The offensive line of the Denver Broncos had question marks entering Organized Team Activities (OTAs)––and that was before starting left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
By no means is the 28-year old Clady a top-tier left tackle like he was a few years ago, but he was an essential piece in the puzzle that the Broncos' offensive line has become.
Earlier in the offseason, the team lost three of their top five offensive lineman from 2014, in terms of total snaps, in Manuel Ramirez (trade, Detroit), Orlando Franklin (free agency, San Diego) and Will Montgomery (free agency, Chicago). Throw in the loss of Clady, and the Broncos will be starting at least four new lineman in week one against Baltimore.
The 2014 offensive line wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, as Denver started to utilize formations with six offensive linemen to protect quarterback Peyton Manning and better run the football. From week 12 through the Broncos exit in the playoffs (eight games), the team averaged 13 plays per game with six offensive lineman.
The 2014 offensive line was more talented than what the 2015 version projects to be. Currently, the Denver offensive line projects as this:
Left Tackle: Ryan Harris
Left Guard: Shelley Smith
Center: Gino Gradkowski
Right Guard: Louis Vasquez
Right Tackle: Chris Clark
Not exactly confidence inspiring.
Only Vasquez has consistently been a starter at the NFL level, while the other four have spent almost as much time on the bench as on the field.
Pro Football Focus has been taking an in depth look at depth charts around the league and the Denver offensive line didn't look good. Harris and Smith graded as below average; Gradkowski, poor, Vasquez, high quality, and Clark average. (The grading scale is elite, high quality, good, average, below average and poor.)
Sitting behind these five players are two rookies and a second-year pro. Head coach Gary Kubiak has to be hoping for at least one of these players to step up.
Second-round pick Ty Sambrailo could challenge for the starting left tackle position, and the same goes for fourth-round pick Max Garcia at center. Michael Schofield, a third round selection in 2014, will likely backup Clark at right tackle.
Kubiak, in his first year in Denver, brings his well-known zone-blocking scheme with him. This will help the weak Broncos' line, but the impact won't be felt as much in the passing game.
Part of these problems in pass protection will be alleviated by Manning. He is known for his quick release and has the fastest time to throw in each of the last two seasons (2.24 and 2.36 seconds in 2014 and 2013, respectively).
Manning can only do so much to help himself when passing the ball though. He is one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the NFL and, at the age of 39, his performance may start to regress.
A 39-year old, immobile quarterback behind a weak offensive line is not a recipe for success. Manning is a rhythm passer and if he doesn't have time to throw the ball, the Denver offense won't be going anywhere this season.
Matt Pearce is a graduate of National Football Post’s Introduction to Scouting and Scouting Boot Camp and is a journalism student at the University of Nebraska. Follow him on Twitter@Matt_Pearce13