ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Chris Kuper put on pads for the first time in 214 days, snapped a few footballs to Peyton Manning and lined up some at guard Tuesday.
“I feel like a football player again,” he said.
But he’s a long way from being able to win a spot on the Denver Broncos’ 53-man roster.
Before he can compete for a backup job, the former captain and anchor of Denver’s offensive line has to get healthy.
Kuper’s latest comeback try is from a second surgery on his jigsaw-like left ankle, which was grotesquely dislocated in the 2011 regular-season finale.
He admittedly rushed back last year and ended up hobbling through the playoff loss to Baltimore with a shattered plate in his repaired ankle that caused him to skip the Pro Bowl, where he was named an alternate despite having played in just seven regular-season games.
This second comeback has proven even tougher.
“The setback with the ankle surgery and the infection put me behind on the eight-ball. I wasn’t able to rehab the way I wanted to and wasn’t able to get my strength back and conditioning back,” Kuper said. “That’s how football works, that’s how the NFL is. Every year you have to compete for a spot.”
After making enough progress to get back on the field, Kuper agreed to a restructured contract Tuesday that reduced his 2013 salary from a non-guaranteed $4.5 million with a $1.05 million injury protection settlement to a guaranteed $1.05 million base, plus a chance to make another $1.7 million in incentives.
“I’m glad to be here and have a chance to hang around and compete for a job,” Kuper said.
If Kuper makes the team, he’ll almost certainly serve as a backup to guards Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez, at least initially, although coach John Fox said he’ll get a look at center, too.
Kuper has been the Broncos’ emergency center in the past, but the last time he snapped the ball in a game was his junior year at North Dakota in 2004.
“It’s all going to be a process, coming back and getting healthy and transitioning, trying to be the best at whatever position I can play,” Kuiper said. “I’m just trying to earn a spot on the roster right now. The main thing is I have to get healthy enough to try to compete for that spot.”
Kuper didn’t give a glowing report on his ankle.
“It’s OK. I’m not there yet, but I’m hoping just working through this stuff on the field that I can work some of that stuff out,” he said. “Time is probably what’s going to heal it.”
That’s something he doesn’t have a lot of. The Broncos’ last preseason game is just over two weeks away.
Although he was excited to finally get back on the field, it wasn’t like Kuper had to remind himself to hold back: “No, not today. Today I was really just kind of feeling it out. I’m really not in great football shape quite yet, so we’re being careful with it.”
Kuper refuses to set a timetable for when he expects to be back up to speed because “I did that before and it didn’t work out the way I wanted to.”
Last year, Kuper’s prolonged absence was felt – quite literally – by Manning, who was sacked 21 times, but only twice with Kuper in the lineup.
“Being injured is hard, having surgery is hard, and when you’re an athlete and just coming back to performing your skill, it’s a long road,” Fox said. “It takes tough-minded people and he is that guy.”
The Broncos’ O-line has been a hodgepodge this whole offseason. Beadles was the only starter who came out of last season unscathed. Left tackle Ryan Clady has been working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery and hopes to make his preseason debut Aug. 24 against St. Louis.
Clady understood exactly what Kuper was talking about when he said he finally felt like a football player again.
“It’s weird not practicing every rep with the team. It’s definitely humbling,” Clady said. “You definitely do feel like you’re not a football player.”
Kuper’s just out to prove that, come cut-down day Aug. 31, he still is one.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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