ENGLEWOOD – Jared Veldheer wasn’t around the Broncos the past few years but he quickly sensed a lingering mood from his new offensive line mates.
There was a collective edginess. The problem was primarily at right tackle in recent years but the Broncos’ offensive line as a whole had been constantly denigrated.
Thanks in no small part to the acquisition of the right tackle Veldheer, the Broncos’ offensive line has replaced criticism with lauds. The front was effective throughout the preseason and in the regular-season opener last week against Seattle, Broncos quarterback Case Keenum enjoyed secret service-like protection, Phillip Lindsay slithered through gaping holes and the Broncos’ offense accumulated 470 yards and 27 points.
“We’ve got five guys, and it’s not just the starters, really everybody in the O-line room is focused and determined,’’ Veldheer said. “We work extremely hard every day. I can feel coming into the room there’s a lot of guys with a chip on the shoulder from what happened last year. That’s kind of contagious. You pick up that chip yourself just coming into the room and, ‘Hey, let’s go prove this thing, let’s protect our quarterback, keep him clean. Open up holes in the run game. Set the tone.’’’
There are late bloomers and there is Jared Veldheer. He left high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a tall, skinny, brainiac with his sights on medical school.
He wound up at Division II Hillsdale (Mich.) College primarily because the Michigans and Michigan States didn’t think the 6-foot-7, 255-pound blocker was much of a prospect.
Then came a minor growth spurt with a major frame fill. By spring football of his freshman redshirt season, Veldheer was 6-foot-8 and pushing 300.
“When I went there originally, I had no idea the NFL would ever be a thing,’’ Veldheer said. “I was going to major in biology and hopefully go on to med school and graduate school. Further my education there and wind up doing something in medicine.
“I ended up getting even bigger and stronger after high school after about year one. We did testing there, we’d run 40s, and bench and all that stuff so you can take your numbers and look at guys numbers at the combine. And my numbers were pretty good and I was a pretty big guy and I was thinking this has a chance.’’
He was selected by the Raiders in the third round of the 2010 draft and became a rookie starter at left tackle by late-October.
He became a free agent after four years and signed a big contract with Arizona, where he played another four years. The Broncos play the Raiders today in Denver but Veldheer isn’t feeling much emotion, good or bad, for his former team.
“Not really. It’s been half a decade since I was playing there,’’ he said. “I’m a Bronco now. I don’t really care about their feelings. It’s all about winning.’’
Until they acquired Veldheer from Arizona in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick in March, the Broncos’ right tackle position was like a downtown high-rise building’s revolving door at closing time.
It began when Orlando Franklin was moved from right tackle to left guard after the 2013 season. Since then the Broncos’ starting right tackles have been Chris Clark, Paul Cornick, Louis Vasquez, Ryan Harris, Michael Schofield, Donald Stephenson, Ty Sambrailo, Menelik Watson, Allen Barbre and Cyrus Kouandjio.
Stephenson was a $6 million-a-year, free-agent signing in 2016. He didn’t work out. Watson was a $6 million-a-year, free-agent signing in 2017. He didn’t work out. Veldheer was a $6.9 million-a-year acquisition in 2018. So far, so good.
“They told me they just wanted help at that position,’’ Veldheer said.
Veldheer was as risky as the others because he had strong roots at left tackle and struggled to re-program his technique when Arizona shifted him to right tackle last season.
He had played five years, counting his redshirt year, at Hillsdale at left tackle, then his first seven NFL seasons – 12 consecutive years without taking a snap at right tackle.
“And everything you work is kind of on an angled plane,’’ he said. “It’s not straight forward, straight back. Really, your body, your hips, your hands, everything just has this muscle memory of working one direction. And when you flip that there’s just a whole new training you have to do to the body. It just takes a while for different muscles to adapt.’’
With the Cardinals last year, Veldheer also had to fight the perception that he wasn’t all in with football. Reports about head injuries had brought enough concern for Veldheer to take one day off from the Cardinals’ training camp to contemplate.
“I have two young kids,’’ he said. “I was making the transition from playing on the left side, where I had played my whole career, to the right side. And just needed to go over some things. I’m glad I did. Because it really created some clarity and I’m extremely grateful to be here and continue to be able to play.’’
He’s clearly all-in now. Although Veldheer will qualify for unrestricted free agency after this season, he will be a contract extension candidate if he keeps playing like he has. He didn’t waste his biology major, either. His familiarity around science labs came in handy when he developed his award-winning beer crafting hobby.
“But this is a little more fun than just a grade,’’ he said. “You get to actually drink something.’’
Here’s to Jared Veldheer for finally solving the Broncos’ right tackle position.