Stephen­son, Okung’s roles in doubt af­ter up-down year

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Cameron Wolfe Cameron Wolfe: cwolfe@den­ver­post.com or @CameronWolfe

The Bron­cos went into the 2016 off­sea­son with of­fen­sive line im­prove­ments as their pri­mary fo­cus, but ul­ti­mately the re­sults were dis­ap­point­ing. The unit is one of the pri­mary rea­sons the Bron­cos will miss the play­offs for the first time since 2010.

Rus­sell Okung and Don­ald Stephen­son were ex­pected to book­end the line pro­vid­ing sta­bil­ity and a vet­eran pres­ence at left tackle and right tackle re­spec­tively. In­stead, the duo com­mit­ted a plethora of penal­ties and al­lowed edge rush­ers to feast on their quar­ter­backs.

“It’s been up and down,” Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak said. “We’ve been in­con­sis­tent as a group. They’ve both bat­tled. Rus­sell has been there every week. Don­ald missed some time. He’s played re­ally good at times and he has some things he’s got to clean up to be­come a real good player, a con­sis­tent player.”

For the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive off­sea­son, Den­ver must pri­or­i­tize up­grad­ing its of­fen­sive line. Key de­ci­sions in­clude whether to cut the cord on Okung and/or Stephen­son as the Bron­cos try to re­build that unit.

Okung hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t played up to the level his con­tract be­yond this sea­son will de­mand. He’s due a $1 mil­lion op­tion in March, which would kick in a 4-year, $48 mil­lion con­tract with another $19.5 mil­lion fully guar­an­teed.

The Bron­cos have un­til the first day of the 2017 league year, March 9, to make a de­ci­sion on whether to re­lease Okung or pick up his op­tion.

“It’s not on me. We’ll get to that hur­dle when we get there,” said Okung, on his un­cer­tain fu­ture with the Bron­cos. “For now, we still have to play Oak­land.”

Okung is on pace to start 16 games for the first time in his NFL ca­reer, but his sea­son has been de­fined by his 10, of­ten drive-killing, penal­ties and al­low­ing four sacks.

Den­ver could al­ways bring him back at a lower salary, if he’s will­ing to re­turn, since there aren’t many other vi­able op­tions. Okung made $8 mil­lion this sea­son with $3 mil­lion com­ing from play­ing time in­cen­tives.

Stephen­son’s sit­u­a­tion is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. He has a $4 mil­lion salary for each of the next two sea­sons. The Bron­cos have un­til March 13 to de­cide if they want Stephen­son to re­turn be­fore his 2017 salary be­comes guar­an­teed. They would save $3 mil­lion in 2017 cap space if he’s re­leased.

He’s strug­gled at right tackle this sea­son, but again it comes down to if the Bron­cos can find a bet­ter op­tion. He was def­i­nitely bet­ter than Ty Sam­brailo, who al­lowed seven sacks while only mak­ing four starts. Stephen­son al­lowed three sacks, but also com­mit­ted 11 penal­ties in 12 starts.

“I work my butt off,” said Stephen­son, when asked if he de­served to re­turn in 2017. “The prob­lems def­i­nitely aren’t from not try­ing. I’m giv­ing it all I got. There’s some things I’ve got to get bet­ter at.”

Cen­ter Matt Par­adis, a Pro Bowl al­ter­nate, has been the Bron­cos only con­sis­tent of­fen­sive line­man. It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to re-do the en­tire of­fen­sive line in one off­sea­son.

The 2017 NFL Draft is shap­ing up to be one of the worst in re­cent mem­ory for of­fen­sive line­man. There won’t be many free agent dif­fer­ence mak­ers at of­fen­sive tack­les ei­ther. And nearly every team out­side of Dal­las and Oak­land will be look­ing for of­fen­sive line im­prove­ments.

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