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Broncos go with what they know with Shelley Smith, Gino Gradkowski

4/4/2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Familiarity seems to have bred a contract or two for the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos, with a rather extreme makeover underway on the offensive line, have plans on the drawing board for the position. And those plans do include some of their homegrown prospects, players such as Michael Schofield, Matt Paradis and Ben Garland.

But after the initial swirl of free agency had passed, those plans also included two players Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison knew well. The Broncos signed Shelley Smith to a two-year deal last month and made a trade for Gino Gradkowski this past week to give them two just-in-case players who could start up front if needed or provide the kind of depth they want if things go well with the youngsters.

“We know we’ve got some work to do," is how Kubiak described the under-construction project on the offensive line. “We’ll get people in place and we’ll feel good about … I have complete confidence in guys we can sign and the young guys who will develop."

The Broncos would like Schofield to be the team’s right tackle, Paradis to compete at center and Garland to compete at left guard. The Broncos have also kept Manny Ramirez and Chris Clark on the roster despite shrinking room against the salary cap. They carry significant cap charges -- $3.167 million for Ramirez, $1.626 million for Clark -- but Kubiak said he believes the two can provide depth and competition with a “clean slate" from the new coaching staff.

The moves to add Gradkowski and Smith give the Broncos two players who have started in their careers and who are familiar with the guts of the offense Kubiak and Dennison will install. Gradkowski, who started 16 games in 2013 for the Baltimore Ravens, was a bit player -- eight games played -- in 2014, the season that Kubiak and Dennison spent on the Ravens staff. But Gradkowski is a player they saw every day in practice as they went through the season.

The Broncos saw enough to surrender a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft to acquire Gradkowski, as well as a fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft.

“I think I fit [Kubiak’s] offense well," Gradkowski said. “I think his offense fits me. I’m very excited about being here with him. He’s a great coach and I really look forward to working with him again. … I have a chip on my shoulder now. I feel like I have a lot to prove and I can’t wait to get started with that."

Smith spent two seasons -- one season split between the active roster and practice squad to go with one season on injured reserve -- with the Houston Texans when Kubiak and Dennison were both there. And while Smith neither played nor started a regular-season game for the Texans in that time, he was another player the coaches saw up close each day.

Smith has played center and guard in his career, but Kubiak believes if the Broncos simply play Smith at guard, they will maximize Smith’s work on the developmental curve. Smith has never started more than six games in any of his NFL seasons, so he too is a projection as the Broncos go about filling their positions.

“Obviously the zone-blocking scheme has proven to be a very good system and I think it fits my capabilities pretty well," Smith said. “I’m familiar with it, so the terminology, I kind of know what to expect and what they expect out their players in that system."

When the Broncos open their offseason program April 13, they will formally begin sorting things out on the offensive line. Kubiak said he would like to make decisions by the end of the offseason program so the Broncos could work the expected starters together all the way through training camp and preseason.

With 10 draft picks to be made -- an offensive lineman or two are expected to be among them -- that means at the moment Schofield and Clark get a look at right tackle; Paradis, Gradkowski and Ramirez are at center; and Smith, Garland and possibly Ramirez are at left guard.

“We’ll see how it shakes out," Kubiak said. “We know what we need to go and we’ll get it done."