Peyton Manning's going to give it one more shot with the Denver Broncos, but their NFL odds may be too short with Manning's offensive line vanishing in front of him.
Stop us if you've heard this one before, but this could be the year Peyton Manning turns to dust. Predicting the demise of aging quarterbacks is, please forgive us, old hat. It's disaster porn for the sports world; we know Manning (age 39) is going to have his annus horribilis at some point – unless he retires before Father Time catches up to him. Which will happen first?
As we go to press, Manning has yet to retire from active duty with the Denver Broncos, so there's every chance 2015 could be that annus. The Broncos are in the second tier of contenders at 10-1 on Bovada's Super Bowl 50 odds list, so there's plenty of optimism that Manning won't falter just yet. But one look at that offensive line might make you rethink your NFL picks this season.
This Side of Paradis
The Broncos and their new coaching staff went into the offseason with at least two jobs to fill on the O-line. Left guard Orlando Franklin was allowed to sign with the San Diego Chargers in free agency. Right guard Manny Ramirez was traded to the Detroit Lions. Both players struggled in 2014 and were shifted from one position to another, so it was understandable if Denver felt the need to change things up.
Then a third job opened up. Left tackle Ryan Clady, who was named to his fourth Pro Bowl last year, tore up his left knee during OTAs and was lost for the season. That means rookie Ty Sambrailo, Denver's second-round pick out of Colorado State, could end up protecting Manning's blind side this year. Sophomore Ben Garland (zero career starts) is pencilled in for now at left guard, joining free agent signee Gino Gradkowski at center, Chris Clark at right tackle, and lone holdover Louis Vasquez at right guard.
This may or may not be Denver's starting five come September. Last year's third-rounder, Michael Schofield, is getting a look at right tackle. Matt Paradis has a very good shot at center after spending last year on the practice squad. And rookie center Max Garcia, drafted in the fourth round out of Florida, is in the mix as well. By the time the dust has settled, Denver could have the youngest O-line in the NFL.
Gary from the Block
Okay, you can stop panicking now. It's not as if Denver's offensive line was particularly good last year. Football Outsiders had this unit ranked No. 1 in pass protection (17 sacks allowed, 3.7 percent adjusted sack rate), but only No. 12 in run blocking. That second number was a more telling indicator of the line's performance – Manning's a wizard when it comes to releasing the ball before pressure can get to him. He was sacked just 18 times in 2013 after Clady missed the whole season with a Lisfranc injury.
The new coaching staff will help Manning stay upright this year, too. Head coach Gary Kubiak, who was John Elway's back-up QB in Denver for nine seasons, spent last year as the offensive co-ordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Their offensive line (which included Gradkowski at center) ranked third in run blocking and fourth in pass protection, a massive improvement from 2013. Kubiak's famous zone-blocking schemes were a big part of that success.
As far as that youth movement goes, by the time linemen get out of college, they're very close to being ready for the pro game – the learning curve isn't nearly as steep as it is for other positions. So let's not get too worked up over Manning's short-term outlook just yet. Those No. 27-ranked special teams, on the other hand? That's a whole other kettle of fish.