With the NFL's scouting combine opening Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the fifth installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Offensive line
Wednesday: Defensive line
The Broncos find themselves in a quirky place at this position. On one hand, quarterback Peyton Manning was the least-sacked passer in the league with at least 181 pass attempts this past season.
Manning was sacked just 18 times and threw the ball a league-leading 659 times, winning a fifth MVP award to go with several single-season passing records. Oh, and the Broncos scored more points (606) than any team in history.
So, none of that can be accomplished without an offensive line that's playing at a high level.
On the other hand, the Broncos' front was overwhelmed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. And when the Broncos tried to run out of a three-wide-receiver set, they couldn't always block the way they needed to.
Certainly most teams on the Broncos' schedule can't line up and play the way the Seattle Seahawks do on defense, but the Seahawks certainly showed what a physical front -- the kind the Broncos would have to handle, say, in most any playoff game -- can do to the Broncos' offense. Especially if that front consistently gets to Manning.
The Alpha: Left tackle Ryan Clady is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who played just two games this past season because of a foot injury suffered in the team's Week 2 win against the New York Giants. And certainly the Broncos would have had more versatility to do some things up front had he played the entire season. Personnel executives around the league consider Clady one of the Broncos' best and while last season was the first time he had missed any games in his career, he has now had major knee, shoulder and foot surgeries over a five-year span. The Broncos do like his progress from the foot surgery, and he is expected to be in his usual spot in 2014.
Salary cap: The Broncos have four of their five projected starters under contract for 2014. On the heels of his five-year, $52.5 million deal he signed last summer, Clady leads the way with an $8.6 million salary-cap figure for '14, third highest on the team. His $8 million base salary is also guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, March 15. Guard Louis Vasquez, one of the Broncos' top priorities in free agency last March, is next with a $7.25 million cap figure for '14 -- fifth highest on the team -- while Manny Ramirez has a $2.42 million cap figure and right tackle Orlando Franklin is at $1.386 million.
Chris Kuper, who played in just four games this past season with one start, continues to struggle from his surgically repaired ankle. Kuper, who the team asked to take a pay cut this past season, also carries a $5.92 million cap figure for '14, seventh highest on the team.
Pending free agents: The Broncos signed Ramirez and backup tackle Chris Clark to two-year extensions this past season. Vasquez and Clady signed long-term deals this past year and Franklin is still on his rookie deal. That leaves left guard Zane Beadles as the only starter from this past season pointed toward unrestricted free agency in the coming weeks. Reserve tackle Winston Justice, signed when Clady went to injured reserve, and reserve center Steve Vallos are unrestricted free agents.
Who could stay: Other than Beadles, the Broncos expect to have the other four starters on the roster for the 2014 season. Franklin will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season and there is still a scenario where the Broncos take another look at him inside at guard.
Who could go: Beadles has been a fixture at left guard since the initial attempt to play him at tackle didn't go so well after he arrived in the 2010 draft. He's played in 64 regular-season games, starting 62. But the Broncos may be looking to get more physical up front just as they were trying to do when they signed Vasquez last year. Opposing defensive coaches believe they can push Beadles off the spot in pass protection.
What they like/want: If the Broncos are going to continue to do things the way they have with Manning behind center the past two seasons, they need disciplined, smart and physical players who can meet the demands of a fast-paced, complex attack and the physical challenges that come with blocking in a three-wide-receiver set much of the time.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 4
They'll have most of their starters back, but the depth chart needs attention with guys who were the main backups this year -- Kuper, Justice and Vallos -- facing the possibility of moving on.
Despite tackle Vinston Painter's progress as a '13 draft pick who the Broncos promoted from the practice squad to the active roster when the San Francisco 49ers were hoping to sign him, they'll still have to give a long look in the draft.
And if the right player at guard or right tackle comes along in free agency, they would have to consider making that investment.