ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was here where the Broncos made one of the moves that defined their offseason last year by signing former Chargers guard Louis Vasquez.
Much of the buzz around guards in free agency last year surrounded Andy Levitre, who quickly jumped from Buffalo to Tennessee as the highest-paid guard in last year's class. But Vasquez, whose success was quieter and under the radar in San Diego, outplayed Levitre last year.
Levitre was good for the Titans, and an upgrade. But Vasquez was a deserving All-Pro. It wasn't a position that seemed to be the biggest need, considering the Broncos expected to have Chris Kuper back, but the ankle problems that plagued him in 2012 persisted in 2013, necessitating the pursuit of Vasquez.
This year, a need might arise if left guard Zane Beadles is not retained. There are internal possibilities if Beadles leaves, the most plausible of which is to move Orlando Franklin from right tackle to left guard, and shift left tackle Chris Clark to right tackle, freeing Ryan Clady to return to left tackle and giving the Broncos an up-front quintet that is experienced.
But that would also rob the Broncos of one of their best assets: an experienced backup tackle in Clark who helped save the offensive line last year when Clady succumbed to a lisfranc injury. And because 2012 draft pick Philip Blake did not work out as hoped, the Broncos don't have a drafted guard waiting in the wings promote -- unlike at tackle, where 2013 selection Vinston Painter moved up to the 53-man roster late in the season and could factor into the tackle depth going forward.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Alex Mack, Cleveland: Multiple reports indicate that re-signing the two-time Pro Bowler is the Browns' top priority heading into free agency. If the Browns target a quarterback with one of their first-round picks, they need Mack to help give him the best chance of a smooth transition. He is effective in pass protection and as a run blocker and makes few mistakes. If Cleveland doesn't re-sign him, expect him to be one of the first -- and highest-paid -- free agents to land elsewhere.
Evan Dietrich-Smith, Green Bay: He built off a strong end to the 2012 season in which he supplanted veteran Jeff Saturday and established himself last year, anchoring the Packers' line and finishing as ProFootballFocus.com's eighth-highest-rated center. The question now is whether the Packers will find room for him or prioritize other pending free agents. The Packers cut backup center Greg Van Roten earlier in the month, and according to his agent via ESPN.com, the Packers believed they "wanted to get bigger" on the interior of the offensive line. Van Roten, who later signed with Seattle, is 303 pounds; Dietrich-Smith is five pounds heavier. But if the Packers want continuity, they'll keep Dietrich-Smith; unless they sign Mack, there is no obvious upgrade out there.
Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City: The development time that Schwartz had under Dave Magazu for three years in Carolina paid dividends for him in Kansas City, as he emerged as an above-average starter with a career year. The Kansas City Star reported that the Chiefs and Schwartz's agent met at the Combine, but with Jon Asamoah also hitting free agency, the Chiefs may have to choose between one or the other. Schwartz finished the year as the top-rated potential free-agent guard, according to ProFootballFOcus.com.
Zane Beadles, Denver: His Pro Bowl appearance a year ago, youth and health means he won't last long on the market, if he gets there. "I'd love to be a Bronco. But, we'll see what happens," Beadles said on Feb. 4. He's realistic about the situation. Last year's investment in Louis Vasquez at the other guard slot could impact the decision, as well.
Brian De La Puente, New Orleans: Given the chemistry established between De La Puente and Drew Brees, it would be a mild surprise if he did not return. His experience with a fairly complicated series of checks at the line of scrimmage should help him land on his feet if the Saints pass.
Jonathan Goodwin, San Francisco: If the Saints lose De La Puente, here could be their replacement, since Goodwin was De La Puente's predecessor at firing shotgun snaps to Brees. Despite starting through the 49ers' last three seasons at center, the 35-year-old Goodwin told The San Francisco Chronicle that he had not yet been contacted by the 49ers.
Kevin Boothe, N.Y. Giants: Boothe had arguably the worst season of his career last year after turning 30, but the Giants' overall struggles did him no favors. His experience at center and guard should help him land a spot, although guard is the position to which he's best suited.
Travelle Wharton, Carolina:The Panthers didn't make much of an attempt to retain Wharton two years ago, allowing the Bengals to sign him. He never played a regular-season game in Cincinnati because of a knee injury and was cut before 2013 training camp, and when he returned to Carolina, it was as though he'd never left, and he had one of the best seasons of his career at left guard. Wharton's value is enhanced by his ability to swing outside and play tackle; he can capably handle four of five offensive-line spots. With Jordan Gross retiring, the Panthers may make an extra push to retain Wharton; if they don't, someone will happily add the 33-year-old guard, who appears to have plenty left in the tank.
Chad Rinehart, San Diego: He played some of the best football of his career down the stretch, particularly in the postseason, where he worked at left guard and was arguably the Chargers' most effective offensive lineman. With other guards on the market, the Chargers might be able to re-sign the 28-year-old Rinehart at a bit of a discount.
