When someone visiting Dove Valley asks who will play right tackle, they’re going to get a stock answer.
Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez will start at their traditional slots. Orlando Franklin will will start at left guard. Manny Ramirez leads at center going into training camp. Chris Clark has earned the right to head the right tackle depth chart going into camp, with Winston Justice his first competition.
Beyond those factors, it’s wide open.
Even Clark leading the pack at right tackle is a courtesy. Despite having four starters among the five line spots, Denver's system is based on 'a next man up' approach. They have amazing depth on the line right now. Still, several of the players are question marks. Clark hasn’t played right tackle for Denver yet. Player development means hard decisions on who to play, who to stash on the practice squad, and who to let go.
One name has gone almost unspoken. Vinston Painter played a little guard on June 3 during OTAs. Some people have always felt that LG was going to be a natural position for him. Others thought his game and skillset were less appropriate for guard, and that he’s a natural RT. I have the feeling that Painter won’t be starting at LG or RT this year, unless there is a run of injuries. There are too many players ahead of him. Of course, it’s still OTAs - anything is possible, and not all of the experiments will stick. How Painter will do is anyone’s guess.
John Fox has never made any bones about preferring experienced veterans whenever possible. Louis Vasquez says he’s happy to play next to any of the Broncos' RTs, but he only spoke of Chris Clark and Winston Justice as rotating through the snaps at RT during those OTA, and both are veterans.
Clark earned his right to lead the group at RT with a quality season of play on the left side after Ryan Clady went down. Justice never had a fair tryout last year, since he was backing up Clark. Justice only got 18 snaps over the season, and Denver wants to see what they have in him. A lot of what happens in OTAs will stick. Just as much will never be seen again. When the pads go on, we’ll know a lot more.
Andrew Mason and Cecil Lammey spoke positively about Orlando Franklin's play at left guard in OTAs. It's his position to lose, and I doubt he’ll stumble. He played there for three years in college and earned the attention of scouts.
Something that came from the coaches is that everyone on the OL has to learn all the line positions. I find that approach to be one of Denver’s strengths - it’s smart football. They also use that approach with the linebacking corps. There will be some multi-positional linemen winning starting jobs this year. They have a lot of them.
Clady, who’s an elite LT, two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, and Vasquez, an All-Pro and Pro Bowler at RG for 2013, have nailed down their slots. Franklin’s work at LG looks smooth in shorts. I think he’ll like being one of the two guards with Vasquez. Ramirez likes being the glue in the middle. Most of the other players are fighting for right tackle or center. All of them are multipositional. Only Will Montgomery and Matt Paradis are center candidates.
Recently, Vasquez also mentioned Michigan’s Michael Schofield as a possible right tackle. Many draftniks thought Schofield was as productive as Lewan Taylor in 2013. I thought that was a bit strong, but I liked what I saw of him on film. I recently watched his work in both the Notre Dame and Michigan State games from 2013.
All told, Schofield’s a talented right tackle. He’ll push whoever wins that competition, if he doesn’t take it over himself this year. He’s got a powerful punch and uses it to his best advantage. He can also anchor well, although his work at the second level could be better. He has experience at LG and RT, which is also to his advantage.
Multipositional offensive linemen are always valuable. If someone goes down, you may need someone to move to a different position smoothly. A quick listing of Denver’s possible options follows:
Ryan Clady, LT. Locked in at left tackle, he’s an elite OT who is returning from injury. Is he fully back?
Chris Clark, RT/LT. Clark will be first in line for right tackle reps. He spent last year at left tackle and played well; he’s earned that opportunity. There are questions about his fit at RT, but that’s what training camp is for.
Orlando Franklin, LG/RT. Franklin has played well at right tackle since being drafted. His skills have developed substantially over that time. If he makes the move to LG, it will be his first time there since his junior year in college. His contract is up after 2014; the team will be ready if he moves on, but should fight to keep him.
Vinston Painter, LG/RT. Denver's 2013 sixth-rounder, he’s facing heavy competition for both left guard and right tackle.
Manny Ramirez, C/G. Ramirez was Louis Vasquez’s roommate at Texas Tech. He filled in at right guard in 2012 and center in 2013. You could see him improving, game by game, during both seasons.
Will Montgomery, C/G. Montgomery played under John Fox in Carolina, where he was drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 Draft. He played in six games and started four as a rookie, before moving to the Jets in 2007.
Matt Paradis, C/G. A rookie center with powerful hands, a great work ethic, and a singular ability to lock up his assignment. He’s one of the best at that technique that Denver has. I’d expect him to take a season or more to maximize his skills before seeing the field. He’s only 300 lb, which is light in today’s NFL.
Louis Vasquez, RG. At 6’4” and 330 lb, Derek Wolfe calls him the best right guard in the league. So do a lot of opposing defensive tackles. You’d get no argument from me. He won both Pro Bowl and All-Pro berths for 2013. He’s given up only three penalties and 11 sacks in 70 regular season games. He didn’t miss playing in any of them. Put at either guard slot, he’s a force multiplier. He’s most at home at RG.
Ben Garland, G. A captain in the U.S. Air Force, Garland has been looking for a way to stick with Denver. They’d love to find a role for his dedication, focus and resolve.
Michael Schofield, RT/LG. The former Michigan right tackle is 6’4” and 303 lb. When he lowers his pad level and anchors well, he’s an effective player who was best at RT in college, but played LG during Senior Bowl week. He needs work on handling the linebackers in the second level and needs to add some muscle. He’ll compete with Chris Clark et al for RT.
Winston Justice, RT/G. Justice spent six years in Philadelphia before landing in Indianapolis in 2012 and spending 2013 in Denver. He’s in the mix for RT.
It’s always different with pads on, so training camp could become a whole different story. There are six potential RTs, some they’ll be weeding out right away. Since injuries are inevitable, players who have positional flexibility are at an advantage. LG will go to Franklin if he’s healthy, but RT is a pretty open competition. May the toughest linemen win.
There’s another form of positional versatility on the line. It’s the ability to both pass protect and run block. Peyton Manning has the fastest release in the game, so he makes a lot of linemen look good. Getting the run game up as close as possible to the level of the passing game is a major goal. It would improve Denver’s play in tough games, particularly in the postseason. That’s going to be a big aspect of who the final five starters will be. With a better run game and a better defense, the Broncos could be unstoppable this year. It’s amazing to consider what the OL group looked like just three years ago compared to now.
After his first season, I noted that Franklin could be a good RT or a Pro Bowl LG. His work since has suggested that he could make at least the Pro Bowl either way. He might also take an All-Pro slot. Since this is where the team wants him, I look forward to watching him. I’m also interested to see how much he’s going to pull, or whether the team will change to more of a drive blocking approach.
I have to say that any of the centers would be fine with me. Manny Ramirez impresses me - last year was his first at center, yet he played well there the vast majority of the time. I consider him the leader going into camp. Ramirez, Montgomery, or Paradis could play center with Vasquez and Franklin as guards. If it’s Manny, given his size and strength, it would be an interior line as powerful as any I know of in the league. Montgomery is also big and strong. Paradis is smaller, but hickory-tough, locks up well, and has powerful hands.
Keeping Manning protected is essential. Picking up third or fourth and short could be pretty much automatic with Ramirez joining Vasquez and Franklin at guard. With a more powerful defense keeping the ball out of the endzone, could Denver break any of its own records from 2013?
Bet on it.