Change is assured for the Broncos on the offensive line, even if they opt to retain left guard Orlando Franklin and center Will Montgomery in the coming weeks.
With Louis Vasquez expected to move back to right guard after a midseason shift to right tackle last season, the right side of the line will look different than it did last year. But if Franklin and Montgomery also depart, then the only spot along the line that will have the same starter as it did in the Jan. 11 playoff loss to Indianapolis will be left tackle, where Ryan Clady should be back to his old form after another offseason to recover from the Lis franc injury he incurred in Week 2 of the 2013 campaign.
The line's tactics were going to change because of the shift to a scheme more deeply rooted in zone-blocking concepts that were the foundation of its work from 1995-2008. But the potential for personnel change along with it makes this position group one that bears close monitoring as the new league year begins.
Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway noted that Franklin is "a good enough athlete to" transition to zone blocking. Montgomery had his best season in 2012 with Washington, which used a zone-based blocking scheme at the time under then-head coach Mike Shanahan.
"I think they both fit," said Head Coach Gary Kubiak at the Scouting Combine. "Obviously they're both free agents … but they've both been very solid players."
Having started just half of the 2014 season and being 32 years old, free-agent interest in Montgomery could simmer a while before boiling during the second or third wave of signings -- similar to last year, when the Broncos signed him to a one-year deal.
But that won't be the case for Franklin. He's in the prime of his career, seeking his second contract -- the crucial deal for players to establish long-term financial security. He has positional flexibility after moving from right tackle to left guard last year. And he played his best football in the second half of the season after the line was shuffled and the ground game was emphasized. "I think Orlando is going to get a lot of interest -- probably as a tackle, or a guard," Elway said. "He finished strong, so there's going to be a lot of interest."
The Broncos prepared for a potential Franklin departure last year, when they drafted Michigan's Michael Schofield in the third round, knowing he needed to add some weight as a rookie to be ready to contribute. His two positions were the same ones Franklin played in four seasons with the Broncos. And at center, the Broncos selected Boise State's Matt Paradis, of whom Kubiak said at the Combine, "I think a lot of him."
That's what a draft-and-develop team does when it's working -- it can absorb the losses of some players it can't manage to keep because of salary-cap constraints. But it doesn't mean the Broncos will remain unaffected if either Franklin or Montgomery -- or both -- leave.
Centers, guards and linemen â who might the Broncos sign in free agency? Here are the options for improving the line in free agency.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:**
C RODNEY HUDSON, KANSAS CITY:Hudson enjoyed a breakthrough season last year and is arguably the best free-agent lineman on the market. He is technically sound, possesses the expansive vision to monitor blitzing linebackers through the A-gap while engaging with nose tackles at the snap, and has the quickness to pivot and pick up the blitzer once he's guided the nose tackle away from the middle.
G MIKE IUPATI, SAN FRANCISCO:The most decorated offensive lineman on the market, the three-time Pro Bowler and 2012 All-Pro lived up to his first-round status in five 49ers seasons and became one of the best interior power blockers in the game. The man who drafted him in San Francisco, Scot McCloughan, is now Washington's general manager, and that could present a logical landing spot.
OT BRYAN BULAGA, GREEN BAY:A torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in 2013 did not affect him a year later, and there are no lingering concerns about the knee that should depress his value on the market. He is also the highest-rated free-agent tackle according to ProFootballFocus.com's rankings ( 11.9) last year, a season in which he allowed four sacks.
C STEFEN WISNIEWSKI, OAKLAND:Has only surrendered one sack in the last three seasons, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and developed into a steadying force in an unsettled offense. The transition of rookie quarterback Derek Carr forced him into some difficult situations in pass protection at times last year, but he did well holding the line together.
OT DEREK NEWTON, HOUSTON:His familiarity with zone blocking from his years with the Texans should generate some interest -- not only from teams like the Broncos that emphasize zone concepts, but from others looking for a quick outside blocker with good footwork.
OT DOUG FREE, DALLAS:As a third-contract free agent, the nine-year veteran won't be as pricey as his younger brethren and could be a bargain as a result. He's matured and played arguably the best football of his career the last two years.
OT BYRON BELL, CAROLINA:The key for Bell is simple: use him only at right tackle. He showed flashes of improvement on the right side in 2013, but when he moved to the left side following Jordan Gross' retirement, the results were lamentable. As with Chris Clark in Denver, Bell proved the difficulty of flipping from one side of the line to the other.
OT JOE BARKSDALE, ST. LOUIS:ProFootballFocus.com credited him with seven sacks allowed last year -- but three of them were in one game, a loss at Arizona that was Austin Davis' final start before giving way to Shaun Hill. Barksdale has always had a road-grader quality about him since becoming a starter; if he can refine his pass protection, he would be worth a hefty contract.
G CLINT BOLING, CINCINNATI:Although he moved to right tackle in a pinch for two games last year, left guard is Boling's best spot, and he's been crucial to Cincinnati's ground production in recent years, despite cycling through multiple running backs. He could slide in the tier of free agents behind Orlando Franklin and cash in for his key second contract.
C SAMSON SATELE, MIAMI:He turned 30 last year and remains a capable run blocker, although he struggled at times in pass protection and allowed three sacks last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
OTHERS OF NOTE:
OT Jeremy Parnell, Dallas
C Brian De La Puente, Chicago
C/G Joe Berger, Minnesota
C Dominic Raiola, Detroit
OT Chris Hairston, Buffalo
G James Carpenter, Seattle
C/G Rich Ohrnberger, San Diego
G Rob Sims, Detroit
OT/G Erik Pears, Buffalo
OT/G Adam Snyder, N.Y. Giants
STREET FREE AGENTS:
G/C CHRIS MYERS, EX-HOUSTON:His background with Gary Kubiak in Houston -- and before that, with the Broncos, where he started for the injured Tom Nalen before being dealt to the Texans in 2008 -- makes him a fit in terms of skill set. He struggled at times in pass protection last year, but that might have been due as much to the incorporation of more power-blocking concepts after the coaching change as his age (he turned 33 last September). He reminds me of Casey Wiegmann, circa 2008 -- a veteran who has some good seasons left in the tank.
G JUSTIN BLALOCK, EX-ATLANTA:At 31, he's still a solid blocker, and had a decent season until allowing two sacks in the season-finale loss to Carolina. He's durable, having missed just three games in his previous eight seasons, and although he's lost a smidgen of quickness, he remains effective and productive.
OT MICHAEL OHER, EX-TENNESSEE:His fame from the book and film The Blind Side has always surpassed his play. He didn't pan out as a left tackle in Baltimore, and he allowed six sacks in 11 games at right tackle last year for the Titans, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Someone will take a low-cost flyer on him in the hopes he taps into his potential, but that's about all the market will bear.
OTHERS OF NOTE:
G Todd Herremans, ex-Philadelphia
C J.D. Walton, ex-N.Y. Giants
G Mike Pollak, ex-Cincinnati
RESTRICTED/EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS OF NOTE:
C A.Q. Shipley, Indianapolis
G Ronald Leary, Dallas
OT Don Barclay, Green Bay