ENGLEWOOD — As far as Peyton Manning is concerned, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders isn't the only offensive reinforcement summoned to help Denver get another crack at winning the Super Bowl.
"It's almost like Ryan Clady was a free agent acquisition," Manning suggested. "He didn't play last year."
The star left tackle suffered a season-ending left foot injury in the second week of the season, not long after signing a five-year, $52.5 million contract.
Clady had missed offseason workouts last year while rehabbing a shoulder injury and waiting for a new contract.
Physically and fiscally sound, Clady embarked on what he expected to be a big season. But in Week 2, Giants defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins inadvertently rolled into his legs from behind on a running play and Clady's season was over.
Surgery was scheduled for a Lisfranc injury, which usually involves a separation of ligaments and joints in the foot, followed by an arduous rehab.
Clady, who had started all 85 games of his career to that point, found it hard to miss out on the Broncos' record-setting regular season but not nearly as difficult as watching the Super Bowl from the sideline as Seattle's pass-rushers overwhelmed Denver's offensive line.
"Yeah, it was definitely tough watching and not being able to control anything that was going on out there, so probably one of the hardest games I've ever watched," Clady said Wednesday.
Clady was one of several Broncos sidelined that night, including defensive stalwarts Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore.
Their respective returns should also give the Broncos a boost this season, along with the free agency acquisitions of Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib.
"You know, barring injury we should have an awesome team and we should be able to make it back to the Super Bowl," Clady suggested.
History suggests that's going to be difficult: The last team to lose a Super Bowl and get back the following season was the 1993 Buffalo Bills. The last team to lose the big game and return to win it was the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Although he has no timeline for getting back on the field, Clady said he's eager to return to form and make up for all that time he missed last year.
He's returned from a serious injury before. He blew out his left knee in a pickup basketball game in April 2010 and still started every game that season. That, he said, gives him confidence he'll be able to put this latest injury behind him, too: "Yeah, no doubt. I feel like I can recover and get back to a high level."
The Broncos' fast-paced offense requires the big linemen to be in terrific cardiovascular and physical shape, and Clady said he's on track in his rehab to get where he needs to be.
"I've been able to do most of the things in the weight room and running — not quite full-speed, but definitely running — so far," he said.
With the departure of cornerback Champ Bailey and the retirement of guard Chris Kuper, the soft-spoken Clady and kicker Matt Prater are the longest-tenured Broncos on the roster, their time in Denver dating back to the days of coach Mike Shanahan.
"It's definitely different, for sure, to be the longest-tenured. Time flies by here. I definitely got to step up here as far as a leadership role. I'm more of a lead-by-example type of guy on the field. But I'll work on that for sure," Clady said.
With Zane Beadles bolting for Jacksonville in free agency, the Broncos are shuffling their offensive line this spring. Orlando Franklin tweeted this week that he's being moved from right tackle to left guard to take Beadles' place. It appears Chris Clark, who filled in admirably at left tackle after Clady got hurt last year, will play right tackle once Clady returns to action.
"I think we should still be able to have a great offensive line," Clady said.
Clady praised Clark's play as his fill-in and said his versatility as a swing tackle will smooth his transition to the right side.
He also said Franklin will be a natural on the inside.
"I think it's a good look," Clady said. "I mean he's played guard before in college and he had that power or whatnot that you need at guard to get the job done, so I think he'll be able to move quite well."