AFC West: Will Montgomery



ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos grind their way through their offseason work as a team in the oh-so-early Super Bowl conversations, they have unfinished business.

There is the depth chart at running back, some uncertainty at middle linebacker and making sure the players they signed in their free-agency binge enter the fold smoothly. Oh, there is also a little one-in-a-million shot they need to come through.

Not the Wes Welker make-it-rain-at-the-Kentucky Derby one-in-a-million shot, but an important choice about what might be the most important number when it comes to what the Broncos’ offense does for an encore after its record-setting, 606-point season in 2013. Their magic number is five, as in the five starting offensive linemen charged with protecting quarterback Peyton Manning: the five guys charged with protecting the franchise’s fortunes.

"We feel good about our options," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "We feel like we have the guys on the roster to do what we need to do."

Broncos coach John Fox wants to address lineup options about as much as he wants to talk about injuries. So on more than one occasion, Fox, in his eternal quest to move on to the next question, has said the Broncos will try "a million" combinations on the offensive line through OTAs, this week’s minicamp and training camp.

So far they are a little short of a million, but they have tried some things here and there. And it really boils down to two, perhaps three, combinations.

Orlando Franklin's move from right tackle to left guard was made to maximize Franklin’s abilities; many scouts in the league believed that Franklin would be a better guard than tackle when the Broncos selected him in the 2011 draft. The move also helps Denver adjust to life without guard Zane Beadles, who signed with Jacksonville after the Broncos didn't offer him a chance to stay.

Franklin also gives the Broncos more bulk on the interior, more power, more options in dispersing the inside rush that any defense will believe is key to getting to Manning. So far in team workouts, that move looks to be one that will stick.

The Broncos, even in non-contact work, have flashed some power looks on the interior and will potentially have a better inside run game at their disposal. Although running the ball more efficiently has a spot fairly high on the team’s offseason agenda, the bottom line up front in a Manning-centered offense will always be keeping the man with four neck surgeries in his medical history out of harm’s way.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe return of starting left tackle Ryan Clady should improve Denver's pass protection.
And the Broncos prefer to do that by blocking five-on-whatever much of the time. Last season the team played out of the three-wide-receiver set at just over 70 percent of its snaps in the regular season, and that total hovered closer to 90 percent in its three playoff games.

Much of that time was spent with a catch-first tight end in Julius Thomas in the formation as well. So their own Five Guys franchise has to get it done.

Franklin’s move inside, with All-Pro Louis Vasquez already working on the right side, gives the Broncos one of the bigger, perhaps biggest, guard tandems in the league. The Broncos would be comfortable with either Manny Ramirez, who started at center last season, or free-agent addition Will Montgomery in the middle of things. Ryan Clady, as he returns from last season’s foot injury, appears ready to reclaim his spot as one of the league’s best at left tackle.

So that leaves right tackle, a position that defenses repeatedly attacked with the pass rush last season, especially down the stretch into the playoffs. Chris Clark, who's more proficient as a pass-blocker than he is in the run game, has spent most of the time with the starters in the offseason workouts.

Clark filled in for Clady after Week 2 last season and got the job done for the most part. Rookie Michael Schofield, a third-round pick, should get a look as well, but given that Franklin is the last rookie this coaching staff has started up front on offense, Schofield would need to not just be as good as Clark but win the job handily in camp.

Veteran Winston Justice has taken a spin or two on the right side as well, but at the moment it looks like Clark or Schofield. Either way, defensive coordinators see what the Broncos have done in free agency and the draft, adding receivers, adding speed, and they saw what the Seattle Seahawks did to the Broncos' offensive line in the Super Bowl.

Plenty of those defensive coaches say although it’s scary to aggressively come after Manning with the rush, they might do it more in an effort to disrupt Denver's timing.

"We’re going to look at a lot of things," Fox said. "We’ve got some time, and that’s what the offseason is for. We’re going to use the time we have and make the decisions we think are best."

Manning is Manning, which is to say he won’t get sacked much no matter who is in front of him. He has been sacked fewer than 20 times in nine of his seasons as a starter, and last season he was sacked 18 times in 659 pass attempts -- or just once for every 27.3 attempts.

But for the Broncos and Manning the question isn’t sacks -- it’s damage and getting him through one week into the next. The Broncos have to limit the hits on their 38-year-old quarterback, who has had a spinal fusion. Two low hits in particular in a four-sack game by Robert Mathis last season almost derailed the Broncos' plans and put Manning in an ankle brace for the rest of the season.

So as folks crunch all the numbers to sum up the Broncos’ potential in the coming season, one still stands out as they prepare to adjourn until training camp.

It’s five. As in the right five.
videoENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The pick: Michael Schofield, OT, Michigan

My take: The Broncos, having already told Orlando Franklin he will move from right tackle to left guard, were on the hunt for a right tackle prospect in the draft’s first two days. The Broncos saw the prospect they wanted in Michigan’s Michael Schofield. He has the potential to play both guard and tackle, which is the kind of flexibility the Broncos hoped to find. Schofield started 10 games at left guard in 2011 to go with 26 starts at right tackle in 2012 and 2013 combined. He’s a gritty player who showed himself to already be proficient in the run game. Schofield is a good enough athlete to have run the 110 hurdles for his high school’s track team in suburban Chicago. He should get the chance to compete for the right tackle spot right away.

Spin the wheel: This pick adds another player to the mix as the Broncos work through the combinations in the offensive front. Coach John Fox said earlier this offseason the team would try “a million" groupings in the offensive line during offseason workouts. With Franklin’s move to guard, the Broncos probably will work Schofield and Chris Clark at right tackle. Newly-signed center Will Montgomery was signed in free agency with the idea he could be a starting center, where he will battle Manny Ramirez.

