Ask anyone who covers, follows or roots for the Broncos about the team’s biggest concern on a rebuilt offensive line and the answer will almost always be the same. One name will repeatedly get mentioned.
It’s not Dalton Risner, despite the fact that the Broncos starting left guard has never played a snap in the NFL. People are universally enamored with the local boy made good, confident that the pride of Wiggins, Colo., can get the job done in the NFL.
It’s not Connor McGovern, a fifth-round pick in 2016 who has started a grand total of seven games at center after being converted from guard when Matt Paradis was injured last season. By all accounts, he was only mediocre at his natural position, making the transition a dicey proposition.
It’s not Ron Leary, an injury-prone right guard who’s started 17 games in two years since signing with the Broncos. When he was actually on the field, Leary earned a thoroughly average 62.1 grade from Pro Football Focus; that’s not exactly what Denver had in mind when they inked the former Cowboy to a four-year, $36 million deal prior to the 2017 season.
And it’s not Ja’Wuan James, a slightly above average right tackle that the Broncos gave a hefty contract to when the Dolphins decided to let their former first-round pick walk. Apparently, the fact that John Elway gave him a four-year, $50 million deal means he must be great.
Instead, the person atop virtually everyone’s list of concerns when it comes to Denver’s offensive line is the team’s starting left tackle. Public enemy No. 1 in the Mile High City has become Garett Bolles.
The media has him in their sights. Fans bellyache about him on social media. Heck, even his teammates are piling on.
“Bolles has got to get it together,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said last week while sitting in on “The Drive” with D-Mac and Tom Nalen.
To some extent, the lack of confidence is understandable. After all, Bolles has been a major disappointment since being selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Last season, Bolles was flagged 12 times, 10 of which were accepted. Nine of those penalties were for holding, with the other three for false starts. This comes on the heels of a rookie year in which he was the most-penalized offensive lineman in the NFL. In addition, he surrendered a team-high four sacks in 2018.
That’s not exactly what people had in mind when Elway spent a first-round pick on the first-team All-Pac 12 selection out of Utah. They were envisioning Ryan Clady, the last offensive tackle the Broncos selected in round one, who went on to have a borderline Ring of Fame career after being taken 12th overall in 2008.
But perhaps the struggles should’ve been expected. After all, it’s not as though there weren’t concerns about Bolles heading into the draft.
“He plays with a nasty edge. I just think his football IQ has to continue to develop – too many penalties, takes some bad angles. But as far as talent as a left tackle, he can play.”
That’s what the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said about Bolles coming out of Utah. Talk about prophetic; those are exactly the issues the much-maligned tackle has had during his first two years in the league.
He takes bad angles, which leads to Bolles having to grab defenders as they run by him, earning a flurry of yellow hankies on the field in the process. And thus far, he hasn’t shown an ability to adapt, a sign that his football smarts might not exactly be off the charts.
But another criticism has emerged this offseason. By and large, the blame for Bolles’ struggles have been pinned on the left tackle himself; the narrative is that he hasn’t been open to coaching and hasn’t worked hard enough to improve.
That seems a little too convenient. In the spirit of fairness, maybe there’s a bit more at play.
Since Vic Fangio was hired to replace Vance Joseph in January, the previous coaching staff has been panned at every turn. The level of ineptitude exhibited by that group during the two years they were in charge seems to know no bounds.
But at the same time, this is the crew Bolles was supposed to be listening to on a daily basis? He was supposed to be a sponge, absorbing every bit of advice they offered? If they were so incompetent, why on earth would he listen to them?
The scouting report on Bolles suggested that he was bit of a project; he possessed all of the physical tools to excel at left tackle in the NFL, but he needed to be coached out of some bad habits. The Broncos didn’t exactly give him the best tutors.
Some of the blame certainly lies with his coaches. Jeff Davidson was one-and-done with the team in 2017, a sign that the Broncos weren’t exactly thrilled with his work. And Chris Strausser, who was Denver’s assistant offensive line coach during Bolles’ rookie year and focused specifically on tackles last season, was brand new to the NFL; it’s not a stretch to suggest the long-time college coach may have been in over his head.
The Broncos all but admitted their mistake during the offseason, when they rolled out the red carpet to bring Mike Munchak in as the new o-line coach on Fangio’s staff. Going out and getting the guy who is widely regarded as the best in the business is the ultimate in overcompensating for being woefully understaffed previously.
In addition, the Broncos haven’t exactly had a solid group of linemen around their young left tackle. During his career, he’s lined up most alongside Max Garcia, a player the Broncos thought so little of that they didn’t bother to re-sign him in the offseason.
Last season alone, there was a revolving door in the trenches, with the likes of Garcia, Leary, McGovern, Billy Turner and Elijah Wilkinson seeing significant time at guard. It’s hard to build any sort of chemistry when lining up alongside a different teammate on a weekly basis.
Despite these challenges, Bolles still managed to earn a 70.7 grade from Pro Football Focus, ranking him a little above average at 35th in the NFL. By comparison, James had a score of 70.8, which put him one spot higher than his new teammate. Apparently, that’s the difference between being labeled a “bust” and signing a contract worth more than $50 million.
It’s easy to see why people are frustrated with Bolles. He’s a high draft pick that has been little more than a penalty machine during his first two season in the NFL.
But maybe, just maybe, that’s not all his fault.
This season, the excuses will go away. He has a great coach to show him the ropes, someone who actually takes the time to teach instead of just barking and yelling. And he has a solid player lining up next to him, albeit a rookie.
If Garett Bolles doesn’t improve in 2019, it’s on him. But as of right now, laying all of the blame for his struggles at his feet is unfair and inaccurate.
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