Broncos begin rebuilding O-line in free agency
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway cycles through quarterbacks and head coaches at a dizzying rate. Yet, what’s really an annual rite of spring in Denver is his shuffling of the Broncos’ offensive line.
After hiring his fourth head coach in six seasons and swapping out quarterbacks again this offseason, the Broncos general manager targeted Ja’Wuan James in free agency, luring the ex-Dolphins lineman with a four-year deal worth up to $51 million, making him the NFL’s highest-paid right tackle.
James’ arrival coincides with the departure of two of Denver’s own free agents, center Matt Paradis to the Panthers (three years, $27 million) and swing tackle Billy Turner to the Packers (four years, $29.5 million).
Elway also filled another dire need, striking a three-year, $33 million deal with ex-Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson in the negotiating window before the league’s new year began Wednesday.
Jackson replaces Bradley Roby, a former first-round pick who agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal with Houston after an awful first season as a starter in Denver last year following Aqib Talib’s trade to the Rams.
Jackson is the kind of sure tackler and hard hitter that new head coach Vic Fangio favors, and James is a player the Broncos coveted for new O-line coach Mike Munchak. James also played under new assistant O-line coach Chris Kuper for the last three years in Miami.
James, who has missed major portions of the season with injuries in two of the last four years, replaces Jared Veldheer, last year’s veteran fix at right tackle, in a line protecting Joe Flacco, Elway’s seventh quarterback since Peyton Manning’s retirement three years ago.
With the strongest snowstorm in Colorado since at least 1950 closing airports and highways, the Broncos pushed back introductory news conferences for their new players until Friday.
But Elway did sit down with Broncos TV to discuss his additions, saying, “We think Kareem and the physicality he brings to the defensive side and the athleticism that Ja’Wuan has at right tackle, they’re both great fits for us.”
NFL rules prohibited the Broncos from discussing Flacco’s acquisition until the start of the new league year on Wednesday, and Elway told the NFL Network that at 34, Flacco’s “arm strength is still great” and “he’s just going into his prime.”
Flacco fits Elway’s quarterback profile: he’s tall, plays under center and can throw the deep pass, as he proved in the playoffs in 2012 with that 70-yard touchdown heave to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of regulation in Baltimore’s double-overtime win in Denver. The victory propelled the Ravens to a win in the Super Bowl.
Elway traded a fourth-round pick to Baltimore for Flacco, then shipped incumbent Case Keenum to Washington along with a 2020 seventh-rounder for a 2020 sixth-rounder in a pair of deals that became official Wednesday.
Keenum was a disappointment in Denver, going 6-10 after leading the Vikings to an 11-3 record and the NFC championship game in 2017. It wasn’t all his fault, however — he lost his top receiver, two top tight ends and three O-line starters to injuries.
Elway has had a tough time building a solid offensive line.
Twice, he signed two veteran O-linemen only to watch them get hurt or fizzle out.
In 2016, he signed tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson. The Broncos declined Okung’s option after one middling season and Stephenson started 16 games over two seasons before his release. In 2017, the Broncos signed tackle Menelik Watson and guard Ronald Leary. Watson started seven games and was cut the following August, and Leary sustained a season-ending torn Achilles in Week 6 last season.
Elway’s best O-line acquisition in free agency was guard Louis Vasquez in 2013. Vasquez was named All-Pro his first year in Denver and started 47 games over three seasons.
Elway has also selected at least one offensive lineman in each of his eight draft classes so far. His hits include Orlando Franklin and Paradis. Philip Blake and Vinston Painter were major misses and 2017 first-rounder Garett Bolles, who leads the league in holding calls over the last two seasons, is Munchak’s major reclamation project this offseason.
The secondary also was a primary need for the Broncos, who released safety Darian Stewart and had three cornerbacks who are unrestricted free agents and a fourth, Brandon Langley, who is switching to receiver.
Jackson was the most versatile cornerback on the open market. Although he’ll turn 30 next month, he’s coming off the best season of his nine-year NFL career, all in Houston. He posted 87 tackles, broke up 17 passes and forced two fumbles, all of which were career bests.
Fangio will pair him with star cornerback Chris Harris Jr., the last remaining member of the “No Fly Zone” secondary that was the backbone of the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 team.
Like Harris, Jackson is adept at playing outside or in the slot and has also lined up at safety.
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