UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
NFL

Ryan Clady -- The rock that protects Denver's rock

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady will have to handle the Ravens' Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.

You think you've been looking forward to the NFL regular season, which starts Thursday night when the Super Bowl-favorite Broncos host the Super Bowl champion Ravens. How do you think Elvis Dumervil feels?

Dumervil's middle name is Kool (seriously), and Baltimore's new strongside linebacker certainly did project a studied diffidence and detachment this week -- he kept his cool -- as reporters tried to get a rise out of him, peppering him with variations of the same question:

Is this one personal?

Denver cut Dumervil in March following a now infamous paperwork fiasco. After racking up 11 sacks in 2012, he'd agreed to a pay cut, from $12 million to a reported $8 million, but the faxed copy of his revised contract didn't arrive at Broncos headquarters until seven minutes after the NFL deadline. Fearful that they'd be on the hook for his full salary, the Broncos released him. Dumervil, who'd been in Denver for the entirety of his career, signed with the Ravens 10 days later.

BURKE: Broncos lose Elvis Dumervil thanks to baffling, fax-related gaffe

So, Elvis, is this one personal? It is not, he told reporters earlier this week. "You have to prove yourself year-in and year-out, and that's what I have to do. It's not about any particular team or any particular organization."

Let's see what tune he's singing after the game.

Denver's loss of Dumervil, whose 17 sacks in '09 led the NFL, will be compounded by the absence of Von Miller, suspended for six games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Those dueling debacles bookended the indefinite suspensions of Broncos personnel executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert, both of whom were charged with DUIs. The serial dramas in Dove Valley gave the impression of a franchise in mild disarray.

Countering that unsteady vibe, of course, is the leadership of Peyton Manning. His rock on the field is the quiet and cerebral yet incredibly durable and dependable Ryan Clady, one of the best left tackles in the game. During their courtship of the free agent Manning before the '12 season, Broncos executives brandished as a selling point of the presence of Clady on their roster. Manning had never played with a tackle this good.

With No. 18 in the fold, Denver's VP of football operations John Elway turned his attention to extending the contract of the 6-foot-6, 322-pound Clady, who didn't play offense until he arrived at Boise State in 2004, and who has since become one of four offensive linemen in NFL history to start every game (80) and make three Pro Bowls during his first five seasons in the league.

Going into last season, Clady's contract had another year on it. The Broncos were understandably eager to tie him up long-term. But they miscalculated. A few days before the start of training camp, someone in the front office shared the terms of the Broncos' offer to Clady with Denver Post reporter Mike Klis. It was an attractive offer: five years, $50 million. "But the structure wasn't great," says Clady's agent, Pat Dye Jr. "And when they broadcast what they were offering, trying to paint him into a corner, it was counterproductive."

"They kinda put me on blast," Clady recalled recently to a reporter, who nodded sympathetically, then was forced to look that phrase up on Urbandictionary.com. It means "letting the whole world know something personal about you."

It was a generous tender, to be sure, but Clady and Dye believed they could get a better deal. By making their offer public, the Broncos calculated they could pressure Clady to sign by making him appear greedy. "They threw the contract out there, told the media exact numbers," says Clady. "A lot of teams don't do that, so I was feeling kind of disrespected. I was thinking about maybe signing, then they did that."

As a redshirt sophomore at Boise, he'd started in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in one of most incredible college games ever. The underdog Broncos tied the game in the final seconds of regulation with a hook-and-lateral for a touchdown, tied it in overtime with halfback pass for a touchdown and then won it with a two-point conversion on a statue of liberty play. Clady had seen gambles pay off. Now it was his turn to roll the dice. No deal, he told Denver.

"I just said I'd rather play this out, and see how it goes."

Basically, Clady bet on himself. Instead of playing last season for $10-plus million, he played for $3.5 million. And how did that work out? All he did was start 16 games for the fifth consecutive season, giving up the fewest sacks -- one -- in the NFL. He earned his third Pro Bowl selection and was named first-team All Pro. When it came time to extend him, the Broncos had to dig considerably deeper. Despite the fact that Clady needed offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum; despite Denver's decision to franchise-tag him, keeping him off the open market, he signed a five-year deal for $52.5 million with $33 million in guaranteed money. According to a source, the deal balloons to $57.5 if Clady makes All Pro two more times.

That contract brinkmanship notwithstanding, Clady feels a keen allegiance to the team that made him the twelfth overall pick in the '08 draft. During the 2010 draft weekend, the lifelong Lakers fan (he hails from Rialto, Calif.) ruptured his left patella tendon playing pickup basketball. Even though it was a non-football injury, the Broncos honored his contract. "They didn't take any of his guaranteed money back, or void any of his future guaranteed money, which they could've," Dye points out. "They were great about it. They just said, 'Okay, Ryan, um, let's stay off the basketball court.'"

After protecting the blind sides of Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton (both of whom had reputations for holding onto the ball forever, then taking sacks) and then Tim Tebow (a scrambler who did his best work after the play broke down), Clady is delighted to be working with a quarterback who knows where he's going with the ball and gets it out fast. Manning, likewise, is enjoying the protection of a left tackle this talented. Clady may be just a B or B-plus run blocker. With his pterodactyl wingspan, his sweet, quick feet and uncanny balance, he is an A-plus at protecting the quarterback.

He will need those skills Thursday evening to keep his ex-teammate off Denver's future Hall of Fame quarterback. With Dumervil lining up as strongside 'backer in the Ravens' 3-4 (he was an end in Denver's 4-3 scheme), Clady will also find himself matched up against Terrell Suggs, yet another loquacious Ravens linebacker who, with the departures of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, has taken over as the vocal leader of the Baltimore defense.

"(Dumervil) is a good player in this league and he's definitely a challenge," said Clady, who might as well have been discussing an entrée on the menu at Applebee's for all the emotion and concern he evinced. When those two do battle, it will be matchup of Kool versus cool.

BURKE: NFL season preview Power Rankings

More NFL