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Broncos Position Breakdown: Offensive Line

Posted Mar 22, 2013

Andrew Mason takes a look at the Broncos' offensive line.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just because offensive line isn't an obvious need doesn't mean it won't be addressed at some point in the draft.

It's the nature of the position group; it typically chews up eight or nine spots on the 53-man roster, with one or two more for practice-squad players. Ten is the magic number to provide for a first team and a scout team, and there's natural churn at the bottom of the group. The Broncos have selected at least one offensive lineman in 10 consecutive drafts and 18 of the last 19, so it's a good bet they'll pick one again.

The Broncos' needs are not immediate, but could loom by 2014, depending on how the Broncos deal with three players who will play 2013 with just one year on their respective contracts: 2010 draft picks Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton and left tackle Ryan Clady, who is expected to sign his franchise tender at some point in the offseason.

The Broncos have attempted to negotiate a long-term deal with Clady, who is coming off rotator cuff surgery that will cost him the entire offseason of work but has never missed a regular-season or playoff game -- a perfect 84-for-84 in a career that includes three Pro Bowls. The accumulation of injuries is notable to the negotiation process, with this year's surgery preceded by a torn patella tendon suffered while playing basketball in 2010. However, his ability to play through pain and while still in recovery was on display both times -- particularly late in 2012.

Nevertheless, if the Broncos aren't optimistic about a deal with Clady, finding a long-term left tackle might be a priority, and the only way to adequately do that will be early in the draft, given its status as a premium position. 

Right tackle Orlando Franklin improved in 2012, and with the free-agent addition of Louis Vasquez creating a surplus of guards with starting experience, it appears unlikely that Franklin will move inside at this point.

Assuming Vasquez takes over at right guard as expected -- and it's the only position he's played extensively as a pro -- Franklin will likely receive a boost, as Vasquez has been among the league's best and most technically proficient pass blockers. Vasquez should also receive a boost from having Franklin to his right in the run game, but postseason surgery for Franklin could delay their practice-field debut as a right-side tandem.

The primary roster consequence of Vasquez's arrival is an uncertain future for Chris Kuper, who will miss offseason work for a second consecutive year while recovering from further ankle surgery. Kuper started just five regular-season games in 2012 because of a fractured left forearm and a sprain of the same left ankle he fractured the previous Jan. 1.

Kuper has only been a right guard with the Broncos, and if his contract isn't renegotiated, he could become a pricey backup -- or perhaps could be in the mix with Beadles at left guard. But Beadles was one of the Broncos' most improved players in 2012 and unlike Clady, Kuper, Walton and Franklin, will be available for offseason work, as he is not coming off surgery.

To Beadles' right flank, all signs point to Walton returning to his starting position at center. His recovery from a fractured ankle suffered last Sept. 30 against Oakland is on schedule, and Head Coach John Fox announced at the NFL Scouting Combine that Walton would be the first-team center when training camp begins this summer.

The Broncos' depth is strong and, after last season, more experienced than it was before. Manny Ramirez's 11-game stint as the starting right guard in place of Chris Kuper will serve him well if he's called on again; at this point, he appears to not only be a primary backup at guard, but center behind Walton. Offensive tackle Chris Clark can work at both left and right tackle; he has only been needed for spot duty on the offensive line the last two years, but should get plenty of first-team repetitions at OTAs in May and June, with Clady and Franklin both recovering from injuries.

Returning practice-squad and second-team players like C.J. Davis, Quentin Saulsberry and Paul Cornick provide depth. But with multiple starters sidelined for the offseason, the most fascinating prospect to watch in OTAs should be 2012 fourth-round pick Philip Blake, who struggled in training camp and languished on the third team, then managed to make the 53-man roster before ending up on injured reserve.

With the contracts of Walton and Beadles a year from expiring, the Broncos need all the data they can find before making their decision. That won't just revolve around the performance of the 2010 picks, but that of Blake, who should receive some first-team repetitions during OTAs. If he proves that he can absorb the offense, he could use the offseason like Ramirez did last year, to ascend to primary backup status on the interior. He would also give the Broncos another lineman with whom they are comfortable if Walton and Beadles aren't re-signed.

But if the Broncos don't get the sense that Blake can ascend, then they could look for another interior offensive lineman to groom in the draft's middle rounds -- perpetuating the inevitable turnover that comes with cultivating -- and culling -- a collection of (mostly) home-grown offensive linemen.

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