ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If there was any doubt about the severity of Ryan Clady's left foot injury, that was removed by the Broncos' decision to place him on injured reserve without the option to recall. That move ends his season and deals the most crushing blow yet to a team already rocked by the early-season absence of two core players and Pro Bowlers in Champ Bailey and Von Miller.
The most obvious potential solution -- and the one that creates the least displacement along the offensive line — lies with Chris Clark, a backup tackle since 2011 who spent the entire offseason and most of training camp and the preseason working with the first team at left tackle while Clady recovered from shoulder surgery.
Clark graded out reasonably well, given his lack of first-team, game-time experience heading into the preseason; most of the protection issues the Broncos had when Peyton Manning was at quarterback involved blitzes that others in the blocking scheme like tight ends and running backs were responsible for picking up.
There are other contingency plans if the Broncos decide not to use Clark; they could shift Zane Beadles over one spot to left tackle, or use him at right tackle and move Franklin to left tackle, which would open left guard to Chris Kuper — if he's healthy — or John Moffitt, who was acquired from the Seahawks last month. But in those instances, the Broncos would be shifting multiple spots, which isn't the best scenario to face three games into the season.
Clark knows the calls and communication with Manning. Just as important is the fact that he knows Beadles from playing next to him. One of the best aspects of the Broncos' offensive line is the timing and harmony that Clady and Beadles have working together; after three-plus seasons, they know each other's moves and tendencies. Clark's experience with the first team this spring and summer helped him find a similar groove with Beadles.
"It helped me a lot," Clark said. "Getting those (preseason) games under my belt, being with the guys, getting that starters' camaraderie and things like that, getting that chemistry going with Zane Beadles. We have a little chemistry going together so that's going to help a lot."
Clark can't necessarily replace Clady's entire skill set — it's not reasonable to expect him to, since Clady is coming off an All-Pro season. There's a reason why the Broncos signed him to a long-term contract; he's one of the elite at a premium position. But he did learn a few things from Clady that should help him.
"Just the way he moves, the way he sets, the way he moves his feet and hands, attention to detail," Clark said. "You try to mimic those things because he's been a great player and those things will help me a lot."
The Broncos filled Clady's vacated spot by adding eight-year veteran Winston Justice, who becomes the only experienced backup tackle on the 53–man roster.
Justice started 12 games at right tackle for the Colts last year, and graded out at 0.1 according to the ratings compiled by ProFootballFocus.com — well off the 6.6 and 18.4 ratings he had in the other two seasons he started extensively, for the Eagles in 2009 and 2010, which were prior to the knee injury he suffered in 2011.
But Justice projects as a right tackle; aside from a brief cameo at left guard, all of his NFL experience has come there. He offers a backup plan on the right side if Orlando Franklin is injured, but otherwise, his only use would like come after some shuffling, such as moving Franklin to left tackle if Clark has any difficulty or is injured. Justice gives the Broncos options, but given the level of communication needed to handle working in a Manning-led offense, it seems more likely he'll simply act as insurance while Franklin and Clark start.