An inexcusable situation at offensive line

Ty Sambrailo. Ben Garland. Gino Gradkowski. Louis Vasquez. Chris Clark.

As of this moment, that’s the Broncos starting offensive line for the 2015 season. That’s the group that will be asked to protect Peyton Manning, open holes for C.J. Anderson and be the foundation for one of the league’s most-talented offenses. Those are the five guys that John Elway and Company are hinging the team’s Super Bowl aspirations on.

And that’s not a pretty picture.

Sambrailo may develop into a player, but he’s a rookie; putting him at left tackle is a tall order, as he’ll be asked to protect the blind side of a relatively immobile quarterback. Garland is a converted defensive lineman with zero career starts on the offensive side of the ball. Gradkowski is a castoff from the Ravens, reunited with head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison in Denver. Vasquez is clearly the best of the group, especially now that he’s back at the position where he earned All-Pro honors in 2013. And Clark rounds out the group, back at right tackle after losing his job at that spot last season.

That’s just a laughable starting five. It’s like the lineup the Cavs trot out when LeBron James takes a two-minute break. There’s little reason to expect success, as the group simply doesn’t have enough talent to excel.

And their backups aren’t much better. Shelley Smith was signed as a free agent during the offseason, but he has a grand total of 11 career starts across four seasons with three different teams. Ryan Harris was recently brought back for a third tour of duty in Denver, continuing his quixotic career. And then it’s a bunch of guys who have never stepped foot on an NFL field during a real game.

To have such a messy situation, at such a key position group, is simply inexcusable.

Elway isn’t fully to blame for the problem. After all, losing Ryan Clady to a torn ACL was simply bad luck. But the Broncos general manager did assemble the rest of the offensive line, a group that is woefully ill-prepared to deal with an injury to a key player.

He’s the one who decided not to re-sign Zane Beadles and Orlando Franklin when they became free agents. Both players performed very well for the Broncos after being drafted by the team, but they had to go elsewhere in order to get big contracts.

It can be argued that neither player was worth the riches that the Jaguars and Chargers gave them, respectively. But another team was willing to give them hefty contracts ($30 million for Beadles; $36.5 for Franklin), so they obviously have some ability. And given that the Broncos had no viable options for replacing them, their value should have been even greater in Denver.

That’s because Elway has done such a poor job of stocking the team’s offensive line cupboard in recent drafts. Philip Blake was a fourth-round pick in 2012; the center never played a down in orange and blue. Vinston Painter was a sixth-round selection the following season; the offensive tackle didn’t see the field during his one season in Denver. And Michael Schofield and Matt Paradis were third- and sixth-round choices last year; neither has yet to step foot on the field.

Those are picks that have to pan out. Third- and fourth-round selections have to be starters. And one of the two sixth-round picks had to develop. That’s what happens in places like Pittsburgh (Kelvin Beachum, seventh round), Baltimore (Ricky Wagner, fifth round) and New England (Bryan Stork, fourth round), where their later-round draft picks are manning key spots along the offensive line.

That hasn’t been the case in Denver, although there is hope that this year’s class, which includes Sambrailo (second round) and Max Garcia (fourth round), will be different. But based on Elway’s history of drafting offensive lineman, that’s more of a hope than solid rationale or reasoning.

Those two picks might turn out to be players, but counting on them to make contributions as rookies is foolish; putting the hopes of a team with Super Bowl aspirations in the hands of first-year players would be asking for trouble. It’s equally dangerous to assume that Garland, Schofield, Paradis or any other unproven player is going to jump right in and be an effective starter.

That’s why the Broncos need to piece together a group of savvy veterans that can get the job done in 2015. Elway needs to go back to the drawing board and assemble a cast that knows how to succeed at the pro level.

This should start with signing Evan Mathis, the left guard that earned Pro Bowl honors in each of the past two seasons. At 34 and coming off of an MCL injury that limited him to nine games last year with the Eagles, he’s a bit of a gamble; but the Broncos desperately need the experience of someone who has started 78 games and has played at a high level in recent years.

Mathis was slated to earn a total of $11.5 million in 2015 and ’16 before the Eagles released him, so he won’t come cheap. But the Broncos could make it happen. Currently, they are nearly $8 million under the adjusted salary cap for this season (according to Spotrac.com), a number that could grow even larger with some savvy moves.

Signing Demaryius Thomas to a long-term deal would be more cap-friendly this season. And they could free up roughly $5 million by cutting underperforming veterans like punter Britton Colquitt ($2.25 million), cornerback Tony Carter ($1.5 million) and wide receiver Andre Caldwell ($1.3 million).

In other words, the team’s reported cap woes are nothing more than spin. They have the money for Mathis if they want to spend it, something that the injury to Clady has all but forced them to do.

After plugging in the veteran at left guard, the Broncos should finish solidifying that side of the line by moving Chris Clark back to left tackle; he played that position for 14 games in 2013, filling in when Clady was injured. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again, as he’s clearly more comfortable on that side of the line.

Vasquez would anchor the right side, with Harris as the best option at right tackle. While he’s well-traveled for a reason, the veteran did start 15 games at that position last year for the Chiefs; that’s significantly more experience than any of the other options on the roster.

And in the middle, make it an open competition between Gradkowski, Garcia, Garland, Paradis or whoever else wants to get the in the mix. Someone would have to emerge as the best option. Plus, this is a spot that can be covered up by two good guards, as Denver showed the past couple of seasons when combinations of Beadles, Vasquez and Franklin made Manny Ramirez not much of a liability.

Chris Clark. Evan Mathis. Gino Gradkowski. Louis Vasquez. Ryan Harris.

While not exactly the Cowboys offensive line, at least it’s not an embarrassment. At this point, that’s a huge step in the right direction for the Broncos. And it’s a leap they can make immediately, with one key signing and some shuffling of their lineup.

Now is not the time to be cheap; save that for the rebuilding years that are coming sooner rather than later. If it truly is a season with title hopes in Denver, the Broncos need to build an offensive line that can get the job done now.

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