A few short weeks ago the Denver Broncos rolled the dice, swam upstream and upended convention -- to an extent -- when they decided they would answer their biggest question by choosing youth over experience.
As they moved through the early days of training camp, with rookie Ty Sambrailo already working at left tackle in place of the injured Ryan Clady, the Broncos inserted rookie Max Garcia in at left guard and Matt Paradis, who spent his rookie season in 2014 on the Broncos practice squad, at center.
It meant from center to left tackle, a significant stretch of football real estate, the Broncos looked over the roster and decided the best way to protect their 39-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback was to put three players in the lineup who have not yet started an NFL regular season game. And after two preseason games, including Saturday night's 14-10 win over the Houston Texans in NRG Stadium, it looks like the group will be the one that trots on to the field Sept. 13 in the regular season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
Now, the Broncos could always have a change of heart or an injury bug could bite, but the young guys have performed well in the two practice games. The starters, which also include Louis Vasquez at right guard and Ryan Harris at right tackle, have surrendered one sack in roughly four quarters worth of work, none against the Texans.
Vasquez has left the game sooner than the rest in the first two games, but the Broncos continue to see what they’ve wanted to see from three young players they tossed into the deep end of the football pool to see just how well they could swim. Last week Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said the line “earned the right" to stay together, and unless there is some hidden and unexpected issues somewhere in the game video, the line looked to have maintained the right to move ahead.
And given the coming week includes two days worth of work against the San Francisco 49ers before the Broncos face the 49ers in the third preseason game for both teams, the Broncos are at a point where they want to simply make the call. Because the Broncos are closing in on making choices for the roster -- Kubiak said this past week the Broncos’ hopefuls “start to run out of snaps" as the preseason rolls on -- choices that want to live with as a Super Bowl hopeful.
The quarterback they’ve been tabbed to protect, one Peyton Manning, has said he likes what he’s seen, that the group has rolled up its sleeves, bounced back from mistakes and continued to learn on the job.
“They’ve improved just during this training camp with the guys they’ve been working against every day in practice," Manning said this past week. “It’s a hard-working bunch. 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 be as a teammate and that’s what you want your guys around you to do."
Now, J.J. Watt didn’t play for the Texans Saturday night, so the biggest test the young line could have faced was not in the lineup, and neither the Seahawks nor the Texans defenses game-planned all that much in the first two preseason games. The Broncos haven’t seen anyone's best pass-rush packages, haven’t had to make tough choices in pass protection at game speed, but the Broncos haven’t exactly rolled out their regular-season gameplan, either.
But Denver has rushed for 4.3 yards per carry in their two games to go with the one sack the starting line has surrendered -- the Broncos have surrendered just two sacks overall. The Broncos have two wins, with one more preseason game remaining where the starters will see significant playing time.
So what was a wait-and-see endeavor when the month opened now looks more and more like the way things will be.