Roberto Garza, Chicago: The Bears prevented Garza from testing the market by signing the 34-year-old to a one-year contract Feb. 28.
Jon Asamoah, Kansas City: It could come down to keeping Schwartz os Asamoah for the Chiefs. Asamoah has more experience in Kansas City, but Schwartz was the more effective of the two last year and played ahead of Asamoah as the season progressed.
Brian Waters, Dallas: Age and injury works against Waters. He turned 37 on Feb. 18 and missed the last eight games of 2013 because of a torn triceps muscle, which has not been repaired. He didn't join the Cowboys until Sept. 4, and he may take the same strategy this year: don't file retirement papers, quietly try to get in shape for the season and wait for injury or desperation.
Willie Colon, N.Y. Jets: Colon had a solid season in pass protection in front of Geno Smith last year, but ESPNNewYork.com reported last month that re-signing Colon was nothing more than a "fallback option" because of recent draft picks and the torn biceps he suffered in the season finale.
John Jerry, Miami: Jerry's connection to the Richie Incognito bullying scandal does no favors, and he'll have some difficult questions to answer from any team that considers signing him as a free agent. The Dolphins' potential desire to clean house on the line makes returning an unlikely possibility.
Dan Koppen, Denver: He was re-signed in June after J.D. Walton's recovery suffered a setback, but was on the shelf a month later after tearing an ACL in practice. The emergence of Manny Ramirez likely means Koppen might have to wait for an injury around the league to get one more shot.
Steve Vallos, Denver: He beat out Ryan Lilja for the backup job behind Manny Ramirez and saw some work in Super Bowl XLVIII. Vallos' knowledge of the Broncos' offense and adaptability means that he could be primed to return.
Paul McQuistan, Seattle: After starting most of the season at left tackle in place of the injured Russell Okung, McQuistan returned to left guard late in the year and in the postseason, although he came off the bench in the playoffs and saw occasional work at left guard. The 30-year-old's best attribute at this point is his versatility, but given the premium often placed on free-agent from championship teams, someone else may offer more than the Seahawks can, both in salary and opportunity to start in 2014.
Richie Incognito, Miami: The specter of suspension and the revelations from the recent Ted Wells report probably rendered Incognito a radioactive presence. His reported admission to a psychiatric clinic and the progress he makes in the coming weeks and months will determine whether he gets another shot somewhere -- which would likely be his final shot.
J.D. Walton, Washington: He was claimed off waivers after Denver released him in December. Whoever signs him will do so in the hope that he has recovered enough from the fractured ankle he incurred on Sept. 30, 2012 to contribute.
GUARDS: David Arkin, Miami; Eben Britton, Chicago; Bruce Campbell, Carolina; Brandon Carter, Dallas; Oniel Cousins, Cleveland; Vladimir Ducasse, N.Y. Jets; Mike Gibson, Arizona; Geoff Hangartner, Carolina; Charlie Johnson, Minnesota; Mike Johnson, Indianapolis; Shawn Lauvao, Cleveland; Jamon Meredith, Tampa Bay; Rich Ohrnberger, San Diego; Seth Olsen, Minnesota; Mike Pollak, Cincinnati; Chris Scott, Carolina; Jason Spitz, Seattle; Wade Smith, Houston; Garry Williams, Carolina.
Joe Berger, Minnesota; Ryan Cook, Dallas; Dylan Gandy, Detroit; Andre Gurode, Oakland; Joe Hawley, Atlanta;
Ted Larsen, Tampa Bay; Kevin Matthews, Tennessee; Mike McGlynn, Indianapolis; Chris Spencer, Tennessee; Rob Turner, Tennessee; Fernando Velasco, Pittsburgh; Cody Wallace, Pittsburgh; Ryan Wendell, New England.
STREET FREE AGENTS:
Garrett Reynolds, Atlanta: Considered expendable after the Falcons signed Gabe Carimi, Reynolds was released Feb. 18 after starting 16 of the Falcons' last 26 regular-season games. Reynolds graded out 31st among 81 guards last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Jeff Byers, Carolina: The former Broncos backup found a home in Carolina, but is coming off a Lisfran injury. He started seven games at center in 2012 and worked off the bench last year before being injured.
Joe Reitz, Indianapolis: He has turned in solid work in starting 20 games over the last three seasons for the Colts, but was a bench player most of the 2013 season.
Lemuel Jeanpierre, Seattle: Experience might help the 26-year-old find the consistency he lacked last year. He started three games at center and looked brilliant at times, but lost at others. There's nothing notable about him physically as far as interior linemen go -- he's 6-foot-3 and 301 pounds -- but a team might inquire about Jeanpierre and offer a chance to move into the starting lineup.