With the injury to Ryan Clady and his resultant year off of football, let's consider what the Broncos can do going forward:
Left Guard - Zane Beadles was tossed into the blender during his first year in the league, with the bad move of trying to play two rookies (Beadles and J.D. Walton) next to each other, and adding to the problem by shifting Beadles to RT ( for which he wasn’t in any sense ready) when Ryan Harris was injured.
Since that bad beginning, though, Beadles has improved his functional strength, balance, and technique to the point that he earned an alternate Pro Bowl slot last year. I can’t think of a single reason to move him - he’s not the problem.
Zane is starting a little slowly this year, and has given up a sack, two hits and five hurries, but the Broncos are throwing the ball constantly, and a hurry doesn’t impede Peyton Manning’s throwing very often. Beadles is also working combination blocks to help Manny Ramirez make the change to center.
Center - When Ramirez filled in at right guard for the injured Chris Kuper last year, it was obvious that he faced a steep learning curve. This year, he’s showing his versatility and has handled the move to center extremely well.
According to PFF, he hasn’t give up a single sack, hit, or hurry in his 150 snaps. That’s what you want from your center.
He’s less effective in run blocking, but again - Manny seems to be learning the pro game, and he’s continuing to improve from his work last year. Alex Gibbs has been brought in to work in particular on the players who aren’t the usual starters.
Dave Magazu has been teaching offensive line technique since 1981, and after his first year in Denver, the difference in technique leapt off the screen. The players are in good hands, and I’m not worried about center.
Right Guard - Louis Vasquez was essentially stolen this offseason from the San Diego Chargers, who had drafted him with their third round (pick 78) of the 2009 Draft. Actually, I had been hoping that Denver would take him then, so his acquisition struck me particularly well.
He’s always been better at pass blocking than run blocking, and that hasn’t changed to date. He has given up exactly two penalties in his 4+ seasons, and he hasn’t given up a single pressure through two games. He’s a rock.
Right Tackle - Orlando ‘Big O’ Franklin took over the RT position after being drafted in the second round of the 2011 Draft and quickly excelled. Despite the fact that he was the best run blocker on the team over the past two seasons, Franklin has improved his pass blocking to the point that he’s grading better there than blocking for the run.
Franklin's size also means that when Zane Beadles pulls to the right, the Broncos are sending 960 lb of mean through that slot. Franklin is 320 lb, Vasquez is 335 lb, and Beadles is listed at 305 lb, but looks heavier. His functional strength is impressive.
Left Tackle Options:
Chris Clark - Clark was just given a vote of confidence in the form of a new two-year contract. Although I’ve tended to see him as more of a big, blocking TE, he played well at LT this summer. He’s one of the best examples of player development that the Broncos have shown, which is saying a great deal. He’ll be the initial starter in Clady’s place.
Vinston Painter (Practice Squad) - Painter is a ‘sixth round, take a flyer’ kind of pick. He’s big and has a lot of potential, but as I’ve noted since Day 1, he isn’t an option for this year. He’s a project, but one who looks like he might be able to make the leap into the NFL, given time. He has the natural size - developing strength, a better kickstep, and a much better reach block is where he’s struggling.
When a lineman is drafted, no matter how good he is, he will be going against professionals who know tricks and techniques that he’s never seen. Painter needs to fill out that big frame of his, among other things. He’s a maybe for down the road.
Paul Cornick (Practice Squad) - I was pleasantly surprised to watch Cornick this preseason. He had his share of mistakes, and he obviously saw a lot of things that he never had in college, but he moves better than Painter, and I like his chances of seeing the field over time. Clark has a perfect opportunity to show that he can handle being the swing tackle that every team needs at this point, but Cornick has the best chance to become his competition.
Winston Justice - Justice is the kind of player who’s just good enough to fill a slot for you. He’s played right tackle almost exclusively (in Philadelphia and Indianapolis), so if he is used by the Broncos, they’d probably have to slide Franklin over to LT. I’d rather not see that - it’s good to keep as much continuity as you can in a situation like this, but if they have to use Justice, it will mean that Clark didn’t work out, and that would make the situation much harder.
I often get asked about the issue of whether the left tackle is still the premier position on the line. My answer is ‘yes, but.....'
The reason is that the tradition in the NFL was to put your rush DE over the left tackle and put your bigger DE on the offensive right. That’s changing - defenses commonly flip now, as offenses evolve with the increased emphasis on the TE position - when you place your TE on one end of the line, you have the option of using him to support the tackle. In the past, the TE was generally played next to the right tackle.
The left tackle was traditionally on an island a great deal of the time, making him that much more important. Clady was able to handle that quite a bit.
That’s changed - TEs now move to either end of the LOS. How the defense responds to them often affects what audible Peyton Manning makes at the line.
You also see a lot more two- and even three-TE sets now - it’s a versatile approach if you have TEs who can block as well as catch, and who can catch as well as block. I’ve been pleased to see Julius Thomas improving on his blocking - he’s still weak as a run blocker, but did much better when pass blocking last week (the sample size is miniscule - I just report what direction it’s going in).
I understand that Joel Dreessen is close to returning. That extra TE will let the Broncos support Clark by placing a TE next to him rather than leave him on an island.
The blocking of Virgil Green, for example, made one of Knowshon Moreno’s touchdown runs against the Giants a possibility. He took out two defenders to give Knowshon the room to make it around the right corner (Franklin also nailed his assignment).
Since Green blocks very well and J. Thomas is improving in that area, I would expect to see the Broncos place a TE on the left of Chris Clark fairly often if he shows signs of struggling. That should give Denver a functional situation until Clady's return next season.