The Denver Broncos' offensive line has been remarkably good since the mid-1990s, when Mike Shanahan took over and Alex Gibbs' became the zone blocking scheme guru. Because of those two coaches, Broncos fans have always been able to rely on the running game to power this team to victory. Sure, there was a Hall of Fame caliber running back by the name of Terrell Davis who came to town. There were also very good running backs in Clinton Portis and Mike Anderson who graced us with their presence. Then there were vets such as Willis McGahee and youngsters such as Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. Heck, the Broncos even had a quarterback who was able to be amazingly effective with his legs even though everyone knew what play was about to be run.
What do they all have in common, you might ask? Simple, they all had success in large part because of the offensive line that they ran behind.
Today's Broncos rely less on the running game than the Mike Shanahan or Tim Tebow Broncos, but that doesn't mean the offensive line is any less crucial to the team's success. If anything, the offensive line might be even more critical than in years past because of who the Broncos' signal caller is and how this team is composed (mainly because of the "new age" NFL and the emphasis on the passing games through rule changes).
Say what you will about running or passing, just know that neither happens without a stout offensive line. The difference between a normal running play being successful or unsuccessful usually depends on the offensive line's ability to block and set good running lanes. When it comes to passing, well, the quarterback might be the "most important player on the team", but he's pretty worthless if he's laying flat on his back because he has no time to find an open receiver and throw the ball to him. So with that, lets being our offensive line preview, shall we?
The Broncos enter training camp in 2014 ready to make a few changes in their offensive line, despite breaking every offensive record in the book a year ago. You can thank the likes of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett for that - the Seattle Seahawks defensive line dominated the Broncos in the Super Bowl, as painful as it is to remember. So over to right tackle goes Chris Clark. Over to left guard moves Orlando Franklin. And back on the field is All Pro left tackle Ryan Clady.
How many will make the team?
This number is pretty much set in stone. Since Peyton Manning became the quarterback, the Broncos have carried nine (9) offensive linemen into each season - usually three tackles and six interior linemen, though there are plenty of guys who can swing between positions. I wouldn't expect that "9" number to change for as long as Peyton is the quarterback.
Ryan Clady (#78)
Clady's season ended much too quickly because of his Lisfranc injury. While Chris Clark filled in admirably, the talent gap really started to show up as the competition got better. This was never more evident than in the Super Bowl. I'm not going to say that the offense would have scored more than eight points had Clady been healthy, but... wait a minute, yes, yes I am going to say that the offense would have scored more than eight points had Ryan Clady been healthy. He is just that good. He has been one of the game's best left tackles since the day he was drafted. He is only the fourth offensive lineman (not just tackle) to be a three time pro bowler in his first five seasons. That's a lot of history to be ahead of. Then again, seeing Clady end the season with a mere 1 or 2 sacks given up all year is a pretty common sight. It's because of this that having Ryan Clady on the field instantly upgrades the Broncos' chances at winning the Super Bowl by a large margin in my book.
Orlando Franklin (#74)
Orlando Franklin is my favorite hockey-loving Denver Bronco. In 2012, Franklin allowed the fewest sacks out of all linemen that played 16 games. Yes, he is that good. It's because of stats like that that makes it hard for me to accept his move to left guard. Why move a stud of a right tackle inside to left guard you may ask? Simple, it's because the Broncos believe that Franklin will be an even better guard. The move to guard will allow Orlando to use his magnificent size and strength to his advantage. He will line up against bigger and slower players which will really play to his strengths. As a tackle, you need to be faster because you line up against smaller and faster defensive players. As a guard, the players he will face will be bigger and slower as well as have limited space in which to maneuver. All of this adds up nicely for a player like Orlando Franklin. I expect Montee Ball to have a lot of inside runs to the left this season.
Louis Vasquez (#65)
Vasquez is perhaps the best guard in the NFL. Franklin will make his case, but a single game has yet to be played with Orlando at guard. Either way, Louis Vasquez is simply amazing. Nothing more really needs to be said. You put him in and just relax because he won't let you down. There is absolutely no reason why he won't be his usual dominant self.
Manny Ramirez (#66)
Isn't it crazy how things change from one year to the next? Last year Manny was looked at as a bubble player. Then Walton went down. In came Koppen, but he quickly went down. After that, all the "coach speak" said that Manny was their guy the whole time. Sure coach. Do you have any beachfront property in Montana to sell me too? Anyway, back on topic, Manny is a roster lock. He might not be a lock to start at Center, but he's a roster lock and likely the day 1 starter. He did very well last year which makes me pretty excited about this upcoming season. With a year under his belt and hopefully no first snap jitters, ManRam just might sniff a pro-bowl berth. He graded out quite well last season even though that was his first as a center, and for Peyton Manning's offense (and pre-snap "stuff") no less. Again, he isn't a lock to start, but he's pretty darn close. It would take a small miracle for anyone to unseat ManRam.
Chris Clark (#75)
Oy Vey! Where do I start with my favorite lineman (that's a joke for anyone who paid attention to anything I said last year once Ryan Clady went down)? Where should I start? How about I start with Chris Clark the right tackle? Okay, here's the skinny on Chris Clark the right tackle: He's from New Orleans (huge plus in my book). Unfortunately, that's the last good thing I have to say about Chris Clark the right tackle. Now for the bad: He was bounced around from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad for two years and onto Minnesota's practice squad for another year. After yet again being cut and unable to find much playing time at all for those two clubs who are known as having amazing offensive lines (joke), he landed on the Denver Broncos. Now, I'm not saying he'd ever be expected to beat out Orlando Franklin for the right tackle position (which he still hasn't done), so his time on the practice squad, inactive roster, and finally active roster came as little surprise.
