If there was a weak link for the Denver Broncos in 2016, it was the offensive line. The unit had struggled in 2015 as well, but John Elway reshuffled the deck in the offseason. Gone were starters Evan Mathis, Louis Vasquez and Ryan Harris. Elway signed free agent offensive tackles Donald Stephenson, and Russell Okung, to take their place. Younger players like Max Garcia, Matt Paradis and Ty Sambrailo would have another year of experience under their collective belts.
Yet, this group struggled more than ever.
The Broncos offensive line allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 40 times, and the running game averaged just 92.8 yards per game, ranking them 27th out of 32 teams. The game of football is won and lost in the trenches, so how did the Broncos offensive line grade out individually?
Matt Paradis (C)
Yes, the Broncos had a down year, going just 9-7, and missing the playoffs. And yes, the offensive line was a key reason for that step backward. Just don’t blame Matt Paradis for it. Despite this unit laboring in nearly every aspect of the game, Paradis posted the best season of his young career, and one of the best seasons of any center in the NFL. He rarely allows any pressure straight up the middle, and running behind him actually raised the Broncos rushing average.
Following the season, Paradis underwent a pair of hip surgeries that could help him be even better next year. Paradis should continue a long line of very good centers in Denver.
Final grade: A
Max Garcia (G)
The Broncos felt confident that they could allow Evan Mathis to leave a year ago, because they believed that Max Garcia could step up and take over the job. Unfortunately, like most young players, the second-year pro was a little inconsistent. He was very average against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3, and the Jacksonville Jaguars defense blew up the entire line in Week 13. Yet, in Week 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Garcia was phenomenal. He protected quarterback Trevor Siemian very well against a very good pass rush. Garcia should continue to get better, and if he gets more consistent, he will be a sturdy guard for the future.
Final grade: B-
Michael Schofield (G/T)
Schofield was a favorite punching bag for many Broncos fans in 2015, but it isn’t his fault he was forced to play out of position. He is clearly more suited to play guard, rather than outside at the tackle position, and he was improved in 2016 because of the move. The Broncos would like him to add some strength, and get better in his run blocking, but he is showing improvement, and the interior of this offensive line is developing into a strength.
Final grade: C-
Donald Stephenson (T)
You might be reading these grades so far, and wondering how they are possible, considering how bad the offensive line played this year. Please keep in mind, that no position on the offensive line is as important as the tackles. That is where the top speed rushers in the game are coming from, and that is where the Broncos were the worst.
After signing a three-year deal worth $14 million, no one may have been as disappointing as Stephenson. He was consistently ranked among the worst tackles in the game. That was never displayed quite as clearly as the Week 12 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston victimized Stephenson to the tune of 10 tackles, three sacks, and was in the backfield on nearly every play. The good news for Stephenson is that next year has to be better, because it simply can’t be any worse.
Final grade: F
Russell Okung (T)
Okung was definitely bad at times, but the good news for the Broncos is that he was on a “prove it or lose it” deal. Okung actually negotiated his own contract with Denver, and as a result, he won’t see a dime after his first year.
The Broncos have already stated that they will not pick up his option going forward. Okung actually wasn’t that bad when he managed to keep his pass rusher in front of him, but he was penalized nine times, ranking him among the league’s worst. Okung is an average tackle that is no longer capable of consistently blocking the best pass rushers in the game.
Final grade: D
Ty Sambrailo (T)
We all know the struggles that Donald Stephenson had this season. So, when he finally had to be replaced at right tackle, who did the Broncos have to turn to? The one guy on the roster that was just as bad, if not worse.
The Broncos selected Sambrailo two years ago, in the 2015 NFL Draft, with the 59th overall pick. His strength has been a problem, thanks in part to a shoulder injury, and he has allowed quarterback hurries, hits, and sacks. Running behind him has not gone any better, and opposing defenses actually begin to key on the opposite side when he enters the game. The Broncos have to hope at this point that Sambrailo’s career can still be salvaged.
Final grade: F