ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 9, today marks the fourth installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Thursday: Offensive line.
Friday: Defensive line.
In a lot of ways Ryan Harris provided the narrative for the Broncos offensive line in the 2015 season. As in, things started slowly and after some bumps along the way, it ended up part of a trophy chase.
Harris was not with a team in late May when, after Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first day of OTAs, the Broncos came calling. And the plan, at that point, was for Harris, as a former starter who knew coach Gary Kubiak’s offense from his time in both Denver and Houston, to be a just-in-case player.
But Harris started all 19 games for the Broncos – regular season and postseason – with three of those starts at right tackle and 16 at left tackle after Ty Sambrailo went to injured reserve after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3.
“It’s such a funny term in the NFL ‘on the street,’ but you find a guy that started over 40, 50 games in the NFL and started the previous season and had a lot to offer and that’s what I believed I could do is offer a team a starting tackle,'' Harris said.
And the ride for one and all was anything but smooth and unexpected at times for an offensive line overall that finished with two left tackles (Clady and Sambrailo) on injured reserve, had four different combinations start games and also dealt with injuries to guards Louis Vasquez and Evan Mathis. And right tackle Michael Schofield, center Matt Paradis and rookie guard Max Garcia all made their first NFL starts along the way.
“I think was we just faced so much adversity early on,'' Harris said in the wake of the Super Bowl. "It really had us rely on each other because we really had nobody else.''
In the end, however, it will likely be the position group that gets the most attention and sees the most change in the coming offseason as well.
The Alpha: By experience it would be Clady, but Paradis is developing the look of a player comfortable with making the calls up front and setting the tone. Should Paradis fulfill his potential as a long-term solution at center, Harris should get an assist because Harris provided the example and sounding board this past season to help pay it forward in the offensive line.
Salary cap: Clady has a $10.1 million cap figure and Vasquez has a $6.25 million cap figure. While Clady has already said publicly he’d be willing to renegotiate if it meant he could return to the Broncos, but both of those players will get a long look from the team’s decision-makers who will be in search of some additional cap room. Clady has finished two of the last three seasons on injured reserve, and Vasquez battled knee troubles for much of the season. The two are the only offensive linemen on the ’16 roster with salary cap charges of more than $900,000.
Pending free agents: Harris, a 16-game starter this past season, and Mathis, who worked through an ankle injury for much of the second half of the season, were signed to one-year deals in May and August respectively and are both unrestricted free agents. Tackle Tyler Polumbus, signed Oct. 1, is also an unrestricted free agent. Paradis, who spent his rookie year in 2014 on the practice squad, is an exclusive rights free agent, so he'll be retained.
Who could stay: The fact Clady has been so open about reworking his deal to stay gives him a shot. The Broncos, with Clady having suffered his fourth major injury since 2010, will want to adjust the cap figure. But the team also thinks a great deal of Clady’s leadership and how hard he has worked in his recovery from ACL surgery.
Who could go: Vasquez’s status will bear watching, especially given how much his knee bothered him this past season. He is the last year of a four-year deal as the main free agent signed in 2013 – and he was an All Pro that year – and the Broncos would face a $1.25 million “dead money’’ charge against the cap if they were to release him. At the moment, with deals to come, including a franchise tag and/or long-term deal for Von Miller, Vasquez is one of nine Broncos with a cap figure of at least $6 million for the ’16 season.
What they like/want: They’re looking, and Kubiak has addressed it repeatedly, to put a group together and keep it together up front. They’ll be on the hunt for players who can function with the movement skills they desire n their zone blocking scheme. Also, they struggled mightily in pass protection at times, even with two tight ends in the formation.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 5 as they are looking for the makeover. They used two draft picks last year in the offensive line and that will be the minimum this time around, especially with an expected nine or 10 picks.