ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Left tackle is a premium position, and the Broncos have already paid a premium price for their long-term anchor at the spot, two-time first-team All-Pro Ryan Clady.
But the Broncos proved they possess depth at the tackle spots. Chris Clark, the primary backup, replaced Clady and helped keep the offense humming. He allowed more sacks than Clady did -- seven last season, compared with the one that Clady allowed in 2012 -- but Clark was an effective pass blocker and committed few penalties. Most importantly, the Broncos didn't have to keep an extra blocker in to help Clark, allowing them to usually run their array of three-wide receiver sets with five potential targets unimpeded.
Over the course of 17 starts, Clark proved that he can be a legitimate first-teamer in the NFL, so the Broncos are now blessed with three experienced starters under contract: Clady, Clark and Orlando Franklin, who has anchored the right tackle spot since arriving as a second-round pick in 2011.
Clady is expected back for 2014 following a Lisfranc injury. From there, what happens likely depends on how the rest of the line shakes out.
If left guard Zane Beadles does not re-sign with the Broncos, Franklin could move to that spot, leaving Clark at right tackle. Franklin has experience at guard from his days at the University of Miami, and was projected as an NFL guard by some teams coming into the 2011 draft, although his 6-foot-7 frame lends itself better to the outside. Further, Franklin has been effective at tackle; among offensive tackles to take at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, he ranked 18th of 80 in 2012 and 17th of 76 in 2013, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The Broncos have an enviable situation at tackle: three proven starters for two spots, and an athletic young backup in Vinston Painter. The Virginia Tech product had a year of practice-squad seasoning to begin smoothing out the rough edges in his game. This summer's preseason will reveal the extent of his progress; if he blossoms, it's an added bonus to an already stacked position.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Eugene Monroe, Baltimore: When Baltimore eschewed the franchise tag for Monroe, they ensured that a top-tier tackle will be on the market. Monroe played the best football of his career after being dealt to the Ravens last year for two mid-round draft picks. The Baltimore Sun reported that the Ravens and Monroe are "far apart" in contract talks. If the Ravens can't make a deal with Monroe, his phone will be besieged with calls on the afternoon of March 11.
Jared Veldheer, Oakland: He was not as effective last year as he was in previous years, but this is mainly due to the torn triceps that kept him on the sideline until Week 13. Veldheer was becoming one of the league's best left tackles before the injury, and given the Raiders' massive room under the salary cap -- a reported $65 million -- it was a mild surprise that he was not franchised.
Branden Albert, Kansas City: The Chiefs found room for Albert last year, even after drafting Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick. Albert was still their most consistent tackle, and was a steady hand compared with the struggling young Fisher and Donald Stephenson. But the paucity of top-level tackles on the market likely means Albert is headed elsewhere.
Zach Strief, New Orleans:A bit under the radar, but still effective; Strief ranked seventh in ProFootballFocus.com's rankings of offensive tackles -- and No. 3 in the site's pass-blocking evaluations. He has been a pure right tackle, and projects on that side, which might hold his salary down, but if the Saints don't re-sign him, he will have multiple suitors.
Austin Howard, N.Y. Jets: There were reports in February that the Jets were discussing a new contract with Howard, but nothing has come of them to this point. Howard is an effective run blocker, turns 27 later this month and has his prime years in front of him, and should be a fairly coveted right tackle.
Rodger Saffold, St. Louis: "He's definitely a priority this offseason for us," Rams General Manager Les Snead said at the Combine. But to this point, prioritization has not led to a new contract to keep Saffold in St. Louis. Saffold's hallmarks are his pass-blocking skills and his versatility; Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher has indicated that Saffold can "be an outstanding guard in this league," and he has started at right tackle, right guard and left tackle in the last two seasons.
Michael Oher, Baltimore: Ironically for someone immortalized in a movie called "The Blind Side," Oher did not prove himself to be a consistently effective left tackle, which necessitated a shift to the right side and eventual left-flank instability until the Ravens traded for Monroe last season. The Ravens appear more focused on trying to re-sign Monroe, and Oher could be a bit of an afterthought.
Ryan Harris, Houston:Harris eventually landed in Houston after being released by the Broncos, and started five games in the last two seasons. He's a better fit in a pure zone-blocking scheme, and with the number of teams emphasizing that as their base tactic declining, he might have to wait until finding a landing spot.
Eric Winston, Arizona: Last year was a rough one for the 30-year-old Winston, as he was credited with seven sacks and 43 quarterback hurries allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com's measurements. Winston was a late addition to the Cardinals -- he signed with them in training camp -- and played his best in the second half of the season, indicating that he needed time to adjust.
Mike Johnson, Atlanta: The plan was for Johnson to become the Falcons' starting right tackle last season, but he suffered a fractured left fibula and a dislocated ankle in training camp. Johnson remains an unknown quantity because of his lack of playing and starting experience, and his best bet might be to re-sign with the Falcons and make another run at a starting spot.
Anthony Collins, Cincinnati: Collins fared well as the Bengals' starting left tackle down the stretch; he didn't allow a sack during his time on that side this year. He has started at both tackle spots, but never more than seven times in a season, and has been the perpetual back-up plan for Cincinnati. Another team might give him the opportunity the 28-year-old craves: to be a full-time starter.
Winston Justice, Denver: He was a vital insurance policy at tackle last year and was pressed into service against the Jaguars when Orlando Franklin injured his ankle. Whether he returns to the Broncos may depend on how they feel about Vinston Painter, the sixth-round pick last year who was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad in January.
OTHERS: Justin Anderson, Indianapolis; Charles Brown, New Orleans; Rashad Butler, Pittsburgh; Tyson Clabo, Miami; David Diehl, N.Y. Giants; Jason Fox, Detroit; Andrew Gardner, Houston; Breno Giacomini, Seattle; Jeff Linkenbach, Indianapolis; Sean Locklear, Atlanta; Bryant McKinnie, Miami; Marshall Newhouse, Green Bay; Mike Otto, Tennessee; Tony Pashos, Oakland; Dennis Roland, Cincinnati; Jonathan Scott, Chicago; Will Svitek, New England; Jeremy Trueblood, Atlanta; J'Marcus Webb, Minnesota; Guy Whimper, Pittsburgh; Sam Young, Jacksonville.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Byron Bell, Carolina: The retirement of Jordan Gross probably doesn't affect the status of Bell much; he's been Carolina's starting right tackle for the last three seasons, and as an RFA for a team in a cap crunch, it's likely he returns for a fourth.
OTHERS: Cameron Bradfield, Jacksonville.