Historically, the offensive line is one of the most tight-knit units on a football team, and Bronco fans should be at least somewhat used to that. Dating back to the 90's, the Broncos have been a pretty consistent model for the NFL of what it means to build a solid offensive line. Even though they struggled in 2009, there is still quite a bit of talent up front for the Broncos.
But switching from a zone bloching scheme to a power scheme is not the easiest transition for a group of guys, and it showed in 2009. The Broncos had a stellar performance all around from their line in 2008, one in which they allowed the least amount of sacks in the NFL per pass. One in which they paved the way for a top 12 rushing offense despite seven different starters in the backfield.
Heading into 2009, the offensive line had at least somewhat high expectations given their performance in '08 and their infusion of promising youth.
While the transition from zone blocking to power blocking came with plenty of kinks, it might be the least of the Broncos' worries. The injury bug has bitten the Broncos' offensive line, and it has bitten it hard.
Attempting his best Kobe Bryant impression (or, playing basketball), All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady partially tore his patellar tendon over the summer--an injury which many players can take quite a while to recover from.
Ryan Harris, one of the league's best right tackles, injured his toe around mid-season in 2009 and has just recently returned to practice after re-aggrivating it later in the season.
But not all is bad for the offensive line in Denver. Many consider it to be the biggest question mark on the Denver Broncos. Some are even saying that the season hinges on whether or not the Broncos' offensive line can find some type of cohesion, and right now, a lot of it is just uncertainty.
Who are these guys?
If the season started today, the Bronco offensive line would look vastly different than any fan would like to see come opening day. A lot hinges on the development of Ryan Clady's partially torn patellar tendon, an injury the Broncos believe will keep Clady off the field no later than the pre-season.
Some are not so optimistic.
I have heard prognostications from two months to a year and a half, so you can see why a lot of Broncos fans are scrambling for truth. Ryan Clady said himself that he hopes to be back for training camp, and while we would all love to see that, there's no use in the training staff rushing this kid back. Clady needs to be 100 percent before the Broncos should let him come back, because a torn patellar tendon is a very easy injury to repeat.
If forced to make a decision, I'd have to say that Clady's promise is a bit optimistic, though I expect him back for the start of the season. If the Broncos felt in any way, shape, or form that there was any chance of Clady missing significant time, they would have found a better replacement than they currently have to offer.
For now, I'll project the Broncos' opening day starting left tackle to be 2009 Pro Bowler Ryan Clady, the best left tackle in the NFL. Clady stands at 6'6" and checks in at a solid 325 pounds, and he is more athletic and nimble on his feet than a lot of tight ends and even some receivers. Clady's numbers were down in 2010, but just as you can make an argument in favor of them being skewed because of Cutler's athleticism in 2008, you can make an argument against Kyle Orton's lack of escape-ability as well.
Clady is not given a ton of love in the national media seemingly because of a vendetta against Josh McDaniels and the Broncos, but not even the harshest of haters can deny Clady's talent. He is superb.
Starting opposite Clady will be fourth year pro Ryan Harris, a 6'5" 300 pounder from Notre Dame. The former Golden-domer took a redshirt of sorts in his rookie season, and has since burst on to the scene as arguably the NFL's best right tackle, but his road just became a bit tougher.
Not only does Harris have the daunting task of avoiding certain injury to his toe, he now has to think at least in some capacity about becoming the protector of the NFL's sacred "blind side" whenever Tim Tebow begins taking snaps in game action.
Harris and Clady are widely considered to be the best bookend tackles in the entire NFL, but their injuries are nothing short of troubling. Sure, on Madden 11 these guys will be unstoppable. But real life is not so certain. Broncos fans will be much more at ease when these two strap on a set of shoulder pads and show that they are healthy rather than simply saying it.
One of the two guard spots will be manned by Denver's newest big-money man, right guard Chris Kuper. Kuper was a fifth round pick in the 2006 draft and has since turned out to be nothing short of a gem. Kuper struggled in the new power scheme, which is certainly nothing to be overlooked, but many pundits consider him to be one of the most underrated linemen in the game today.
