By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) - I'll be the first one to admit that in reading the offseason signs, I didn't foresee good things on the horizon for Max Garcia. The fourth-year interior offensive lineman has started the last 32 games at left guard for the Broncos, but despite being the incumbent, he received no mention by the brass during the offseason.
Instead, we heard names like Connor McGovern and Menelik Watson and how they'd be competing for the right guard spot opposite of Ronald Leary. Garcia earned that profile in the eyes of GM John Elway and the coaches for his lackluster play as a starter.
Whether due to it being a contract year for Garcia, or simply the pride of being benched as a starter, he has played like a man possessed of late. Earning high marks for his performance in Game 2 specifically against the Bears, the old idea that Garcia might be the man on the outside looking in come cut-downs is becoming more and more dim.
"Max has had, not a good, but a great camp," Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said on Tuesday. "We're trying to find a place for Max. It could be at left guard, it could be at right guard, it could be at center. He's really playing football at a high level."
Garcia started the preseason opener at left guard in place of the injured Leary, and looked about like he did last year. He saw extended action with the second-team offense as well when the starters sat down, and it didn't really elevate his performance.
However, in Game 2 Garcia played some left guard and also some center, with rookie sixth-rounder Sam Jones — currently the No. 2 center on the depth chart — held out of the game. Garcia played extremely well at center, a position he has some experience at, but you have to go all the way back to his time at Florida to find it.
I covered the 2015 Senior Bowl in person on site. After each practice, when I asked the defensive players which O-lineman was proving to be the stiffest challenge, without fail they said "Max Garcia". Nose tackle Danny Shelton, who went on to be a top-10 pick of the Browns, gushed to me about Garcia in Mobile, AL.
The Broncos liked the powerful interior lineman enough to draft him in the fourth round. And as a rookie, it seemed as if the team's faith in Garcia would pay off. He served as a great depth piece behind veteran starters Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez, helping to pave the way for some big rushing plays on the way to Denver's Super Bowl 50 championship.
But ever since he was installed as a starter, his play regressed. Perhaps Garcia is the type of player who has to be made to truly compete in order to bring out the best in him. He was grandfathered a starting job in 2016 and 2017.
This time, he's not only taking a back seat from the starting five, he's having to fight just to earn a spot on the roster. It could simply be that Garcia is a player best served as a backup. I've been saying it for months — the Broncos could do far worse for a swing guard, especially with the experience he has.
But Garcia is still yet to prove that he can handle the right guard slot, which would ostensibly be a must for a true swing player. Coach Musgrave has talked about how important it is for Denver's reserve O-linemen to be "cross trained."
If Garcia can at least play center as a backup, it'll add to his utility as a depth player. But Head Coach Vance Joseph has been impressed with Garcia when he's been asked to play right guard this summer. That's encouraging.
"I've been impressed with him playing left and right guard," Joseph said on Wednesday. "That's more of a feat than just playing center. He's played some center reps for us. As a backup inside player for us, having the flex to play center and guard is always important for us—but he's played better guard than center."
Pass protection has always been Garcia's Achilles heel, but Coach Joseph also said that Garcia has "improved" in that department. He's well established himself as a mauler in the run game, but has been a straight liability at times in pass protection.
Sometimes it takes young O-linemen years to hone their pass pro technique. If he's finally getting it down in year four, better late than never, right?
Garcia has already vanquished Menelik Watson, with a little help from the injury bug. Connor McGovern, however, has the starting right guard slot sewn up.
With just two preseason games left to go, it's hard to see the Broncos moving forward without Garcia on the 53-man roster, especially with the coaches talking so glowingly about him. Hopefully he can provide value to the Broncos, play well in a contract year and go out and earn a nice second contract on the open market.
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