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Broncos poised for major youth movement to protect Peyton Manning

6/17/2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to starting quarterbacks and the guys paid to protect them, the Denver Broncos are poised to offer the NFL both ends of of the birthday spectrum.

On one side is Peyton Manning. At 39 years old and a future Hall of Famer, he is a quarterback who has said often that he "can see the light at the end of the tunnel" of a storied career. On the other side is a still-under-construction offensive line that, when fully and finally assembled at some point later this summer, will likely be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, in the league.

It just depends on which way the decisions fall.

"I'm going to feel good about our five, whoever they are," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak this week. "We're going to play the guys that earn the spot, our best five, we're going to be young if I told you the lineup today or if I told you in August. That's a fact. ... One of the good things about it is if you are young and you make it work, you've got a chance to be good for a long time."

And make no mistake in the transition from one coaching staff to the next, from one playbook to the next, from one-run game scheme to the next, the Broncos have clearly made the decision to go with some young guys in the offensive front. The only question that remains is if whether or not they will simply be a younger group or perhaps the youngest, in terms of real-game experience, in the franchise's recent history.

"I feel like being on a team like this means having expectations around you, that's just the way it is," said rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo. "So, my expectation of myself was to come in and be ready to do whatever they asked me to do."

When the Broncos opened their offseason program, they had three starting jobs open in the offensive line -- left guard, center and right tackle. The offensive line had been a trouble spot for virtually the entire 2014 season, so much so the Broncos running backs were hit at, or behind, the line of scrimmage on a third of the team's carries last season.

The Broncos also took an All-Pro guard in Louis Vasquez and moved him to right tackle nine games into the season to try to repair the growing damage each week. So the Broncos went into this offseason set to make an extreme makeover up front with Vasquez set to go back to right guard and Ryan Clady at left tackle as the two veteran givens.

As a result, the Broncos tossed some young players into the deep end of the football pool to see how well they would swim. That now includes the rookie Sambrailo on Manning's blind side since Clady suffered a season-ending ACL injury last month and opened up the fourth starting job to go with Ben Garland at left guard.

Garland is statistically entering his second NFL season, but he has two years of active duty in the Air Force as well as two additional years on the Broncos' practice squad since he arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2010. The 27-year-old is a player the Broncos believe has a pile of potential -- Kubiak has said he believes Garland could eventually play center -- but he arrived to the team as a defensive lineman and has played just 47 snaps in regular-season games, 36 of those in the '14 regular-season finale.

This week, Kubiak said the two showed the Broncos enough that they will open training camp with the starters as well as later this summer. The Broncos selected Sambailo in the second round of the draft because they saw a future starter, and they chose to simply accelerate the timetable with Clady's injury.

In Garland, the only hurdle that remains is how he plays when the pads go on in training camp and in the preseason games.

"I see Ben this way: Work habits, effort and all those things, there is no question about Ben," Kubiak said. "Really the thing that we've got to see is the play time. ... It's time for Ben to become a player, but we've got to find out when the lights come on."

Gino Gradkowski, whom the Broncos acquired in a trade after free agency opened, has spent the offseason working with the starters so far. The Broncos have also taken a look at Matt Paradis, a second-year player who spent his rookie year on the Broncos' practice squad in '14, as well as rookie Max Garcia.

Kubiak said it's "very competitive" between Paradis and Gradkowski as the offseason program draws to a close.

At right tackle, Chris Clark has taken the majority of snaps with the starters to this point, but the Broncos have a second-year player in Michael Schofield trying to push his way into the lineup there as well. Clark and Gradkowski, Kubiak said, will open training camp with the starters at right tackle and center respectively "but I don't think there's anything etched in stone; it's going to be very competitive."

Kubiak added: "I feel like we've got some good young players and it's our job to get it going. And if we hit it right this could be a group that could stay together and play together for a long time."