The Denver Broncos are one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl because they have players like quarterback Peyton Manning, pass-rusher Von Miller and wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker.
Losing a starter for any amount of time isn’t good, but losing a key player for the season is brutal for any team. Most teams have at least one good backup plan at each position—that’s why we call them backups. It’s also why NFL rosters are about double the size of the positions on a football field.
According to the Denver Post's Jeff Legwold, Dan Koppen suffered a serious knee injury on Sunday. ESPN.com later revealed that Koppen tore his ACL and will miss the 2013-14 season. He was the backup plan at center in the wake of J.D. Walton's health concerns.
At that position, where the skill set is unique to the offensive line, losing two centers could adversely affect an offense.
Despite all the shuffling and some uncertainty, Koppen’s injury shouldn’t affect Manning or the Broncos significantly. Koppen was already a backup, so plugging in another backup quality player shouldn’t make much of a difference.
Walton has been the presumed starter for the last two years, but he dislocated his ankle last year, which thrust Koppen into the starting role after he was picked up off of waivers.
Koppen was still a free agent until June of this year when Walton had another surgery on his ankle. Walton was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and will likely remain there into the season.
Veteran offensive lineman Manny Ramirez will slide over from guard to become the starter at center and the Broncos signed journeyman Steve Vallos as a reserve. The Broncos also have C.J. Davis and Philip Blake who could see snaps at center.
According to Andy Lindahl of KOA 850 AM Denver, head coach John Fox said Ramirez was and is now the starter.
Even if it’s just smoke that Ramirez already was the starter, it indicates the team is more than comfortable with Ramirez handling the starting duties at center.
There is reason to believe the Broncos are right about Ramirez, but there are also a few concerns.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ramirez graded out at guard better than Koppen did at center last season, but he also allowed six sacks—five more than Koppen despite playing 150 fewer snaps.
Ramirez was actually a better run-blocker than Koppen. As a center, Koppen did not have defensive linemen on top of him unless the Broncos played a team with a 3-4 defense. The Broncos played only six games against 3-4 defenses in 2012 and Koppen was slightly worse then (0.0 grade) than he was overall (+2.8).
By comparison, Ramirez allowed four of his six sacks against 3-4 teams, indicating that he was perhaps worse when he didn’t have a defender lined up directly in front of him.
That would appear to be a bad sign for him at center, as the Broncos are scheduled to play nine games against teams with base 3-4 defenses this season and at least five more games against teams that will mix 3-4 looks.
Ramirez may actually be better at center, with veteran Zane Beadles to his left and veteran Louis Vasquez to his right.
Last year, teams attacked the A-gap between Koppen and Ramirez with decent success and the last thing the Broncos wanted was instant pressure up the middle on Manning.
The addition of Vasquez made it a lot easier for the Broncos to tolerate some weakness at center, which is something they probably anticipated, since Walton was still recovering when he was signed.
Losing Koppen probably impacts the depth of the line more than it does Manning and pass-blocking.
Ramirez is the versatile center-guard combination player that teams love for depth. With him thrust into a starting role, that backup spot is now wide open. If veteran Chris Kuper can get healthy, he now has a better chance to stick on the roster than he did before Koppen went down.
According to Spotrac.com, Kuper will take up $5.4 million of salary-cap space in 2013, with $2.7 million in dead money if he is cut.
For a modest price difference of $2.7 million, Kuper could now stick at the guard-center option if he can get healthy before the start of the season.
Where the Broncos may struggle slightly is with run-blocking, which would have probably been the case with Koppen or Ramirez anyway, because both of them struggle holding their own with a man lined up over them.
However, the zone-blocking system and personnel changes can hide deficiencies in this area.
As opposed to helping or needing help from Orlando Franklin or Koppen, Ramirez will get help or give help to Beadles and Vasquez. The offensive line functions as a unit in the zone-blocking scheme and the Broncos are still collectively strong across the line.
If and when Walton is able to return in 2013, he’d probably step right into his starting role and a roster move would need to be made.
If Walton goes on the regular-season PUP list as expected, he would be eligible to come off the list at the start of Week 7 and no later than the first day of Week 12. Walton has up to 15 weeks to heal from now.
According to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post, the team was optimistic Walton could return by late October or early November. If Ramirez struggles or the team has more injury issues on the offensive line, Walton could become the cavalry that arrives just in time for the playoff push.
It stinks when a guy goes down with a season-ending injury during training camp, but the Broncos have positioned themselves well to handle these types of roster losses.
As long as the Broncos don’t suffer any more injuries at the interior offensive line spots and the players continue to take to the zone-blocking scheme, Koppen’s loss isn’t a big one.