Let’s combine offensive line with tight end becuase, in Josh McDaniels, I don’t think there’s going be be a huge difference:
Will the Broncos be better off without zone blocking? This question deserves two answers. First, I really don’t understand those who rip the zone-blocking scheme. I think the argument that no zone-blocking team since the 1998 Broncos has won the Super Bowl is borderline delusional. The Broncos ran the ball very, very well under Mike Shanahan. Despite many different tailbacks, Denver always had success on the ground. The Broncos had more yards per carry than every single Super Bowl championship team in the 2000s except in 2007, when they tied the Giants. And that season, Denver had more yards per carry than the Patriots, one of the best teams ever. The zone-blocking scheme may have struggled a bit in short yardage, but it’s impossible to argue the results.
That said, McDaniels is obviously not comfortable with the zone-blocking scheme, so it’s best the Broncos move on. On Twitter this week I compared the zone-blocking scheme to Syracuse basketball’s 2-3 zone – it’s very successful, so why don’t more teams use it? Well, simply, neither scheme is something that a coach can pick up overnight. If a coach like McDaniels doesn’t buy into it and isn’t an expert in it, there’s not much point in sticking with it.
The hybrid of the zone-blocking scheme and a power-running scheme last season wasn’t the answer. With offensive line coach Rick Dennison and running backs coach Bobby Turner moving on to Houston and Washington, the Broncos can move on to a power-running scheme, for better or worse.
Who will be back? Changing the line scheme means changing some linemen. The Broncos need more size up front. Tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris can block in any scheme (it became apparent how valuable and underrated Harris is when he was out of the lineup with a toe injury). Assuming Harris can rebound in 2010 – McDaniels said he will have to undergo extensive rehab – the Broncos are set at tackle.
The middle of the line is up for grabs, especially with left guard Russ Hochstein’s late-season knee injury and free-agent status. Right guard Chris Kuper is also a free agent, although restricted without a new collective-bargaining agreement. Guard Ben Hamilton is a free agent and it would be a shock if he returned. Center Casey Wiegmann is signed through next season, but the Broncos could also explore other options. There really aren’t any other options on the roster to play center, which could mean Wiegmann returns. Kuper is one of the most interesting cases for the offseason – a good player that could attract interest on the free-agent market. Denver also has guard Seth Olsen, a fourth-round pick in 2009, if needed.
What becomes of the tight end position without Scheffler? I don’t assume anybody expects Tony Scheffler to be back in 2010. His season ended on a sour note with a deactivation, and he wasn’t a fit in McDaniels’ offense either. Fans are fair to wonder if he wasn’t used enough, but McDaniels’ offense does not cater to receiving tight ends like Scheffler. The Broncos will have to add to the position in the offseason, but players will probably look more like Daniel Graham, Richard Quinn and Patriots like Ben Watson and Kyle Brady – who can block and occasionally catch a pass – rather than a fleet-footed tight end like Scheffler.
What about Quinn? None of the Broncos’ five first- or second-round picks made a huge impact in 2009, but Quinn is probably the one with the most incomplete grade (safety Darcel McBath also didn’t get a lot of playing time, but did look good in limited duty at safety and was very good on special teams). Quinn didn’t play much, which helps explain his zero-catch rookie season. A two-catch, 23-yard preseason wasn’t a fantastic sign, however, especially considering he caught only 12 passes in college. He should have a chance to take a big step forward in 2010, and has a lot to prove as well.