Okay, so what have we learned from Chris Clark the right tackle? We have learned that he has never been able to sniff the field even when competition at that spot was less than impressive.
What do we know about Chris Clark the left tackle? We know that he's pretty good. He did an admirable job last season while filling in for an injured Ryan Clady. He really did impress me most of the time. He stood his own against good competition even though he did get torn up against great players. His worst game was undoubtedly the worst game for pretty much every Broncos player, so I'm not going to hold him entirely responsible. However, and I can't stress this enough, this is him being a left tackle not right tackle!
Chris Clark the right tackle is an unknown. Can he play? I have my doubts. Was he good on the left? Absolutely, but he's now switching back to the side of the line where he wasn't good. Just because you can play on the left doesn't mean you can play on the right. You have different footwork, a different stance, and a different direction to block. He was good going to the left, but how is he going to the right? If you pass this aspect off as a small thing, how about all you non-ambidextrous people out there try writing with your opposite hand and see how pretty that looks. Switching from left to right or right to left is no small feat. This is why I have my doubts even though I'm going to go ahead and hope that I'm wrong and he's a pro bowl caliber right tackle. One thing is for certain though, and that is Chris Clark making the final 53. Even if he isn't any good at right tackle, he's quality depth along the line and much needed depth in case Clady gets hurt.
Matt Paradis (#61)
I'm tempted to put all rookies in the "Roster Locks" section as John Elway has quite the track record of giving everyone he drafts more chances than they arguably deserve to make the 53. However, I'm going to put all rookies in this category simply because we haven't seen them practice, let alone play a single down.
With that said, Paradis projects well as the "center of the future." He has good size, intelligence, and was a red shirt senior. He would only see time on the field this year with a Ramirez injury, so lets hope he stays nustled comfortably on the inactive or practice squad roster.
Winston Justice (#77)
Justice was picked high in the second round by the Eagles, but has failed to live up to the hype ever since. Perhaps he just needs a change of scenery to really blossom. I'm hoping that Justice can overtake Chris Clark in training camp to become the starting right tackle even though that possibility seems remote at best. He is definitely on the bubble, but also has the best chance of all bubble guys to see playing time this season.
Vinston Painter (#70)
Vinston Painter is definitely a project guard. He has the physical tools to be a good lineman, but his chances will be non-existent as there is no way he sniffs the field as long as Franklin and Vasquez stay upright. Back to the practice squad Vinston. You'll one day get your shot (potentially next year with Franklin up for a big payday).
Will "aka Kyle Jr." Montgomery (#64)
"Monty Jr" is a center with nine years of experience. With Paradis being the so-called "center of the future", that leaves Monty as the "backup of the now." Montgomery did a fantastic job last year for the Redskins and their mobile QB, so he should be rock solid in a more traditional offense with Peyton behind him. He won't have the unpredictability and unknown happening around him like last year simply because Manning is a pocket passer, not a scrambler until someone comes open. If he can handle the stress that a mobile-to-a-fault QB brings, I fully expect him to excel with a traditional pocket QB at the helm. He could surprise and overtake ManRam, but I'm not willing to put money on it until I see some training camp practices and pre season games.
Ben Garland (#63)
The former defensive lineman turned offensive guard is once again entering training camp with much fanfair. He still has practice squad eligibility left which could be where he lands once again. He was an undrafted college free agent and has a bunch of drafted competition ahead of him to make the 53 and/or practice squad. Garland has great size and a high motor. Those two things alone could create a splash in training camp and pre season. He wants this job, so I fully expect the Air Force product to go out and grab it. Onto the 53 you come Ben, congratulations.
Michael Schofield (#79)
Schofield is a smaller if you call a 6'6" 303 pound human being small. He is lean for how tall he is though. He has an uphill climb ahead of him, but has the desire to do whatever he has to do in order to make the team. I wish there were more to write, but despite his lofty draft position (3rd round), I just don't see much to write about. He works hard but lacks physicality. He has decent feet, but not the best. I'm no GM, so I can't say "why did we take him in the 3rd", but seriously, why did we take him in the 3rd round? I just don't get it. His play screams "camp body", but his draft position says otherwise. I guess we'll find out soon.
Paul Cornick (#71)
The undrafted college free agent who was cut by the Jets and picked up by the Broncos in 2012. He hung on for a practice squad position, but those days are likely gone as there are just too many offensive linemen that Elway drafted or signed to allow Cornick the luxury of simply hanging on. He needs to make a move now or start hiring a good realtor to find him a new house in a new city. He is firmly on the bubble.
Ryan Miller (#73)
The Colorado native will surely have his fair share of optimism from Broncos fans, but he needs to impress to make the team. Like Cornick, Miller wasn't an Elway draft pick but instead, was picked up from another club. He has an uphill battle, but has good size and could impress. He has practice squad eligibility left which could be where he ends up if he doesn't straight outplay other bubble players.
Aslam Sterling (#67)
The book on Sterling is his size and versatility. He can play literally every position up and down the line. That alone could land him on the practice squad at a minimum or the 53 (although gameday inactive) at best. Yes there is a ton of competition, but if we know one thing about John Fox, it's that he loves versatile players. Sterling fits the bill and could surprise during camp.
"Missing a guy of that stature and of that ability, that’s hard to replace. Actually irreplaceable" - Head Coach John Fox, on Ryan Clady missing most of the 2013 season.