DENVER — After they made Ja'Wuan James the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history, the Broncos talked optimistically about their newfangled offensive line. Two months later, they confront the hard part: Production from the maligned group.
Denver invested heavily upfront, signing James to a four-year, $51-million contract with $32 million guaranteed. The addition of James coupled with new line boss Mike Munchak creates optimism not this tangible since the playoff run of the grunts. The group features intrigue and questions. The current lineup, which is fluid as Ron Leary recovers from Achilles surgery, looks like this:
LT Garret Bolles
LG Ron Leary
C Connor McGovern
RG Dalton Risner
RT Ja’Wuan James
The Broncos' offense continued its sponsorship with Ambien, boring fans with its 20.6 points per game, ranking 24th in the league. Denver’s issues can be traced to the passing game, with the onus on Joe Flacco to caffeinate the attack. The Broncos finished with 19 passing touchdowns, 24th best, and 15 interceptions, ninth most. Denver allowed a respectable 34 sacks, but the 24 holding calls were a huge reason the Broncos boasted the second most penalties overall.
What needs to change? What is the desirable identity for the offensive line? I asked James as he attended a community event at Godsman Elementary where 70 graduating fifth-graders received bikes and helmets courtesy of United Health Care.
“I just talked with Ron (Leary) about this. I want people to turn on the film, and be like, ‘Man, we have to play the Broncos this week.’ I want them to see us on film playing hard, finishing plays and dumping guys,” said James, who hopes to continue his community involvement through Boys & Girls clubs. “I want to see us get have respect. That’s the big thing in this league, earning respect.”
It starts with Munchak. He remains one of the league’s premier assistant coaches, choosing to join the Broncos after a successful run in Pittsburgh to be closer to his daughter. Munchak brings an unmatched resume as a gold jacket player and well-regarded mentor.
“Coach Munch, he relates so well to us. That’s why every player he’s coached loves him. He has sat in that chair. He’s done it at the highest level, a Hall of Famer,” James said. “He has that nasty in him. He knows what he wants from us.”
While the line is a work in progress – the team lost steady center Matt Paradis to Carolina in free agency and desperately needs Bolles to find consistency in his third season – the offense has a new rudder. As defensive tackle Shelby Harris said on NFL Network on Thursday, “It’s Joe’s time.”
Flacco arrived with an edge after his run ended abruptly in Baltimore. Multiple players have admitted that the offense has lacked a leader since Peyton Manning retired. Flacco represents the fifth quarterback in the cockpit since the Super Bowl 50 victory. Flacco is eager to prove this team should believe in him. He reacted like a professional to the team’s drafting of Drew Lock, bent on showing he has a second chapter in his career.
“I would just say it's the way he carries himself. He’s not overpowering as a new guy. He’s just showing us with his leadership. I feel like guys just respect him regardless. He’s been there,” James said. “He brings a lot of wisdom. We have a young team, a young offense, so guys gravitate toward him. He’s a Super Bowl quarterback.”