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AFC West camp preview: Favored Broncos still have big questions

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Even after a season-ending torn ACL for left tackle Ryan Clady and the free-agent departures of tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, among others, the Denver Broncos’ roster remains blessed with talent.

Nine Pro Bowl players are listed on the first team, and starting right guard Louis Vasquez was a first-team All-Pro as recently as 2013, his last full season at the position.

All that is why the Broncos remain the overwhelming favorites to win the AFC West for the fifth consecutive season, even with a new coach in Gary Kubiak and new schemes on both sides of the football.

But there are questions that dog the Broncos; and, if unanswered, they could doom the season.

The two projected starting inside linebackers, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, could be a dominant duo, but both are coming off season-ending injuries that sidelined them for all of the team’s offseason work. Marshall began running only in late June after surgery in April to repair the Lisfranc injury he suffered Dec. 14 at San Diego. The status of both remains up in the air as training camp nears.

But at least the Broncos can hope to have their intended starters at inside linebacker. That’s not the case at left tackle, where Clady’s injury forced the Broncos into their backup plan: Using rookie Ty Sambrailo at left tackle.

When the Broncos picked Sambrailo in the second round, they expected he would compete for the right tackle job. That plan went down the moment Clady tore his ACL on the first day of organize team activities on May 27. The Broncos moved Sambrailo to left tackle immediately, hoping that his long-term potential would exceed the mistakes he might make as a rookie.

But, with a 39-year-old quarterback with limited mobility taking snaps, that’s a gamble that could make or break the Broncos’ hopes of winning a world championship with Peyton Manning before he retires. Manning took a pay cut to return for his 18th NFL season — his fourth with the Broncos — but now must learn a new offense and adjust to an offensive line that will feature new starters in at least three spots.

None will be more crucial to the Broncos’ hopes than Sambrailo. If he keeps the job into the season, his career will open with back-to-back games against Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil and Kansas City’s Justin Houston — a challenge for any left tackle, let alone one making his NFL debut.

“I don’t think I can look ahead right now and say, ‘This is going to be the best season anyone’s ever seen,’ or anything like that,” Sambrailo said. “I’m just going to take it one step at a time, and I’m always going to try to be the greatest I can be.”

But will his best be good enough? With Manning pushing him, he hopes so.

“He’s been good at kind of helping me, asking me on protections what I was doing and what I was looking at,” Sambrailo said.

Manning’s been good. But Sambrailo will have to be better. Even though Manning is the game’s oldest active starting quarterback, his skills and quick thinking represent the Broncos’ best hope for a world championship. Keeping him upright is Sambrailo’s No. 1 job, and even one mistake could torpedo Kubiak’s first season back with the Broncos.

“(Manning) is a good guy to talk to. You obviously don’t want to upset him at all,” Sambrailo said. “You just try to do everything right all the time.”

CAMP CALENDAR

July 27: Rookies report.

July 30: Veterans report.

July 31: First practice.

Aug. 14: First preseason game (at Seattle)

Aug. 21: Camp ends.

Aug. 26-27: Joint practices with the 49ers.

–Team strength: Secondary.

Three of the Broncos’ four starters in the defensive backfield were Pro Bowl players last year: cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips plans to use Harris and Talib in more man-to-man situations, which should free Ward to return to the same role he played in Cleveland, where he made plays in the box and against tight ends across the middle.

–Breakout player: Guard Ben Garland.

He has never started in the NFL and is just two years removed from a shift from defensive tackle to the offensive line. But the Air Force product has all the tools to succeed as a zone blocker: quick feet, intelligence and lateral agility. He worked with the first team throughout the offseason and will remain there at the start of camp. He needs snaps, and there will be some early mistakes, but the Broncos love his upside.

–Work in progress: Offensive line.

The Broncos’ offensive line was already in transition before left tackle Ryan Clady tore his ACL. Now the unit faces the guarantee of at least three new starters, a number that could become four if Ryan Harris or Michael Schofield beats out Chris Clark at right tackle. Clark had a solid season in 2013 after Clady suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 2, but the Broncos opted to insert rookie Ty Sambrailo at left tackle this year, betting that his upside will provide a long-term benefit. His daily work against DeMarcus Ware represents a trial by fire, and he needs all the work he can get, with pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Justin Houston looming in the first two weeks of the season alone. If the Broncos’ roll of the dice pays off, they could have a young, mostly cost-controlled line for the foreseeable future. If not, Peyton Manning could be under more pressure than ever before.


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