ENGLEWOOD — Left guard Max Garcia showed up at the Denver Broncos' headquarters Friday with a sore left knee, something that initially seemed like a minor annoyance for a team preparing for two big offensive line changes already.
With right guard Connor McGovern preparing for his first NFL start at center and Elijah Wilkinson set to make his first pro start at right guard, Garcia went for an MRI.
The result was devastating: a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Garcia is the third starting offensive lineman the Broncos have lost this season, joining guard Ronald Leary (Achilles) and center Matt Paradis, who had surgery on his broken right leg earlier this week.
"It's been a tough year for us O-linemen," left tackle Garett Bolles said. "It's a shame to see three guys that are really close to me go down, but at the same time I know that we have guys behind them that have stepped up to the plate and are going to smack a home run."
Garcia's injury further staggered a team that's trying to salvage a season featuring four one-score losses, including to the league's two 9-1 teams the Rams and Chiefs, by a combined seven points.
"It was really weird, I watched (Thursday's) practice from the last play back to the first play and he didn't miss a down," coach Vance Joseph said. "So, the play he was injured on, I saw it, it was kind of a slip. It was no big deal. He finished up practice."
Joseph said Billy Turner, who started four games at right tackle when Jared Veldheer was out with a knee injury, will start at left guard Sunday when the Broncos (3-6) visit the Los Angeles Chargers (7-2).
This will mark the Broncos' sixth different lineup on the O-line this season, but Joseph said it won't affect the game plan.
"I thought leaving camp that we had the best line that we've had around here in a while as far as depth and as far as guys who can play" multiple positions, Joseph said. "It happens. It's football. We've got Billy Turner playing the left guard with Eli playing the right guard along with Mac playing the center, so I'm comfortable. Let's go play."
He said recently signed seven-year veteran center Gino Gradkowski will be active Sunday along with rookie swing guard Sam Jones.
"Ain't too many guys left ," he said.
Through every combination the Broncos have run the ball with success as rookies Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have rushed for 900 yards and seven touchdowns with veteran Devontae Booker adding 144 yards, a touchdown and a team-high 5.8-yard average.
What they've had trouble doing is protecting quarterback Case Keenum, who has 11 touchdowns and 11 turnovers and has been sacked two dozen times.
Still, offensive coordinator Billy Musgrave has been reluctant to reduce his use of three-receiver sets that put more pressure on the thinning O-line.
The turnstile hasn't helped Bolles, a 2017 first-rounder, refine his raw game after playing just one season of major college football.
"It's been hard having different lineups. I've had five different lineups, so it's been frustrating," Bolles said. "But it doesn't matter who's next to me, they're going to make me better, I'm going to make them better and you've just got to roll with the punches and work out the kinks."
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