With the Denver Broncos starting training camp this week, newly-signed third-round pick and rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry III will begin his NFL journey. With the Broncos rookies reporting to the UCHealth Training Center last week for the first round of COVID-19 testing to help kickoff the training camp process, we will take a deeper look at the Broncos 2020 rookie draft class. Our under the microscope series continues on the interior of the offensive line.
What kind of impact will rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry have on the Broncos’ offense in his rookie season?
This offseason, Broncos general manager John Elway made it a point of emphasis to upgrade the interior of the offensive line. Elway took an aggressive approach to sign free agent Graham Glasgow, previously with the Detroit Lions, after former center Connor McGovern signed with the New York Jets. Glasgow will take over the Broncos role of right guard, leaving McGovern’s old position open for competition.
When the Broncos were looking to further upgrade the interior of the offensive line in the 2020 NFL Draft, several players had gotten attention from the Broncos, including Cushenberry and former Temple center Matt Hennessy. After Hennessy was taken in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons, the Broncos had their eyes set on Cushenberry and selected him five picks later.
Cushenberry was considered as of the top centers in the 2020 NFL draft, if not the best in a class that featured Hennessy and Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, the New Orleans Saints first-round pick. The Broncos rookie center was the anchor of the national championship LSU Tigers’ offensive line. For many draft analysts, it was a shock to see him fall to the third round. His size, mobility, and intelligence at the center position made him a top target for the Broncos.
In Denver, Cushenberry will look to anchor down the offensive line that is tasked with protecting second-year quarterback Drew Lock. With the addition of Glasgow as a veteran guard and the success of Dalton Risner at left guard, Cushenberry’s transition from college to the NFL may be smoother than others at his position. Not to mention, he will be coached by one of the league’s finest offensive line gurus in Mike Munchak.
Is there truly competition for the starting center job in Denver?
While there have been whispers about a competition for the starting job between Cushenberry, Patrick Morris, and Austin Schlottmann, Cushenberry remains the favorite to be the starter Week 1. New Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has been cautious to crown the rookie center as the starter, but Shurmur says he is making great progress, despite having to do learn virtually, without OTAs, during the off-season program.
Shurmur has been vocal about the rookie center’s willingness and ability to adapt to the unorthodox learning methods that this offseason has brought. Once training camp begins, Shurmur and the rest of the offensive staff will get their first chance to see how far the rookie center has come over the summer.
After letting McGovern walk in free agency, it was thought that Morris or Schlottmann would take over as the starter, but it was apparent the Broncos had other plans. Neither Morris nor Schlottmann have regular-season experience at the center position, but Schlottmann tallied four starts at guard for the Broncos in 2019 and played in all 16 regular-season games. Both players will have to prove that they are further along than the Broncos rookie in order to win the job.
Cushenberry starting as a rookie center is no easy task, but he has the instincts and physical tools to become the Broncos’ starter for the long term. With veteran leadership around him, Cushenberry should have a sizable impact in his rookie season with the Broncos.
Looking at Cushenberry’s path to playing in 2020
With his talent and size, there’s no reason to believe that Cushenberry shouldn’t be the Broncos starting center for the 2020 NFL season. Cushenberry’s experience at LSU of playing in a zone-blocking scheme and his solid technique when it comes to pass protection will help play a significant role in him securing the starting job. While he isn’t fully refined in his technique as he makes the transition to the NFL, the coaching of Munchak and the experience of Glasgow and Risner around him will propel his play on a week-by-week basis.
Cushenberry’s best strong suit when it comes to his pass protection is his ability to reset and lower his anchor when going up against strong defensive linemen, and it shows up on the film. Having played in the SEC, Cushenberry saw his fair share of first-round defensive talent, including Carolina Panther Derrick Brown from Auburn who he will face this season in Week 13. While Brown was a true force for Auburn against LSU, Cushenberry showed great resistance against the Panthers’ first-round selection. At the Senior Bowl, Cushenberry also held his ground extremely well against another first-round selection in Javon Kinlaw from South Carolina, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers.
Along with being a generally sound pass blocker, Cushenberry has great athleticism in his run blocking game. His mobility, fluid hips, footwork, and willingness to get to the second level could mean big things for the Broncos’ run game in 2020. With Phillip Lindsay projecting to have a big season and off-season addition Melvin Gordon looking to have a bounce-back year, Cushenberry’s ability to seal off defenders and secure the second level blocks will be critical for success.
Despite rushing for 1011 yards in 2019, Lindsay was forced to claw his way to every inch of a back to back thousand yard rushing season. If Cushenberry can help create some push at the next level against defensive tackles and inside linebackers, the Broncos could see a rise in production in their overall rushing attack between Lindsay and Gordon. A byproduct of having a strong rushing attack would also help take the pressure off of Lock to shoulder the offensive load by himself, to help establish offensive balance.
If Cushenberry can show more overall consistency in his pass protection, as well as a true understanding of the Broncos’ run blocking scheme, there’s no doubt that he will be the frontrunner for the starting job by the end of training camp. The offensive line will rely heavily on his growth and knowledge for success in protecting Lock in 2020.