ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Twelve months ago, if this offensive line had been asked to work at a quick tempo unlike anything it had collectively experienced before, the results probably would have been lousy.
That was before a 13-3 season, before a successful year keeping Peyton Manning upright, before a year in which right tackle Orlando Franklin became steadier, left tackle Ryan Clady returned to his pre-2010 knee injury form and left guard Zane Beadles made the quantum leap the Broncos long believed he had in him, improving from preseason question to postseason Pro Bowler.
Sixty percent of the first-team offensive line has been together since 2011, and Beadles and Clady were starting alongside each other in 2010. They've seen nothing but change, from the overly-pass-intensive offense of 2010 to a more balanced attack early in 2011 with Kyle Orton to the zone-read option with Tim Tebow in 2011 to something completely different with Peyton Manning in 2012. That Beadles, Clady, Franklin backup Chris Clark and recovering-from-injury Chris Kuper have kept their wits about them.
By comparison, the accelerated tempo this offseason is a bit of a relief.
"I love it. I think it could be a huge advantage for us. And, it's a lot of fun," Beadles said. "I think we have a lot of smart guys on our side of the ball and on the offensive line. It is a challenge for us, but at the same time, it's fun for us to be able to take on that challenge. I think it is going to be a big advantage for us."
It wouldn't have been possible a year ago, when Manning's arrival led to a 180-degree pivot in emphasis.
"I think we're more comfortable with him; he's more comfortable with us," Beadles said. "I think we kind of have an idea with what direction we want to head in and where we're going. It is exciting to be able to take some next steps and rather than just learning about each other and learning the offense, really taking that step to do the fine details."
That's the case for Beadles, Franklin, Chris Clark and Manny Ramirez -- the returning offensive linemen who worked together through most of organized team activities because of Clady's shoulder injury and unsigned franchise tender and J.D. Walton's still-healing ankle. Clady is expected to sign his tender at some point, but Walton's ankle necessitated further surgery and will keep him out until October.
That led to the recent re-signing of Dan Koppen, who started 12 regular-season games last year. Koppen knows the drill from last year and nine previous seasons in New England; he should easily adjust to a quicker pace when training camp begins.
But for right guard Louis Vasquez, the challenge was two-fold after signing as an unrestricted free agent from the Chargers. There was the system, of course, but also the altitude, as he adjusts to playing regularly at 5,280 feet above sea level -- approximately 5,260 feet higher than Qualcomm Stadium, which sits in the Mission Valley of San Diego.
"Being here now, it did affect me when I first got here. But I've had some time to acclimate to it and I'm good to go," he said.
"Now it's just the terminology. That is just going to come naturally."
Vasquez played remarkably mistake-free football in four seasons with the Chargers, particularly in pass protection. That will help shore up the primary trouble spot from last year's offensive line; with an injured Chris Kuper and the reserve Ramirez splitting time, teams such as the Texans attacked that point of the line, with varying results. Some games, the Broncos held up well at right guard. But against elite pass rushers like Houston's J.J. Watt, the line was overwhelmed and caved in from that spot.
Vasquez's size and technical fortitude should change that.
But while the focus is on the present and the near future, the offensive line still lingers in the past -- particularly the final moments of regulation play in the divisional round loss, when one more rushing first down would have salted away the game. Instead, Ronnie Hillman was engulfed by a flock of Ravens, Britton Colquitt punted one snap later, and you know the rest.
"For me personally, especially from an O-line standpoint, if we gain one more first down in the four-minute drill and we finish with the ball in our hands, there is not even an opportunity for them to go down and score," Beadles said. "So, I think the big thing is just everybody looking at their position and themselves specifically and seeing how they can get better and how we can finish games. That will make us all better in the end."
And if the offensive line improves, the end of which Beadles speaks won't come until February.
THE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: THE BASICS
Ryan Clady: When he signs his franchise tender, two questions will remain. First: is this the step toward a long-term contract that the Broncos have repeatedly said they want to work out with Clady? Second: how will the surgically repaired shoulder hold up? That procedure meant that he would have missed offseason work even if he had signed his tender, but how it responds to the first collisions of practice and preseason will bear monitoring.
