ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Ever since Ryan Clady stepped awkwardly and left the field inside MetLife Stadium with a foot injury in Week 2 of the 2013 season, the Denver Broncos have, in many ways, been on the hunt for answers in the offensive line.
Not only were they trying to replace a player they consider to be among the league’s elite at his position, but they have continued to try to find the can't-miss combination that works for them throughout whatever becomes of Peyton Manning’s career with the team.
Part of the issue is the breadth of the job description. They need speed and athleticism given they spend so much time in their three-wide receiver set, they are often blocking five on whatever the defense brings in the passing game. That puts all of them on their own at times, when the pass rusher has plenty of room to work. The Broncos also want enough power from the group to run the ball out of those open formations, and they have to be capable of keeping up with all of the changes Manning makes at the line of scrimmage and do so without mistakes.
Other than that, it's a piece of cake.
“There’s a lot going on there sometimes,’’ center Manny Ramirez said. “You have to keep up, but that’s the way we all want to play. We know what this offense can do if we do our job up front.’’
It’s also why the Broncos went through the offseason searching for what coach John Fox has called “the best five,’’ and why they hope they find those five before the opener.
It’s all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.
Friday: Offensive line
How many coming to camp: 14
How many the Broncos will keep: As much as offensive line coach Dave Magazu hopes he might get an extra player or two in his meeting room when the final roster decisions get made, the Broncos have been unfailingly consistent in the numbers game in the offensive front over the last three seasons.
They have kept nine offensive linemen following the cut to 53 in each of Fox’s previous seasons as head coach. If the Broncos keep one fewer tight end or one fewer defensive back than last season this time around, this is where the extra spot could be added as the Broncos continue to search for the combinations they like the best on the depth chart.
Orlando Franklin’s move inside to left guard was the most major move of the offseason. Franklin played well in the OTAs and minicamp so all that remains is for him to show the confirmation in the preseason games. He’s powerful on the inside and should help the Broncos’ run game. It also helps him in pass protection since he no longer has to fight speed rushers on the edge.
Franklin was the team’s most penalized player last season, with seven of his 11 penalties for holding. Franklin is smart, tough and will help the Broncos’ offense. He probably now is at the position where many scouts believed he would be at his best in the league.
Break it down: With Franklin’s move to guard, it does leave the Broncos likely their biggest unanswered question as they roll into training camp. They need somebody to step forward and be the team’s right tackle.
Clady’s return does allow them more versatility overall in terms of sending help elsewhere along the front as Clady locks down Manning’s blind side. So, that helps.
In the team’s OTAs and minicamp the Broncos appeared to be leaning toward a veteran, either Chris Clark or Winston Justice, to play the position. Clark, now entering his sixth season, played well in place of Clady last season as the Broncos set a single-season scoring record and Manning was one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league.
But on a developmental curve, personnel executives believe Clark has likely plateaued as a player and on the strong side the Broncos might need more pop in the run game. Clark has improved as a run blocker in his time in Denver, but as the team runs out of a five-man front they have to be able to make room for the backs to work, even in a pass-first offense. Clark, though, is the team's most qualified swing tackle in that he is the best option behind Clady to play left tackle if needed.
Overall there is also some concern Justice would have the durability to hold up over an 1,100-play season (the Broncos ran 1,156 plays last season, 1,090 in 2012). So, there may be room for rookie Michael Schofield to squeeze into the discussion if he can flash quickly in camp.
The Broncos selected Schofield with the idea he would be the team’s right tackle at some point. But can Schofield do what Franklin did as a rookie and convince Fox, Magazu and the rest of the staff he’s ready to play now?