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10 Burning Questions for Camp: Who will be the top backups on the offensive line?


In the last two seasons, the Broncos have seen starting offensive linemen lose 35 games to injuries. They have not had the same starting five on the line for every regular-season game in a season since 2011 -- and in the 16th game of that campaign, Chris Kuper, then a stalwart right guard and now the Broncos' assistant offensive-line coach, suffered a horrific ankle injury.

Considering that two of the Broncos' five projected starting offensive linemen have finished two of their last four seasons on injured reserve, the reality is clear: A reserve will be called upon to play, and likely start. Sometime in the Broncos' 2019 regular season, their hopes of sustaining the offense will ride in part on one of the reserves' ability to ensure there is no drop-off.

For them, the watchword is versatility.

Seven-year veteran Don Barclay has starting experience at right tackle, right guard and left tackle. He brings the most first-team experience to the backup mix, having started 27 games, including 26 in a five-year stint with the Green Bay Packers.

Fifth-year veteran Chaz Green, who joined the Broncos in the wake of Nico Falah's season-ending Achilles-tendon injury, started at left guard and left tackle in Dallas in 2016 and started at left guard for the Raiders in Week 15 of last year.

Coming into his fourth year is interior offensive lineman Jake Brendel, whom Kuper coached in Miami the last three seasons. Brendel played a career-high 176 snaps last year. He started two games at center and one at left guard before a calf injury ended his season.

Next, you have the collection of young players still awaiting their first regular-season snaps. Sam Jones, a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, can be a swing interior player, possessing the versatility to play at center and both guard spots. Austin Schlottman, who spent last year on the practice squad, could also handle the same type of role. Tackle Jake Rodgers, who has bounced around through the practice squads of six teams in the last four years, was active for one week with the Giants in 2016, but did not play.

Then there are four undrafted rookies: interior linemen Nathan Jacobson and Ryan Crozier and tackles Quinn Bailey and John Leglue. For this quartet, a place on the practice squad serves as the potential goal; as was the case for Elijah Wilkinson in 2017, this could lead to bigger things and playing time.

But Wilkinson himself is perhaps the most fascinating potential reserve. He came to the Broncos after working at offensive tackle at the University of Massachusetts, and continued to emphasize that position in his first training camp two years ago.

By Week 11 of last year, season-ending injuries to Matt Paradis, Ron Leary and Max Garcia forced him into action at right guard. Now he's back at tackle, but with an armful of lessons taken from his quick switch inside.

"At right guard last year, I had a little problem dropping my foot a little bit when I [went against] a wide 3-technique," Wilkinson said two weeks ago. "But it's different now that I'm playing tackle, so I'm sitting on 9-, 7- and 5-techniques, so it's going to be a lot different. 

"I like tackle. I had a lot of experience with it at UMass; I played right and left. I went against some good competition as well. It's all about technique. It's all about being keyed into the snap count. You have to be locked in when you play the game and it just is what it is."

While tackle is Wilkinson's home for now, the ability to hold his own at guard gives helps his chances of being the first reserve into the lineup, no matter where an injury strikes.

"Anywhere, honestly. It doesn't matter -- guard, tackle, I just feel confident that I can go out and get the job done -- right, left, either-or. I'm out there trying to play football, that's all."

And whether the top reserve offensive lineman is Wilkinson or one of the other players grappling for roster spots, it is a near-certainty that the Broncos will have to rely upon him.

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