- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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Manning is known to quickly call and/or text the team's newest acquisitions, welcoming them aboard. This offseason, Manning quickly reached out to cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders after they signed.
The Broncos are set to open their offseason program Monday, and despite all the new acquisitions, Manning said this past week one of the biggest "additions" to this season's lineup will be the return of Ryan Clady. The left tackle had foot surgery that ended his 2013 season after two games.
“We lost some players and we're getting some players back that were injured last year,'' Manning said. "It's almost like Ryan Clady was a free-agent acquisition. He didn't play last year [after injuring his foot in Week 2]."
Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said in recent weeks the Broncos expect Clady to be at full speed by the time the season rolls around. Clady has progressively stepped up the work in his rehab, even after the Broncos had closed out the season with a loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.
But even as the Broncos blistered the league's single-season record book with Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards to go with the team's 606 points overall, the Broncos were not always what they could have been if Clady were healthy. The Broncos used a three-wide receiver look as their base offensive set -- with Chris Clark playing in place of Clady -- but Manning didn't always have time to explore all of his options.
Manning was actually sacked fewer times with more pass attempts in 2013 than in 2012 -- he was sacked 18 times this past season with 659 pass attempts as compared to 21 times in 2012 with 583 pass attempts. The Broncos believe Clady's return will enable them to expand some of what they did last season. That includes their ability to run the ball more efficiently out of their open formations and give Manning more time to see more options when he does throw the ball.
Manning's ankle troubles this past season were a result of hits taken from his blind side, from rushers Clady would have been blocking had he been in the lineup. Manning's sack totals don't always tell the story, and the Broncos want to address the hits he took in 2013.
With his preparation, anticipation and pre-snap recognition of what the defense has to offer, Manning has always been able to limit sacks -- almost no matter what the offensive line has looked like in front of him. He has been sacked 20 or fewer times in 10 of his seasons as a starter; fewer than 15 times in five of his seasons. Defenses have never sacked Manning more than the 29 times they got him in 2001, a season the Indianapolis Colts finished 6-10.
But after four neck surgeries and turning 38 years old, every hit on Manning is potential trouble.
Broncos head coach John Fox has said, in the wake of the departure of left guard Zane Beadles in free agency, the team will try plenty of combinations up front during offseason workouts and even into training camp -- "a million," he said -- but that the "best five" will be the starters. And as they get down to business Monday, all of those plans are based on having a healthy Clady at left tackle, handling his business on his own so the Broncos can slide the help elsewhere if necessary.
Or as Fox put it: "You always want to have your good players in the lineup. And he's one of our best. We did a lot of good things when he was out last season, but we'll be able to do even more good things with him back in there."
As he progressed through his offseason work, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning watched with great interest as his team opened free agency in high gear.