The 2013 offseason continues to get worse for the Denver Broncos, as the news broke Monday that starting center Dan Koppen tore his ACL and will miss the entire regular season. Koppen, 34, is a former All-Pro and played on two of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl championship teams.
He started 13 games at center for the Broncos last season, but was not resigned following the season because J.D. Walton was expected to take over the reigns at center. However, the team brought him back on a one-year deal once Walton experienced a major setback following his ankle surgery.
In addition to these two fallen centers, the list of injured Broncos offensive linemen includes left tackle Ryan Clady, tackle Orlando Franklin, and guard Chris Kuper. While the three latter players on that list are expected to be ready for Denver’s Week 1 game against the Baltimore Ravens, they won’t be at 100%.
The Broncos have already addressed their gaping hole at center by signing Steve Vallos on Sunday night. Vallos has already been in the league for six years, but has bounced around four different teams and has only accumulated nine career starts.
Their immediate plan is to start Manny Ramirez at center, who started 11 games for the team at right guard last season. The Broncos did sign right guard Louis Vasquez away from the Chargers this offseason, so with him taking Ramirez’s spot on the line the Broncos will still send out a good starting five. The real issue though is depth.
Head Coach John Fox spoke on the topic of offensive line flexibility following Koppen’s injury, saying, “We need that flexibility. When you pick the offensive line, not just for the season, but even for game day, you have to pick them from the standpoint of some flexibility. You’ve got to swing guard, center, you’ve got to swing tackle, guard.” With all of these potential offensive line shifts set to occur throughout this season, it might be significantly more difficult for Peyton Manning to find his rhythm this season.
If Peyton Manning has ever had a weakness, it has been facing pressure that comes from up the middle. Within the past two years, his bad neck has also become a major weakness. Last year, his line gave him plenty of time and he was able to avoid any devastating shots to his neck area. With a constantly shuffling line this year, that might not be the case.
All of a sudden, Ramirez is emerging as one of the most important players on the team. Traditionally known as a powerful run-blocker, Ramirez will have to quickly develop better pass-protecting skills if the Broncos plan on Peyton lasting the entire season. Also, it is crucial for the offense’s success that Ramirez develops near-telepathic chemistry with Peyton. He calls audibles at the line of scrimmage more often than any quarterback in the league, so it will be up to Ramirez to constantly adjust his line’s blocking schemes. If you recall Peyton’s days with the Colts, center Jeff Saturday was crucial to their high-powered offense. Now, Ramirez faces a similar challenge.
Out of all of the nightmares that the Broncos have endured this offseason, this injury to Koppen ranks as the worst. The two executives have apologized for their DUIs and will eventually be able to move on, and if Von Miller is suspended he’ll only be shelved for four games.
Koppen wasn’t so lucky. His absence will be noticeable this year and can potentially derail Denver’s Super Bowl aspirations. Personally, I still think that the Broncos are strong Super Bowl contenders, but every suspension and injury makes those odds less likely. If either Clady or left guard Zane Beadles, the two best linemen on the Broncos by a considerable margin, were to be lost for the season, then I would say it’s safe for the Broncos to enter panic mode.
– PJ Moran
Follow PJ on Twitter at @PEEJ9493