When news dropped a few weeks ago of Ryan Clady’s torn ACL, the outlook for the Denver Broncos offensive line became grim. The All-Pro, along with Louis Vasquez, were the only players with solidified starting spots on the unit. After the initial shock of the injury, the team has settled down and now has a starting unit heading into training camp.
The starting line will look like this heading into training camp, left tackle Ty Sambrailo, left guard Ben Garland, center Gino Gradkowski, right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Chris Clark. If you look at this line and feel uninspired, you are not alone.
The line will feature a rookie protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side, a player who was a defensive lineman prior to last season, a recent trade acquisition who graded among the worst at his position as a starter and a player who was benched last season for an undrafted free agent.
No, the offensive line does not command much confidence as currently composed. Fortunately, the Broncos do not lack options. At right tackle, if Ryan Harris is healthy, I fully expect him to unseat Chris Clark. Harris would bring stability and experience to the line, to go along with more consistent play.
Also at center, if Gradkowski were to falter or fall to injury, the team has options with Matt Paradis, Max Garcia and Shelley Smith behind him. If these options are not yet ready, Chris Myers waits on the free agent market and could likely step in as an immediate starter.
The most uncertain player on the line, Ben Garland, is the player garnering the most praise from the coaching staff.
“I see Ben this way: work habits, effort and all those things, there is no question about Ben," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "Really the thing that we've got to see is the playtime. Everybody is very impressed with Ben and how he’s handled himself here. It’s time for Ben to become a player, but we've got to find out when the lights come on. But he’s doing everything he possibly can do. The fact that he has not played a lot of offensive football too, that was a big change for him. So you see some of that along the way. But everything is in place. It’s just a matter of reps and we'll see how he does.”
Kubiak's first impression of Garland was also full of praise.
“He’s the greatest kid in the world. He works harder than anybody. He’s the first one here, last one to leave. I've never been here when I haven't seen Ben here at 5:15, 5:30 in the morning. So, all that’s in place but he’s got to get out there, he’s got to go through camp, he’s got to get the reps up. All the offensive reps, all the protections, those things. And we'll see. But we're rooting for him. He’s a wonderful young man and it’s a great opportunity for him right now with what’s going on with us upfront.”
Quarterback Peyton Manning also had high praise for the guard saying, “I'm not sure if anything surprised me. When you kind of meet Ben for the first time, he’s an impressive guy, he’s upbeat and he’s high energy. It doesn't take you long to work out with or be on the field with him to realize what an intense and hard worker he is. I think that’s paid a lot of dividends for him. He’s improved. He’s competing for a job right now. He’s made significant improvements in the time that he’s been here. He’s going to fight and scratch and claw, and those are kind of guys that you like in there with you trying to protect you and trying to help you.”
The player who has benefited most from Clady's injury has been rookie Ty Sambrailo. He has been thrust into the left tackle position and as a result, has also seen a massive increase in the reps he has received.
“First off, you didn't know you were going to see this much of him this early and through our situation now we've seen a lot," Kubiak siad. "He has been very impressive for a young man to go out to that spot and handle what he’s handled. Now, we don't have pads on there’s all those ‘what-ifs’ and they're coming in August.
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"If anything," Kubiak continued, "with [T] Ryan [Clady] getting injured and it happening so early, I think it has been beneficial to Ty because when he gets through with next week he’s almost been through a training camp other than hitting. Mentally—those types of things—he’s practically been through a training camp. So, it won't be his first rodeo come August. But, we've been very impressed with how he’s worked and we know we're asking a lot of him and it’s our job as coaches to make sure that we keep him taking the right steps keep him comfortable.”
Gradkowski has the confidence of the coaching staff and the Broncos traded for him, after seeing him daily last season when Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison were with the Baltimore Ravens. While he did struggle as a starter two seasons ago, Kubiak and Dennison have a track record of transforming offensive lineman into zone blocking machines.
The coaching staff is clearly confident in their second round pick, who has been all business since joining the team. They are also impressed with Garland's work ethic and approach to the O-line competition.
Any waning questions will be answered when the team finally throws the pads on.