Broncos Center J.D. Walton is facing a lengthy rehab on his injured ankle that will force the team to look at other options.
The Denver Broncos were hoping to have a healthy J.D. Walton start at center in 2013, but it appears that plan will have to be pushed back once again.
According to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post, Walton had another surgery on his injured ankle and is likely to miss the 2013 season.
The injury to Walton leaves the Broncos with only the unproven Quentin Saulsberry and Philip Blake on the roster at center. The team will likely comb through the available free agents for a veteran to snap the ball to Peyton Manning.
Walton originally hurt his ankle in Week 4 of the 2012 season, but the Broncos had wisely signed veteran center Dan Koppen to a one-year contract and he ended up starting 12 games.
Though the Broncos didn’t re-sign Koppen this offseason, there’s nothing stopping them from bringing him back for the 2013-14 season.
The fact that Koppen wasn’t re-signed could be an indicator that they weren’t all that happy with his production last year. Koppen will be 34 in September, so the Broncos may have to bring in multiple players even if they decide to bring him back.
Outside of Koppen, there are several less obvious options the Broncos could consider, including one player that is already a proven performer and on the roster.
ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey believes the Broncos might consider sliding right guard Chris Kuper over to center. Kuper doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time after the Broncos signed right guard Louis Vasquez in free agency, so a move to center might make sense for both him and the team.
Kuper is younger than several of the free agents on the market and seems to have the skills to be a solid center. The obvious challenge for Kuper would be the quarterback-center exchange, but that is something he should be able to learn quickly.
Ryan Lilja made the transition from guard to center on the fly in 2012 for the Kansas City Chiefs and there’s reason to believe Kuper could have similar success.
Coincidentally, Lilja is also a free agent and could be an option for the Broncos.
He will be 32 during the season, but has missed only three games in the last four years. Lilja also played five seasons with Manning. Even if he didn’t win the starting spot, he would provide good veteran depth if the younger players don’t develop.
Another veteran option would be Eugene Amano, who was released by the Tennessee Titans this offseason. Amano is coming off a torn triceps that caused him to miss all of the 2012 season. He had poor seasons in 2011 and 2010, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Who is the best option at center?
Amano is also 31, so he is probably not a good bet to turn around his career. However, he is a veteran who has started 68 games in his career and only missed four games from 2008-2011.
It’s probably worth having Amano in for a tryout to see where he is physically.
There are also two younger linemen who have experience with Manning, but not the experience to push for the starting job.
Kyle DeVan started 21 games from the Indianapolis Colts at guard and has some experience at center, but according to his Twitter profile, he is retired and starting a career as a coach at Oregon State University.
The other option would be Jamey Richard, who played guard and center for the Colts from 2008-2011 and started 11 games—including a few at center. Richard and Koppen would be the only free agents available with experience snapping to Manning.
Richard spent all of last season on injured reserve with a concussion after signing with the Patriots, so the Broncos would have to make sure he is completely recovered before considering him. Richard would likely be brought in to push the other guys more than to be used as a legitimate starting option.
The Broncos have several options to consider, but they don’t have to make a decision until the start of training camp on July 24. Koppen, Kuper and Lilja seem like the likeliest options.