ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's easy to forget at times, lost somewhere in the record 606 points the Denver Broncos piled on the NFL last season.
Lost in quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdown passes, the team's 13 wins and a Super Bowl trip. The fact that one of the team's elite players -- a "blue" as some longtime personnel executives refer to those at the top of any list -- played in only two games.
That he is. And in plenty of conversations about where the Broncos can go from last season's remember-when performance on offense, Manning's precision in the preseason, Emmanuel Sanders' signing, the potential of rookie Cody Latimer, the development of tight end Julius Thomas and even the move of Orlando Franklin to left guard are all on the list things that will impact it all.
Clady's return from a foot injury suffered in Week 2 last season is the most significant difference between how the Broncos will line up on offense in the opener and how they lined up in the Super Bowl.
It's a big enough difference that the Broncos' football boss, John Elway, will routinely end a rundown about the changes on offense with "and we get Ryan Clady back."
"I think I definitely can make a difference," Clady said. "That's why I'm here -- to help the team out and make this a better team than we were last year."
Other than Manning's otherworldly 13 Pro Bowl selections, no other player in the Broncos offense has been named to more than Clady's three. In 2012, the left tackle was simply one of the league's best, surrendering just one sack all season as the Broncos made the transition from their read-option look in '11 to Manning's first season with the team.
The Broncos then signed Clady to a five-year, $52.5 million deal before the 2013 season, a deal worthy of the cornerstone player he is in the team's plans, only to see him play just two games. And while Clark filled in admirably, the Broncos' choices in terms of protections and their ability to send help elsewhere in the formation increase with Clady's ability to go solo against the league's best rushers.
When Elway has been asked about "foundation players" in roster building, quarterback and left tackle are still often the first two on the list.
"I always felt like if you knew the back side wasn't going to be a problem, as a quarterback you could have more confidence about your ability to get some things done back there," Elway said. "Ryan gives us that kind of player."
And much like Clady's practice battles with Elvis Dumervil were often highlights -- Dumervil has often credited Clady "with getting me to the Pro Bowl, working with him every day" -- Clady's battles with DeMarcus Ware have been good for both players.
As Mike Shanahan's final No. 1 pick in his Broncos tenure -- Clady was the 12th pick of the '08 draft -- Clady was in the Broncos lineup the last time the team practiced against another team in training camp. The Dallas Cowboys came to Denver with Ware, who was on the doorstep of what would be the third of his seven Pro Bowl seasons in Dallas, often lined up across from the then-rookie.
"It was kind of a wake-up call for me because I was like, ‘I don't know how long I'm going to last in the league going against guys like this every week.' It was definitely a challenge, for sure.”
Clady said his surgically repaired foot continues to feel better each week and he has not missed any practice time in the preseason.
"I don't think I'm quite there, but I'm getting there," Clady said. "It's close. It's just something you have to work into. It's the National Football League with the best athletes in the world. You can't just jump in off an injury and expect to be great. It takes some work, and I still have a little bit of time."