ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos opened training the largest question mark they had was not how the Broncos would protect quarterback Peyton Manning in the new offense, but who would actually have the job.
The Broncos had done some mix-and-match during the offseason workouts and kicked the football tires on an additional combination or two when training camp opened. But as the closed their training camp portion of the preseason Thursday with the last open-to-the-public practice, the Broncos have worked through one preseason game and are poised to work through another with what has been the most used combination of camp.
It is also the youngest combination, with three players -- left tackle Ty Sambrailo, left guard Max Garcia and center Matt Paradis -- who have not played in an NFL regular season game. But the three have earned the trust of the coaches, as coach Gary Kubiak put it, and will be playing right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Ryan Harris.
The three also performed well last week in Seattle, or at least well enough after some initial communication issues for the Broncos to have kept them together this week heading into Saturday's game at Houston.
And while some might wonder about Manning’s confidence level in the go-young plan, he says he has seen what he wants to see thus far from the group.
"It doesn’t affect me," Manning said. “Those guys have worked hard, obviously ... It’s a hard-working bunch and that’s all you can ask of the guy playing next to you. Is he working as hard as he possibly can to be the best player he can be? That’s what I try to be as a teammate and that’s what you want the guys around you to do."
“In order to get it done, as a group of five, it's got to be all of them," offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “They’ve got to work technique, got to be on the same page and understand where the help is. That's what you want to work towards so that two guys can work together on either side and the center knows kind of what the guards are thinking. We should know that because all of them are in the same meeting room, they're all in the same practice room, but it helps to work with guys."
Kubiak and Dennison have said they would hold off the decision about who is starting up front until after the fourth preseason game if they needed to wait that long. And there is some thought the Broncos want to see which linemen are on the market after the roster cuts begin later this month.
The team also worked out Jake Long early on in training camp. But for now the current five appear to be the combination at this point. With Texans defensive lineman, and resident NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt expected to play Saturday night, the Broncos' young front with get a stern test.
“They'll probably have some wide eyes when they walk out of the huddle, but J.J. is a pretty good player," Kubiak said. “He plays everywhere, too, so when you game plan in the regular season, there is no way you know exactly where he is going to play. He's very disruptive, but that's good for them. It's kind of like going against DeMarcus [Ware] and Von [Miller] on a regular basis, and now they get to go look at him. That'll help you get up to speed real quick."
Kubiak feels that going against Watt could be a very good evaluation tool for this young linemen.
“Yeah, I think that it is," he said. "I think probably what happens to you, if you come out of the game, and he was over this guy for thirty snaps and this guy for two snaps -- you know how that is. We'll just look at the big picture and see how they all play. Hopefully they just keep moving forward."
The Broncos will have two days’ worth of work against the San Francisco 49ers next week leading up to their Aug. 29 game in Denver. Considering that Manning will get a lot of action in that game, the line in front of him that night figures to be the one the Broncos will want to start the regular season Sept. 13 against the Baltimore Ravens.
“We’ll just keep working and take that big-picture look at it," Kubiak said. “... But right now that group has earned what they’re getting in playing time."