The Broncos feared the worst after it was discovered that Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot last Sunday night against the New York Giants. The worst-case scenario was realized on Wednesday when Clady was placed on season-ending injured reserve, per a report by Gray Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com, which means he can't return this season or even in the playoffs.
Clady will be replaced by swing tackle Chris Clark, and the Broncos will have to adjust accordingly. Based on Clark's limited snaps at left tackle, he's hardly a lock to keep the job if he struggles—even though he recently signed a two-year contract extension.
There is also a ripple effect from the loss of Clady because a backup will become the starter. The Broncos filled Clark's spot as the primary backup with veteran offensive tackle Winston Justice, who spent last season with the Indianapolis Colts after six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Winston is now one play away from protecting the most valuable asset in Denver, quarterback Peyton Manning. The Broncos can hope that Winston or Clark rise to the challenge, but they will certainly be holding their breath going forward because neither are reliable in pass protection.
After seven years in the league and 43 starts, Justice is a known commodity, and there is a reason the 29-year-old tackle was available at this stage in the season. The 6'6", 320-pound Justice has ideal size and good athleticism, but he's never been a consistent player, and the Colts couldn't wait to replace him.
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Justice also isn't a durable player and had six different injuries last season. Justice left the game with a shoulder injury in last year's playoff game against the Ravens shortly after allowing a strip-sack of Andrew Luck to outside linebacker Paul Kruger.
Justice also had two concussions, a biceps injury, a knee injury and an ankle injury that caused him to miss four games. Justice hasn't played a full season since 2009, and that was the only year of his career that he's been able to stay on the field for a full season.
Justice's inability to stay healthy has to be concerning if you are counting on him to be anything more than a reserve. That's all the Broncos need him to be right now, but with 14 games to play, that could change.
The other thing about Justice is that he has played primarily right tackle in his career, not left tackle. More than likely, this means that Justice is an emergency option more than he is a legitimate threat to beat out Clark as Clady’s replacement—at least until he gets some practice time on the left side.
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Although there are concerns about Justice’s ability, he's actually played pretty well at times during his career. It's possible that Justice's injuries have impacted his play to some extent. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him positively in pass protection in the only three seasons he started more than 12 games (2012, 2010, 2009)—even though he's declined each year.
Justice is Served
The NFL is obviously a league where recent performance is going to significantly outweigh anything from the past, so to get a good idea of Winston as a player, the Broncos likely reviewed his 2012 tape. The Broncos may be gambling that Justice was the player whom Pro Football Focus graded positively in four out of the five weeks he played from Week 1-7 last year.
From Week 8 through the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Justice allowed four sacks, six hurries and 23 pressures and had a negative pass-rush grade five out of the eight weeks he played per Pro Football Focus data. In the five games he was able to play prior to that ankle injury, Justice allowed just five total pressures.
This is all significant because Justice injured his ankle in Week 6 and had to leave the game, according to the Indianapolis Star (pay wall). Justice was also forced from the game with the same ankle issue in Week 7. If Justice was playing on a bad ankle for the entire season, that might explain some of his issues in pass protection.
For a good example of what the Broncos might be getting in Justice, we can go back to his performance against the Ravens in the playoffs. Justice allowed Kruger to strip Andrew Luck and two other hurries.
On the sack, Kruger immediately jacks Justice back into the pocket and keeps him from engaging him with his arms. Justice is in horrible position, but to his credit, he fights to stay with Kruger and pushes him past Luck.
Kruger reaches out and swipes at the ball, forcing the fumble. Justice could have been better, but he still kept Luck from taking a hit even after losing the initial battle with Kruger.
This was a bit of a theme for Justice throughout the season. Justice struggled to engage top pass-rushers, but he usually was able to get out in his stance fast enough to push them wide of Luck.
Will Winston Justice start any games for the Denver Broncos in 2013?
One of Justice's biggest issues is that he'd stop moving his feet once he got his hands on the defender, allowing the good ones to get the edge on him. If Justice could make this correction, he has the foot quickness to be a solid pass protector.
Unfortunately for the Broncos and Justice, this was a problem that was present for all of 2012. If Justice's ankle or knee injuries were impacting him, it was his ability to recover and push the pass-rusher past the pocket. Winston has plenty of athleticism for a man his size, but his technique needs work, and he isn’t really physical—especially in the run game.
For a swing tackle, the Broncos could have done a lot worse at this stage of the season. Offensive line play around the league is pretty poor, so to be able to find a serviceable player is a positive. If Justice can transition to the left side and Clark struggles, Justice could certainly push for playing time.
Not much is expected of Justice, but he’s certainly capable of providing decent protection for Manning if called upon. For now, expect Justice to be the swing tackle, while he gets practice on the left side and learns the offense.