What’s next: The Broncos have picked as expected thus far with a cornerback, wide receiver and offensive lineman in their first three picks. That leaves them in a position to look at linebackers down the board, especially one who could compete for the middle linebacker job.
With just 14 words fired off over Twitter on the first day of the Denver Broncos' offseason program, Orlando Franklin confirmed a move in the offensive line the team's decision-makers have considered for quite some time.

Franklin, whose Twitter profile begins simply with; "Right Tackle for the Denver Broncos," confirmed his move to left guard Monday, the opening day of the Broncos' team workouts in 2014. Following the team's first full gathering with the team's strength and conditioning coaches since the 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Franklin sent:

 

Though Franklin learned of the decision Monday, this is something Broncos officials had considered last spring and were considering once again shortly after the season ended, when they had made the decision to let guard Zane Beadles test the free-agent market. Beadles signed a five-year deal worth $30 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly after free agency opened last month, a deal worth far more than the Broncos would have been willing to spend.

The Broncos made no offer to Beadles' representatives, though Beadles had played in every game and started every game but two in his four years with the team. That departure left a hole in the team's plan up front.

The Broncos, searching for more power in the middle of the offensive line for much of the past two season, had considered moving Franklin to guard during the 2012 offseason. They worked him there at times during training camp, and head coach John Fox has said Franklin took some reps inside during last year's regular season as well.

The Broncos then jumped out a year ago to sign Louis Vasquez to a four-year deal -- the longest free-agent deal the Broncos signed last March -- and in return Vasquez gave the Broncos an All-Pro season at right guard. But the defenses that gave the Broncos the most difficulty, most notably the Seahawks in the title game, often did so with pressure in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsOrlando Franklin will give the Broncos more pop in the run game at left guard. With his long reach he will be difficult for inside defenders to handle in the pass game as well.
As a result the Broncos are trying to answer lineup questions at left guard and will take a look at center as well.

Franklin has started 47 games at right tackle since he was the second of the Broncos' second-round picks in the 2011 draft (the 46th pick overall). At the league meetings last month, Fox said Franklin "was prepared to play guard last year."

It won't be an unfamiliar position for Franklin, who started 25 games at left guard in his career at the University of Miami before starting at left tackle in his senior season. And there were many scouts who believed when Franklin entered the '11 draft he would be a better guard in the NFL over the long haul.

Franklin is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. He will give the Broncos more pop at the point of attack in the run game. His reach -- he is 6-foot-7-inches tall -- will make him tough to handle for opposing defensive tackles on the inside in pass protection. His chief hurdle will be to block on the move in the run game when the Broncos go to more of a zone look, but the Broncos have been of the mind it will help them overall to move him inside.

With Ryan Clady's return at left tackle, Chris Clark will get the first look at right tackle and Will Montgomery, who signed as a free agent, will battle Manny Ramirez in early offseason work for the starting center spot. When the Broncos signed Montgomery in the second week of free agency, they did so with the feeling he would push, and could win, the starting center job.

But make no mistake, the Broncos will still give a long look to potential swing tackles in the draft as well as swing players inside who can play both center and guard. In the latter scenario, the Broncos won't have to look far for a player who could fit the bill in Colorado State's Weston Richburg.

Richburg started 50 consecutive games for the Rams and never missed a game -- a streak that included him snapping with his left hand at times during the 2011 season after he had fractured his right hand. Richburg is athletic, savvy and only added to his quality résumé on the field by performing well at his pro day in Fort Collins, Colo., last month.

The Broncos also believe Vinston Painter, a 2013 draft pick who spent much of last season on the team's practice squad, is a potential fit at right tackle down the road as well.

In the end, Fox has said they will use only one criteria to pick Peyton Manning's personal protectors. Fox said they are "trying to get our best five on the field and there will be a lot of different formulas for that ... we'll work a million combinations."

And on the first day of offseason work Franklin's shift to the left was the opening move.
After center Will Montgomery's contract was filed with the NFL last week, the Denver Broncos used up most of what had been allotted to spend in these initial weeks of free agency. And they intend to stick to the budget.

"You know you're going to have some bumps in the road and we don't want to get so close [to the limit] you can't adjust," is how Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it. "We'll ease back after our initial work and keep our eyes open."

Montgomery signed a one-year deal last week that carries a salary cap hit of just more than $1.5 million. Montgomery will get a $50,000 roster bonus in August to go with another $75,000 bonus in Week 1 of the regular season.

Before the signing the Broncos had just under $6 million worth of workable salary cap space, so that total is close to $4 million at the moment. That figure includes just the top 51 players and with the May draft still on the docket. The Broncos will need to keep enough room to count all 53 players on the roster when final roster cuts are made this summer and to cover the potential of players on injured reserve.

The Broncos currently have seven picks in next month's draft and have allotted room for that.

So unless they want to release a player, they're largely done signing any free agent beyond a no-bonus, one-year minimum deal. Because they have spent most of the cash they had on hand in recent weeks, the Broncos have even tweaked the last two deals they've done -- Montgomery and Emmanuel Sanders -- to pay the bonuses later.

Sanders gets the actual payment of the bulk of his "up front" money in a bonus payment next year.

Before free agency started the Broncos were among the teams in the best shape in terms of "dead" money -- salary cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- but did add a bit in recent weeks. They are still among the 11 teams with fewer than $6 million in dead money charges, but they added the bulk of theirs since the end of the season and the start of free agency.

They took a $2.1 million hit when the second year of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's original contract voided five days after the Super Bowl. They also took a $1.83 million dead money charge when Chris Kuper retired last month.

Those two players account for 67.8 percent of the Broncos' current dead money total. The charge for the player who has been gone the longest is $500,000 for running back Willis McGahee, who was released last spring.

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