Protecting Peyton Manning: Denver Broncos Options on Offensive Line in 2012

Jason MuckleySenior Analyst IIAugust 14, 2012

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Orlando Franklin #74 of the Denver Broncos on the sidelines against the New England Patriots on December 18, 2011 during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. The New England Patriots won the game 41-23. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Losing a franchise quarterback is probably the biggest blow any team could suffer during the course of the season. In almost every case when a team's undisputed top quarterback is injured, that team's chances of chasing at a Lombardi Trophy are over. 

The Denver Broncos brought in one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game and promptly shipped off Tim Tebow to the Meadlowlands. The next move by the front office was to acquire backup quarterbacks Caleb Hanie and Brock Osweiler. 

Hanie was a previous backup with the Chicago Bears who was called on to replace Jay Cutler when an injury finished his season in 2011, and it didn't yield very good results. Hanie started four games last season, and the Bears lost them all. Hanie had just three touchdowns and nine interceptions during that stint. He had just a 50-percent passer completion rate as well.

To say the least, it was dreadful.

Brock Osweiler is an outside favorite to steal Hanie's spot as backup in 2012; he possesses big size and lots of raw talent. He is huge at 6'8" and 240 pounds and enjoyed some success at Arizona State University. It is likely that the question marks surrounding Hanie could have been part of the reason John Elway, executive vice president of football operations, made the leap to draft Osweiler with 57th-overall pick in the 2012 draft with widespread needs, especially on the defensive side of the ball, all over the roster.

Elway explained the choice to draft Osweiler to be the quarterback of the future for the Broncos speaking to season ticket holders during the offseason, saying, "he's our guy for the future. And sometimes we have to sacrifice the short term for the long term to grab the guy that you believe can be that next guy for you, and that's Brock Osweiler."

As far as the doctors are concerned, Peyton Manning is at no greater risk of being re-injured this year than any of the other 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But with a raw rookie waiting in the wings and another guy the Broncos had no business pursuing, the biggest priority for Denver remains protecting their expensive offseason acquisition.

Keeping Peyton Manning's uniform clean is priority No. 1, and it appears like the coaching staff has been open to tweaking the offensive line this offseason to see if they can get the best lineup out there to do just that. 

The offensive line will immediately enjoy the benefits of having a Hall of Fame veteran like Manning under center in 2012. He makes quick decisions; the ball is out of his hands right away, and the pass rush barely has any time to get penetration before Manning is zipping the ball out to his receivers.

The Broncos have lots of familiarity on the offensive line as four of the five linemen have been together since 2009, and last season before Chris Kuper went down with a horrific ankle injury in Week 15, the Broncos had started the same five guys on the line all year long.

Mike Klis of The Denver Post pointed out that Orlando Franklin, the Broncos second-round, 46th-overall pick in 2011 draft out of Miami, was working out with the second team last Thursday night in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears.

While head coach John Fox played if off as a guy learning to play other positions on the line, saying "you’ve got to get ready for a whole season. And a guy’s flexibility is critical, especially when you set your active game roster with seven linemen. So you need to have swing guys who can play inside and outside."

Other analysts of the team, including Kyle Montgomery (Monty) with says that the team has been tinkering with shifting players on the line during training camp. In the various arrangements, the team has been seen using Chris Kuper at left guard alongside Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady. Orlando Franklin has shifted to right guard on occasion, and then the dilemma becomes who plays right tackle.

Franklin had an above-average rookie campaign in 2011, but he noticeably struggled in the passing game. Franklin excelled on running plays and would beef up the interior substantially. This move would play to Franklin's strengths and hide some of his weaknesses a bit better.

Kuper protecting Manning's blindside next to Clady would put the team's two best linemen on Manning's left and would give the team a little more "comfort" on the offensive line when Manning takes longer dropbacks and looks to air it out a bit.

J.D. Walton seems to have a stranglehold on the center position; the player who was seen as Walton's biggest threat to replace him, Philip Blake, sits at the third-string center spot behind C.J. Davis, an oft-injured, third-year guard who spent a few seasons with the Carolina Panthers during 2009 and 2010.

Walton's progress is good news for Broncos fans because that says that Manning and Walton have been clicking together throughout camp and have earned a good rapport between the both of them. This season will likely be Walton's greatest challenge, as Manning has historically leaned heavily on his center to make line calls and help spot blitzing rushers.

Walton's ability to excel in this area could be the difference between a healthy Peyton Manning this season and one who is ready to retire.

Zane Beadles, who would be replaced by Kuper at left guard, would likely be the odd-man out if the Broncos pulled the trigger on a major change on the offensive line. The likely candidate to snatch the right tackle spot to replace Franklin would be former-starter Ryan Harris.

During his first four seasons in Denver, Harris started 34 of 46 total games from 2007 to 2010. He spent 2011 with the Philadelphia Eagles until he was released by them and was re-signed as a free agent prior to the team's two playoff games last season.

Despite accolades in the past, Harris has seen some drop-off in his play since leaving Denver. He hasn't displayed sensational play this offseason either. I wouldn't assume that Harris would immediately be the top candidate to replace Franklin if the move is made.

Instead, Chris Clark, who has backed up Ryan Clady at left tackle the past couple seasons, could make the leap to the starting roster. Watch for Clark to see increased reps at right tackle this preseason with three games remaining before the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Clark could end up being the surprise diamond in the rough to make a big contribution on the offensive line in 2012.