Orlando Franklin: His pass blocking improved noticeably in his second season as starter. Having a decisive quarterback like Manning behind him certainly helped, but he allowed fewer sacks and fewer pressures. What you'd like to see in his third season is fewer penalties.
Chris Clark: Clady's absence meant plenty of offseason work at left tackle for the versatile Clark, who is athletic enough to line up as an eligible tight end when the Broncos go into run-intensive packages. Still, if Clady's shoulder doesn't hold up, there's questions over whether the career backup (to this point) can handle the full-time load. Until he actually does it, we simply can't know.
Vinston Painter: Just one season as a starter at Virginia Tech makes the sixth-round pick a bit of a project. But outstanding performance in the Combine drills offers a hint of his athleticism, making him the kind of raw, high-upside prospect you like to find in the later rounds.
Manase Foketi: Although undrafted, Foketi fits the same template of a player with a high ceiling. He ended up at West Texas A&M after Kansas State didn't grant him a transfer, and had previously been waylaid by a torn Achilles tendon, but he plays lighter on his feet than his 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame would indicate and he has unusually long arms.
Paul Cornick: A late-season practice-squad addition last year, the North Dakota State product has the background and size to swing between guard and tackle. He'll have to show the range of his potential to return to the practice squad and get another year of seasoning.
Centers and guards:
Zane Beadles: The Broncos would like to see him continue to progress as a run blocker, but his work in pass protection -- just two sacks allowed -- helped him move into the upper echelon of guards last year.
Louis Vasquez: It's been said that the best offensive linemen's names are rarely mentioned on a television broadcast -- and certainly not through a referee's microphone. Vasquez has only been called for one penalty in four pro seasons and has permitted just three sacks in the last two years, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He was easily the most reliable component of a leaky Chargers offensive line.
Dan Koppen: Walton's surgery made the return of Koppen a fait accompli. Koppen's price is right (league minimum salary) and his experience in nine Patriots seasons and as the injury replacement for Walton last year make for the smoothest possible transition.
Manny Ramirez: He got a long look at center during OTAs and minicamp with Walton injured and Vasquez settling in at right guard, but his ideal fit is as a versatile backup who can work at any of the three interior spots. He started most of 2012 for Kuper, and could be the first reserve called up again.
Chris Kuper: With Vasquez's arrival, it's tough to see where Kuper fits in unless it's as a pricey -- but potentially valuable -- insurance policy. The presence of Beadles, Vasquez and the experienced Ramirez means that the Broncos don't have to rush Kuper into service, and their salary-cap situation is solid enough that they can afford to keep Kuper around until he heals.
Philip Blake: He spent last year on injured reserve, but is healthy now and needs to show why the Broncos invested a fourth-round pick in him last year, whether it's at center or guard. He also needs to show progress soon; he turns 28 in November and his meandering path to the NFL means he's overaged for a second-year player.
Ben Garland: After spending last year as a practice-squad defensive tackle, the Air Force product was shifted to guard, which offensive coordinator Adam Gase feels is a better fit for his skill. "Offense tends to be a little more assignment oriented and so he's not going to blow assignments," Gase said. "We're just trying to give him the best opportunity we can to help him make our football team." The odds are against him, since position shifts at this level are rare, but the Broncos have kept him around for three years though his post-graduate active service, and to count him completely out would be foolish. If he fares well this summer, another year on the practice squad could be his best chance to build toward a long-term playing career.
C.J. Davis:His experience with John Fox and Dave Magazu dates back to two seasons on the Panthers roster (2009-10). He'll be in the mix to be one of the swing backups at guard and center, and that role could prove crucial, given how extensively Ramirez played last season.
Quentin Saulsberry: In spite of a four-game suspension late last season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the Broncos brought him back after a 2012 season on their practice squad.
J.D. Walton: It's more than just his season that's in question, but his future, too. This is the final year of Walton's contract, and if he's unable to even practice before late October, he doesn't have enough time to flourish and earn a big-money, long-term deal. Walton may find himself forced to sign a one- or two-year contract after this season and re-prove himself -- and prove his ankle is back to 100 percent -- before earning the life-changing payday.