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Backs to the Future

The Broncos drafted and signed a host of offensive linemen this weekend—and not just to protect Peyton Manning.

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After months of rumors and speculation about blockbuster trades, the NFL Draft unfolded last weekend in fairly conventional fashion. Although there were plenty of deals, the vast majority of them involved swaps of mid-to-low-round picks, not headline-level superstars.

That almost none of the pre-draft scuttlebutt came to fruition says more about sportswriters who rely too heavily on social media (as opposed to actual reporting) than it does about trigger-shy front office executives. Most of the NFL brass seemed content to stay whatever course they’ve chosen for their teams instead of opting for dramatic shake-ups, and the Broncos were no exception.

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John Elway and company did make one of the more dramatic trades of the weekend—moving up to land dynamic pass-rusher Shane Ray—but they primarily, and logically, played the draft somewhat conservatively. That’s because the arrival of new coach Gary Kubiak means a reversion to the zone-blocking scheme the franchise ran so successfully under Mike Shanahan in the 1990s and 2000s.

Kubiak learned the system from Shanahan as a player and assistant coach here, and he deployed it to great effect during his head-coaching tenure in Houston and his one season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator. Zone blocking emphasizes quickness and movement along the offensive line, and thus values athleticism in its offensive linemen more than size and strength. With that in mind, the Broncos used two of their first four picks on OLs (including Colorado State product Ty Sambrailo) and another one on TE Jeff Heuerman, who’s known more for his blocking than his pass-catching. The team also signed four more free agent OLs after the draft ended.

Although the obvious aim behind these moves is to “keep Peyton Manning upright,” a phrase the TV pundits uttered repeatedly, the strategy is also designed to make the Broncos’ running game that much stronger. Kubiak’s system coaxed multiple huge seasons out of Arian Foster in Houston, and the Ravens’ Justin Forsett has a career year in his one season with Kubiak running the offense. The Broncos’ rushing attack has finished in the middle of the league during the past several years, in part because Manning’s production made it almost an afterthought.

But as number 18 enters what most assume will be his final year at age 39, the pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from him seem way more unlikely. If the team’s running backs can return to the days of finishing near the top of the league, it should make Manning’s precarious physical condition much less of a concern. The Broncos finally won their two championships after they stopped relying so heavily on Elway’s arm; now Elway himself seems to realize that same adjustment is his best path back to the top.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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