Jussel: Bronco success on offensive line centers on Koppen

Peyton Manning is now the face of the Denver Broncos if, of course, we can somehow get past John Elway.

As Manning goes in this day and age, so go the Broncos.

It doesn’t hurt the team’s prospects one bit if the team’s quarterback remains upright and on the field.

Welcome back, Dan Koppen.

Koppen’s signing Thursday as a late free-agent addition for the second season in a row came about as J.D. Walton, the team’s regular starting center, continues to battle an ankle injury. Walton underwent a second surgery on his ankle Wednesday, a surgery that, in all likelihood, will keep him out for the season.

Koppen’s signing is a good sign because it shows us someone is paying attention. Koppen stepped in last season in the third game as starter when Walton went down. The rest, Manning remaining upright and leading the squad to a 13-3 regular-season record, is history.

And the Broncos, as everyone this side of Boston knows, are favored to attend a Super Bowl gathering this time around, with very few holes to fill and even opponents saying the team is stacked.

If the Broncos had to play football for real today, they would have an offensive line that would feature Chris Clark at left tackle, Zane Beadles at left guard, Manny Ramirez or Philip Blake at center, Louis Vasquez at right guard and Orlando Franklin at right tackle.

If you’ve paid attention, you immediately will notice the fact Clark is a fifth-year player who was on Minnesota’s practice squad for the first of those five seasons. He has been a starter for six games, those coming as an injury replacement during the run-at-all-costs Tebow days of 2011.

And yes, Clark, at this point, anyway, is in charge of protecting Manning’s blind side.

The team’s starting center pre-Koppen, is Ramirez, who played right guard in replacing the injured Chris Kuper last season. Ramirez was the line’s worst pass blocker when he was on the field, allowing six sacks when no other starter had more than three. Blake, who was set to battle it out with Ramirez, is a second-year player who has never played in the league.

Clark is currently the starting left tackle because Ryan Clady, one of only four offensive linemen in the history of the league to start every game over a five-year period and appear in three Pro Bowls, is recovering from shoulder surgery. He also was a free agent who was franchised by the team for one season and wants a long-term contract that the Broncos are unwilling to hand out until they know whether the star will be healthy enough to play for four or five more seasons.

This Clady thing could become nasty.

The Koppen signing, however, takes the pressure off the center spot.

An unsettled center position, with Peyton Manning at quarterback?

Harken back to the days of Manning and his Indianapolis Colts with Jeff Saturday at center. Manning and Saturday were like one, Manning calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, Saturday responding or possibly even beating Manning to the punch with the line calls before the audible.

If you are going to play center with Manning’s mitts on your butt, you had better be able to think along with him.

Hello, Koppen. Problem solved, for now.

And actually, the alarm was likely false in the first place.

Clady will be back come training camp in late July. Happy or not, he will start and likely perform at an All-Pro level through 16 games and throughout the playoffs.

Clark will remain the swing reserve tackle who can step in on either side. He is good insurance.

Beadles will be a veteran at left guard, perhaps even replaced by a healthy Kuper.

The right side will feature the team’s newest monster in 330-pound right guard Vasquez and his 330-pound partner in crime, Franklin.

The offensive line we will see in September, while not the offensive line we see now, will be quite capable.

With Koppen back and Vasquez on the right side, it will be a better line than last season, with as much or more depth than most NFL squads have.

And if in some way Clady can be satisfied with a long-term contract down the road (something that will happen), the offensive line will be a strength long after Mr. Manning departs. And that will be good news for Brock Osweiler, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and the rest of the Broncos’ young guns.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.


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