Ryan Clady knew he was nowhere close to being done with football.
Not when he tore the ligament in his left knee for his second major injury in three seasons. Not when he spent the Super Bowl as a spectator, rooting on his Broncos teammates.
And, not when Denver brought in a player to replace him, effectively ending his tenure with the team and casting his future in doubt.
“It was a little bit stressful,” Clady acknowledged. “I can’t deny that.”
The veteran left tackle, acquired by the New York Jets in a trade from Denver in April, is healthy again. He’s also eager to show everyone that he’s still the immensely talented player who has made four Pro Bowls and been considered one of the best at his position.
“Yeah, no question,” Clady said. “A lot of this game is about pride and respect. That’s what some guys play for, outside of money and whatnot. It’s a great motivator, I feel like. I definitely feel that. It’s one of the things that’s driving me, to prove those guys in Colorado wrong. They got rid of me. All players, when they get shipped off, they want to show, ‘Yo, I’ve still got it.’ ”
After being eased in during offseason workouts, Clady has been a full participant in practice throughout training camp. He has been working extra to get in sync with center Nick Mangold and left guard James Carpenter.
“Ryan’s a true professional,” offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. “The guy’s been in this league a long time, and he’s picked right up and melded very well next to Carp and done a great job.”
Most of all, though, his body is feeling good. That’s something Clady hasn’t been able to say much during the past few years while missing 30-of-48 regular-season games since 2013. That year, he missed all but two games because of a Lisfranc foot injury. The Broncos made the Super Bowl that season, when they lost to the Seattle Seahawks — with Clady on the sideline.
He bounced back the following year, playing in every game and making the Pro Bowl. But the injury bug struck again during organized team activities in May 2015, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. And, the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl without him again — and this time beat Carolina.
“It’s definitely tough, and no one wants to be on the sidelines when your guys are out there playing ball,” Clady said.
But that was just the beginning of what would be a hectic offseason for the lineman, who turns 30 in two weeks. Denver signed left tackle Russell Okung in March, despite Clady saying during the Super Bowl that he was willing to restructure his contract to be a “lifetime Bronco.” The team and Clady’s representatives met in March to talk about that, but things cooled once Okung was signed.
That’s when Clady knew he was on his way out.
“I hadn’t been in that position before,” he said, insisting he’s not bitter about the divorce. “There was the opportunity with the potential to stay, which didn’t end up happening. And then there was the opportunity for new beginnings, which I kind of had put in the back of my mind once I tore my ACL. I thought there was a pretty good chance that I’m out of there after the season, so it wasn’t like it was a complete surprise for me.”
The Jets reached out to the Broncos when D’Brickashaw Ferguson, a durable and popular left tackle, opted to retire after 10 seasons. A day after Ferguson made his decision official, the Jets had his replacement by sending a fifth-round pick to the Broncos.
“The trade was originally stressful basically because of all the unknowns,” Clady said. “You don’t know the guys and how they’ll embrace you and how the knee will hold up and stuff like that. But once I got here, I felt at home.”
He knew there would be some pressure to try to slide into a spot that had been anchored by Ferguson, a guy who had never missed a game or practice his entire career. Living up to his own reputation, though, was even more important to Clady.
“I think it was more me feeling good out there and me playing at the level I want to play at,” he said. “With an injury, you have to get into that mindset, like, ‘I can still be a good player. I can still do this.’ ”
So far, so good.
While he says his knee isn’t 100 percent just yet, Clady has felt “pretty good” throughout training camp. He dropped a few pounds from his 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame to take some pressure off his knees, and Clady likes how he’s moving around.
“Overall,” he said, “I think I’m right where I need to be.”
Clady has aspirations of being selected for the Pro Bowl again, this time as a member of the Jets. He hopes he’s not playing in it, though. He’s got bigger plans for the perfect capper to his comeback.
“The main goal is to win ballgames and make it to the Super Bowl,” Clady said. “I want to be out there, on that field, playing with the fellas in Houston. That’s what I want more than anything.”