Money speaks louder than words.
The Broncos obviously saw enough in Kuper to make him one of the cornerstones of this franchise moving into the future. His role, like Harris', just became a bit more significant potentially with the drafting of Tim Tebow.
The left guard spot will likely be manned by Denver's third pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, second rounder Zane Beadles from Utah. The All-American played left tackle for the Utes, but he is certainly not limited to that role. One of the biggest factors in the Broncos' somewhat surprising selection of Beadles in round two was his ability to play both tackle positions and both guard positions. Initially, the Broncos were going to evaluate Beadles from tackle to guard, but he was recently taking reps with the first team at left guard.
Take that for what you will, but it would certainly be nice if Beadles could step right in to a starting role for the Broncos. At 6'4" 305 pounds, the mauler is exactly what the Broncos are looking for on the interior. He's got smarts and he's got grit.
Not unlike the Broncos' current projected starter at the center position, rookie J.D. Walton from Baylor. Walton was selected by the Broncos in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and has already started assuming a role as the first team center. Walton reportedly has already gotten comfortable making calls, and is adjusting to the playbook better than anyone could have imagined.
This is not surprising for Walton, who was a long-time starter for the Bears, an All-American, and a high character player.
Backing up the tackles will be Tyler Polumbus and D'Anthony Batiste, two young players who have seen some playing time in the NFL but have yet to do anything to prove they can be long term starters if the need should arise.
In addition to Hochstein, Olsen, and Olsen, the Broncos also have Dustin Fry to potentially be a backup center should they need one.
What about all the rookies?
Clearly, the Broncos are going to have some growing pains in the 2010 season, especially along the interior of the offensive line. That is, of course, assuming that Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton earn starting positions. Josh McDaniels has made it very clear that the best player will play, regardless of name or reputation, so it's not out of the question that the Broncos would have two rookie starters on the inside, though it would go against a lot of what we thought we knew about McDaniels.
It might not be easy, but Bronco fans are going to have to live with the ups and downs that come along with being an NFL rookie, especially an offensive lineman.
When can we calm down about the injuries to the Ryan's?
I believe training camp starts on July 29th. That's the blunt answer. Until then, the fretting will continue to run rampant among Broncos Country. Though it might be easy, we can't really rely on the words of anyone. Seeing is believing, and in the case of Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris, simply seeing them on the field, wearing pads, and hitting people.
The reality is that Ryan Clady could very well start the season on the PUP, but that would put him out until nearly mid-season regardless of whether or not he is ready to go.
Broncos fans should sit back, take a deep breath, and know that these two super-studs will be on the field when they are 100 percent or as close to it as they can get, and not a moment sooner.
Every pre-season grade I have seen in magazines so far this year gives the Broncos' offensive line a grade anywhere from C- to C+, but nothing better. I find that hard to believe unless you simply assume they are not going to have the two Ryan's when the season starts.
Games are not won on paper (just ask the San Diego Chargers), but the Broncos do have a fine offensive line when you type it out in black and white. In fact, with a year under their belts, I would contend that the Broncos have one of the best offensive lines in the conference.
There's no question this unit is the best among all of the AFC West teams, and with a fairly weak trio of defensive lines coming from Oakland, San Diego, and Kansas City, the Broncos may have been cut something of a break. Not only that, but when the pads are on, no offensive line in the division is going to get as good of a test as the Broncos will coming from their own defensive line, which is also probably the best in the division.
The future is bright for the Broncos' offensive line. Some more depth is needed on the outside at the tackle positions, and that can very well be addressed in next year's draft. For now, the main thing the Broncos need to do for this unit to be successful is get healthy, and then stay healthy.
It's not often the five guys up front make it through the season untarnished, but the Broncos seem to have solid depth on the inside and a group of guys who have the talent and ability to play many different positions. This area of the team has been a large area of focus the last couple of off-seasons, and teams with strength in the trenches can keep a lot of their prettier assets clean.
The Broncos are certainly well on their way.