to run block on pass plays -- allowing for a 5-yard neutral zone. I believe it would open up the game to more play options and also change how defenses are called. What do you think?
-- Monte Miller

I don't think the offenses need any more help than other recent rules changes have already provided, unless the move made with player safety in mind. The restriction on offensive linemen releasing until the pass is fired provides a necessary check. Getting rid of it would be a bit like eliminating the offside rule in soccer -- and as a soccer aficionado, I do not wish to see 7-6 matches becoming the norm (unless we're talking about indoor soccer).

What is Mike Shanahan's won/lost record as a coach in seasons when the the QB is not Joe Montana, Steve Young or John Elway?
-- J.D. Smith

Shanahan wasn't a head coach of Joe Montana or Steve Young, and Montana never started when Shanahan was the 49ers' offensive coordinator, so that point is moot.

Taking into account games as a head coach, only Elway's starts apply to your comparison. Shanahan's teams went 43-16 (7-1 in the postseason) with Elway at quarterback, and 127-122 (1-5 in the postseason) when someone else started.


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The analysis, opinion and speculation in this story represents that of the author, gathered through research and reporting, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Denver Broncos organization.

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