ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Everybody at Broncos headquarters is operating under the assumption Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady will return to Denver in time for training camp with a new contract and a clean bill of health in hand.
Everybody except for Chris Clark, that is.
The fifth-year journeyman tackle is preparing as though he'll be the one protecting Peyton Manning's blindside on the Broncos' upcoming Super Bowl-or-bust tour.
Clady has stayed away from Dove Valley since January while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery and angling for a new long-term contract while his $9.828 million free agent tender gathers dust instead of his signature.
Vice President John Elway is on the record stating he wants to sign Clady to a long-term deal this summer, and coach John Fox said Wednesday, "I'm sure that'll all get worked out and I anticipate seeing him in camp."
All indications, he added, are that he's progressing as expected in his rehab. The Broncos, though, have yet to get a firsthand look at him since his surgery.
Manning also expresses confidence in Ryan's return next month.
"I think he will be here," Manning said. "I certainly hope that he'll be here. I know there's the business side of it. I've certainly kept in touch with Ryan (and know) he wants to be here ... (and) there's no question we want Ryan to be here."
Clady, after all, allowed just one sack in more than 1,100 snaps last season.
Clark has filled in for him at all of the team's offseason workouts, and in his first interview since last season, he told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he doesn't just see himself as keeping the seat warm for Clady.
"No, not at all. I approach it every day as though I'm the starter and I'm going to be the starter," Clark said. "For whatever reason, the guy signs, he may not sign, you never know what happens. So, my job is just to be ready and not worry about another guy, you know? Their decision is their decision. What I do is on me. So, that's the way I approach it."
The Broncos wouldn't want it any other way, really.
For all the bluster about how good Denver can be this season with the additions of Wes Welker and Montee Ball on offense and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer on defense, the Broncos' fortunes may very well rest on how well their patchwork offensive line comes together.
Clady is one of four starters along the line who is coming off surgeries that eliminated or limited their offseason on-field work.
Still, the Broncos put their franchise tag on Clady, who rejected a five-year, $50 million offer last summer that included $28 million in guarantees. He wanted something more in line with Cleveland's Joe Thomas, whose contract averages $11.5 million a season.
Clady made $3.5 million last year, the final season of the five-year deal he signed as a rookie out of Boise State in 2008. He has started every game in his career and earned three Pro Bowl berths. His right shoulder kept him out of practice during the team's bye week in the playoffs but he returned to face the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round before skipping the Pro Bowl.
Left guard Zane Beadles was the only Broncos starting offensive lineman to come out of last season unscathed. Orlando Franklin (toe, shoulder), Chris Kuper (ankle) and J.D. Walton (knee) also needed operations, and of the three, only Franklin has been practicing this spring.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the line, free agency was barely 20 minutes old when Louis Vasquez signed a four-year, $23.5 million deal with Denver that made him the team's new right guard and the vanguard of Denver's $68 million offseason splurge.
The starting offensive line during the team's offseason workouts has looked like this:
— Clark at left tackle.
— Beadles at left guard.
— Manny Ramirez at center.
— Vasquez at right guard.
— Franklin at right tackle.
"We're not looking at it as a negative because we're getting a lot of guys reps," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said.
Clark has started a half-dozen games in the NFL, and all were at tight end during the Tim Tebow experiment two years ago. So, working with the starters has been enormously beneficial this offseason.
It's helped him to hone his skills, gain confidence in himself and impress his coaches. Most importantly, though, it's allowed him and Manning to get comfortable working together.
"Of course quarterback cadences are different, so being able to work with Peyton right now, in the future, whatever the situation might be, I'll have that experience with Peyton and we'll be on one accord no matter what," Clark said.
Clark said his aim right now is to make sure the Broncos' Super Bowl aspirations aren't derailed if Clady isn't in the starting lineup come September, for whatever reason.
"You definitely don't want a drop-off. Nobody wants to be that guy," Clark said. "You want to be accountable and not the guy that everyone's looking at because you're the bad guy, you're the odd guy in the bunch. You just want to get in there when you're called and keep it going, keep the train moving."
And if Clady isn't on board, then so be it.
"My thing is, being Ryan's backup, him not being here, I approach it as I'm the starter and I'm going to be the starter," Clark said. "The goal is to be a starter in life. So, you do everything you can and work as hard as you can to accomplish those goals. You do whatever it takes."
Aside from quarterback, left tackle is generally considered the most important position on any NFL roster. And if Clark's the one manning that position in Denver in a month or even two, his message is pretty clear: Relax, I got this.
Notes: Former Broncos great Randy Gradishar attended practice and gave the team a pep talk afterward. ... LB Von Miller, who started a poultry business this offseason, is sporting a new tattoo of a rooster on his lower left leg. "In today's world, somebody calls you a chicken and you take offense to it," he said. "But cocks, roosters, if you sit and watch them, their personalities are outstanding. They run the yard. If you just sit there and watch them, they'll change your mind about being called a chicken."
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton