COMMENTARY | Entering the offseason, the Denver Broncos' offensive line ranked among the team's biggest question marks.
Now, following Wednesday's news that center J.D. Walton will miss at least half of the season after undergoing another round of ankle surgery, it has an unquestioned place atop the franchise's list of concerns.
So much so that this one battered and unsettled unit threatens to negate the offseason personnel gains attained by adding Wes Welker, Montee Ball and Shaun Phillips and knock one of the league's top Super Bowl favorites off course long before it comes anywhere close to reaching East Rutherford, N.J. next February.
So just how deep are the Broncos' O-line woes?
Consider all that's taken place since this past January's divisional-playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens:
- Three projected starters -- left tackle Ryan Clady (shoulder), right tackle Orlando Franklin (toe) and now Walton (ankle) -- have undergone surgery.
- Another key lineman, veteran right guard Chris Kuper, who started in the playoff game but is now projected as a backup to newly-signed free agent Louis Vasquez, is battling to come back from multiple ankle surgeries and hasn't even been given the OK to participate in full weight-room workouts.
- Clady has been designated the team's franchise player, which would translate into a nice, 1-year, $9.8 million contract, but Peyton Manning's blind-side guardian and the three-time All-NFL selection hasn't signed the tender and wants -- and deserves -- a long-term deal. Partly in protest, Clady hasn't been near the team's Dove Valley facility all offseason, preventing the Broncos from assessing his shoulder-rehab progress.
- With Clady, Kuper and Walton MIA so far this offseason, it means the Broncos have conducted OTAs with a reconfigured offensive line of LT Chris Clark, LG Zane Beadles, C Manny Ramirez, RG Vasquez and RT Franklin while learning the offense of newly promoted coordinator Adam Gase.
That's too many maladies and surgeries -- and too much uncertainty and instability -- for any offensive line to shoulder, let alone one that's expected to pave the way to a Super Bowl berth.
Still, the line issues have largely been glossed over nationally in favor of updates on Manning's second season in the Mile High City or comparisons of Welker's new situation to the one he left behind in Clam Chowder Country.
In today's fantasy-driven NFL, though, that's simply SOP as quantifiable stats and scores mean everything, while the quality play and cohesiveness of the big uglies are almost afterthoughts. Funny how that plays out as some of the most massive players in a game of giants are practically invisible.
Overall, though, 2012 was a mixed bag for the Orange and Blue's offensive front. Despite Walton missing 12 starts and Kuper sitting out 11 in the regular season, the Broncos led the league with the lowest percentage (3.4) of quarterback sacks allowed but at the same time ranked 24th with an average of only 3.8 yards per rushing attempt.
And instead of stepping up in the postseason, the unit took a noticeable step back against the Ravens, allowing five QB hits, including three sacks, committing four of the team's 10 penalties and, most importantly, failing to open consistent running lanes as Denver averaged only 3 yards per carry on its 41 rushes.
With the lingering memory of that performance coupled with the myriad offseason issues, the Broncos have real some work to do over the next couple months.
The first order of business is to re-sign center Dan Koppen, who filled in admirably for Walton last season, and hope he can do so again -- even with the battle-worn vet set to turn 34 in September.
Item 1B on the team's to-do list is hammering out a workable long-term deal with Clady and then getting the unit cornerstone back on the practice field as soon as his shoulder will allow.
In the meantime, Manning, John Elway and John Fox must have hope - hope that there are no more major injuries, no more surgeries and that the starting fivesome - whoever that turns out to be - meshes and comes together quickly.
After all, the rematch with the Ravens and their new stud pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil, is up first on the 2013 docket.
Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver Broncos and the NFL since early childhood, and can be found on Twitter @kenpomp.
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