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Mason's Mailbag: Reggie Walker, the offensive line and zone-blockers in the draft

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

Why sign Reggie Walker when Nate Irving was still available?
-- Rick Jones

Yes, Irving was still available, but after a free-agent tour, he signed with the Colts on Friday, where he will have a better chance to compete for a starting job -- and a chance for more money. Irving's contract could be worth $9.25 million over three years, according to NFL.com. If he reaches that mark, his average per year would be over $700,000 higher than the combined 2015 cap hit for Steven Johnson, Todd Davis, Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson ($2,374,940, per overthecap.com).

Johnson's work in place of Irving during the second half of the season offered the Broncos assurance that he could be a two-down thumper against the run when needed in relief of Brandon Marshall or Danny Trevathan, the two projected starters at inside linebacker. The Broncos could ride the linebackers they have and be in good shape, but might supplement the corps in the draft, especially with Trevathan's contract expiring after the 2015 season.

Walker is also helpful on special teams. Which brings us to …

Walker's addition is crucial, especially coming on the heels of Jacob Tamme's departure for Atlanta. New coordinator Joe DeCamillis wants to improve the consistency of the Broncos' return and coverage units, and eliminate the penalties that plagued them last year. Walker should help that, while providing more experienced depth on defense. Walker, Johnson, re-signed long snapper Aaron Brewer and safety David Bruton will be the foundational building blocks for the entire special-teams unit.

**

What in the world are we doing? The weakest link on the Broncos is the offensive line and we need at least three new starters and the best we can do so far is maybe a released backup. THIS is supposed to protect Peyton? We can NOT depend on rookies. What is the plan????**
-- Richard Beckman

You can depend on rookies if they're the right ones. New England and Seattle had one rookie apiece on their starting Super Bowl XLIX offensive lines: Bryan Stork (Patriots) and Justin Britt (Seahawks). It would come as no surprise if the Broncos draft an offensive lineman early, and if that lineman is a study, he could go into the lineup right away -- although Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison's offenses have typically been able to find quality linemen in the mid-to-late rounds, often giving them a rookie season to develop before dropping them into the starting lineup.

Right now, you could see two 2014 draft picks with a year of development time working onto the first team, depending on their progress: center Matt Paradis and right tackle Michael Schofield. Both have been mentioned by Kubiak and John Elway in recent weeks as possibilities for extensive playing time.

But the Broncos still have their starting center from Super Bowl XLVIII (Manny Ramirez) and two tackles who started on the right side last year (Chris Clark and Paul Cornick). With those players in the lineup at various points, Manning remained upright, and the Broncos won far more often than not.

Shelley Smith is a released backup, yes, but he was a starter early last year before injuring his knee, and he knows what Kubiak and Dennison want because of his experience in zone-blocking schemes, particularly with Houston from 2010-11, where he did not play in the regular season, but did get two years of development.

And don't forget that you've got two recent All-Pros as building blocks: left tackle Ryan Clady and right guard Louis Vasquez. That foundational combination is one most teams envy. Clady should be back to his old form with another offseason to put between him and his Lis franc injury.

The constraints of the salary cap and a cash budget make it unrealistic to have five Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. You have to make choices. But Kubiak and Dennison have developed a slew of offensive linemen who had long, productive NFL careers. There's no reason to believe they won't do it again.

Why does it appear that the Broncos seem largely unmentioned on the NFL news site during this free agency season except for those leaving the Broncos?
-- Jonny Erickson

Because the Broncos made their splashes in re-signing Chris Harris Jr. (potentially $42.5 million over five years), picking up the fifth-year option on Von Miller ($9.754 million) -- who is in their long-term plans -- and placing the franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas ($12.823 million) while working toward a long-term extension with him. Those players will account for $25.577 million under the Broncos' salary cap.

Compare that with the cap figures for four key departures: Julius Thomas, Orlando Franklin, Terrance Knighton and Rahim Moore. According to overthecap.com, they will count for $22,150,000 under this year's cap for their teams. Harris, Miller and Demaryius Thomas have seven Pro Bowl selections among them; Franklin, Knighton, Moore and Julius Thomas have two.

It's much easier to try and replace good talent than elite talent.

**

Hey Mase, if you set aside salary caps for a minute, from a purely dollars and cents standpoint, how much do you think Peyton Manning has meant to the Broncos and the city of Denver the last three years? In terms of ticket prices, merchandise sales, and increased interest in the Broncos around the country, I'd guess his value to be a lot higher than his salary.**
-- Gary Ukele

To the city of Denver, the amount is virtually incalculable. The increased exposure of the city with more national television broadcasts can't be accurately measured.

The merchandise sales don't have the impact of other revenue streams because of the league's revenue-sharing plan. The Broncos keep the difference between retail and wholesale prices on merchandise sold at the team shops they run, but beyond that, all clothing and paraphernalia go into the common league fund, from which the Broncos and all other clubs draw a 1/32 share.

But you can get a grasp on ticket sales -- especially from premium seats alone, which are the toughest to sell, but also have the highest benefit, because revenue from premium (club seats and luxury suites) is not shared. (General seating is split 60-40 between the home and visiting teams. This is why the Broncos have a robust, diligent premium sales department.)

Premium seats accounted for much of the difference in average per-game preseason and regular-season tickets distributed from the 2010-11 seasons (74,581) to 2012-14 (76,477), when full sellouts (including premium seating) became the norm. Manning had a profound impact there.

There are three tackles upon whom I've focused: Pitt's T.J. Clemmings, Oregon's Jake Fisher and, as a third-day sleeper, Virginia Tech's Laurence Gibson, who has the physical qualities for the scheme (quickness, long arms, intelligence), but needs plenty of technical refinement and is likely a one-to-two-year project.

But among all offensive linemen, I'm highest on Duke guard Laken Tomlinson as a zone blocker. He's agile for his size, has the intelligence that a zone-blocking-centric philosophy requires and he can quickly read and react to stunts and twists. His work in a complex college offensive scheme will ease his transition to the NFL. It would be no surprise if he's a Week 1 starter for the team that selects him.

Can you see the Broncos go after Phillip Rivers next offseason or will it be time to develop a young QB? #AskMase — R | G (@rtgeorgia) March 19, 2015

I can't see that happening.

Philip Rivers is still under contract for this season, the Chargers could slap the franchise tag on him for next year, and although the Chargers are exploring a plan to build a stadium in Carson, Calif. with the Raiders, they could end up staying in San Diego, which would eliminate the concerns Rivers conveyed in an interview with U-T San Diego. And no matter the Chargers' venue, a trade of Rivers is "highly unlikely," per an NFL.com report this week.

And since a young quarterback would likely take time to develop -- because the Broncos certainly don't expect to be picking near the top of the draft in 2016 -- you'd like to have the plan for a young quarterback already in place this year, whether it's with Brock Osweiler or somebody else. You can't rely on Rivers potentially being available; there's too many variables between now and then.


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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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