DENVER — Even during their lean draft years, Broncos general manager John Elway and his top assistant Matt Russell had success finding quality centers in the later rounds.
Matt Paradis was a sixth-round draft pick in 2014. He started for the Super Bowl 50 champion Broncos and for 3 ½ consecutive seasons without missing a snap until he suffered a fractured fibula in 2018.
His center replacement, Connor McGovern, was a 5th-round draft pick in 2016. He was a two-year starter, first at right guard, then center.
The Broncos liked both of their homegrown products. They wanted to keep both. But both left for free agency and contracts of at least $9 million per season – Paradis with the Carolina Panthers and McGovern with the New York Jets.
With Broncos’ quarterbacks, rookies and injured veterans reporting Thursday to training camp, 9News presents the team’s 9 biggest questions.
We start with No. 9:
Who will be the Broncos starting center?
The candidates are third-round rookie Lloyd Cushenberry III, and two players entering their third NFL season, Austin Schlottmann and Patrick Morris.
Because there were no offseason practices for the rookie Cushenberry to acclimate, Schlottmann would have to be considered the favorite. A 6-foot-6, 300-pound undrafted center out of Texas Christian in 2018, Schlottmann spent his rookie season on the Broncos’ practice squad.
He made their season-opening 53-man roster last year and played in all 16 games. When Ron Leary went down with a concussion, Schlottmann started the final four games at right guard. But with Graham Glasgow signed to a big contract as a right guard in March, Schlottmann will compete at his natural center position.
The 6-3, 300-pound Morris was Schlottmann’s college teammate at Texas Christian. Both Morris and Schlottman played center and right guard for the Horned Frogs. Morris was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2018 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose offensive line coach was Mike Munchak. When the Steelers waived Morris in early December 2019, Munchak, who is now the Broncos’ offensive line coach, recommended a claim.
Morris played in the final two games of last season.
The plan is for the 6-3, 312-pound Cushenberry to eventually become the team’s starting center, even if it will be difficult for him to get the job for Game 1 against the Tennessee Titans. Cushenberry started all 28 games as a sophomore and junior for LSU – including snapping all 15 games to Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow for the 15-0 national champs.
Cushenberry is bright, big and strong but will have to improve on his pass blocking. It takes a while. Paradis spent his 2014 rookie year on the Broncos’ practice squad. McGovern was inactive all 16 games in his rookie year of 2016. Their professional redshirt years eventually paid off.
There may be greater rookie expectations for Cushenberry because he’s a third-round pick. But not having any offseason practices because of the coronavirus pandemic figures to hinder rookies more than vets.