The Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the offensive tackle position.
Starting Left Tackle: Garett Bolles
This season is clearly a make-or-break year for the 2017 first-round pick. The Broncos have a decision on his fifth-year option coming up after this season. Bolles is on the books for just a little more than $3 million in 2019, which would be considered a huge bargain if he plays at a high level.
Entering his third year with the Broncos, nobody can say with any certainty whether or not Bolles is going to develop into a quality starting left tackle. In fact, there may be more questions about him now than there were when he came out of Utah as a rookie.
Bolles went through troubled teenage years, but turned his life around with dedication to his religion and hard work. He attended Snow College in Utah and became the most-coveted junior college prospect in the nation after two seasons. Bolles then transferred to Utah for one year of FBS football and his All Pac-12 honors helped him get drafted in the first round.
His elite athletic traits gave Bolles a ton of potential entering the league, even though he was older for a rookie (25 in his first pro season). Bolles has incredible footwork and athleticism. He can move smoothly when getting to angle blocks. He is nimble and can change direction quickly to counter pass-rushing moves. Add in his trademark mean streak and it’s easy to see why Bolles was a top pick.
I had him graded as a late first-round pick that year and the Broncos selected him as the first offensive tackle off the board at No. 20 overall.
Bolles is an athlete, but is he a football player?
This is the biggest question about the left tackle that we don’t yet have an answer to. We can all see his athleticism each and every week, but those tools have yet to add up to a quality starting performance. Plenty of players go through the pros quickly because they don’t learn the how to be a football player. It sounds weird, but football players who are athletic are better than athletes who play football. After two seasons, Bolles has been more of the latter.
Will Bolles listen to tough coaching?
This is the biggest obstacle in his way, in my opinion. Last year during training camp on at least one occasion, Bolles was seen walking away from a coach that was trying to give him guidance. He is a talented player and has been entrenched as a starter for two seasons, but Bolles is not infallible.
The Broncos hired Hall of Famer Mike Munchak to be their offensive line coach this year and his biggest project will be getting the best out of Bolles. But first, he must get through to him.
Can he cut down on his penalties?
This is the final piece of the puzzle for Bolles. We can watch him shine in training camp and the preseason, but his efforts will all be for naught if he doesn’t carry that over to the regular season. Bolles gets frustrated quickly and mistakes have a tendency to stay with him leading to multiple penalties – some that kill drives or scoring opportunities. He can play angry, but he needs to let bad plays go and concentrate on the next rep.
Bolles needs to hit this year, not only for his own financial reasons, but also because the Broncos have Joe Flacco as their starting quarterback. Starters like Case Keenum or Trevor Siemian had some mobility and could get out of the way of oncoming rushers if Bolles let them through – not always but the athletic ability was there to move.
That’s not the case with Flacco.
The veteran is your classic pocket passer and won’t offer much when it comes to evading the rush. He certainly won’t tuck the ball to run with any consistency, so Flacco is going to be a stationary target back there for opponents to get after. Bolles needs to keep the rush away from Flacco as much as possible. If Flacco were to go down, then the hopes of a playoff push or even a .500 record would go out the window.
Bolles needs to hit for himself, for Flacco and for the Broncos in 2019.
Starting Right Tackle: Ja’Wuan James
The Broncos had no problem making Ja’Wuan James the highest paid right tackle in the NFL. In the first wave of free agency, James signed a four-year, $51 million contract with the team.
The deal included a $12 million signing bonus, $32 million in guarantees and an average annual salary of $12.75 million. That’s a hefty price to pay, but the Broncos have searched for a viable starting right tackle for years.
During the last few seasons, the Broncos have desperately thrown money around at veteran right tackles who failed to impress. In fact, guys like Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson were outright busts for the Broncos.
Last year, Jared Veldheer was considering retirement but decided to play one more year (and his only season) for the Broncos. He was okay as a starter, but was oft-injured and did end up retiring this offseason.
That’s why the team needs to hit with James.
In many ways, James is the anti-Bolles in terms of skill set and career arc. Coming out of Tennessee in 2014, James set a record for most games started for the Volunteers (49). In fact, James started every game he ever played in for Tennessee and was a consistent force for their offensive line.
Unlike Bolles, who was very raw coming out of college, James has a ton of experience playing offensive line against top FBS competition. Also unlike Bolles, James was known more for his guile and strength more than his athleticism. Again unlike Bolles, James is known as a steady player who perhaps doesn’t play with enough anger.
He was obviously a consistent starter in college, but that has not been the case in the pros.
The Dolphins made James a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and he started in every game that he played in for them. However, he has missed plenty of time due to injury during the last few years. James has only played a full 16-game season twice in his pro career (2014, 2016), but he did play in 15 games last season.
Even though he was solid, one could describe the play of James as unspectacular. That’s not an insult whatsoever, but the Dolphins were probably looking for more from a first-rounder. Rumors swirled in the 2018 offseason that the Dolphins were shopping James (even reports the Broncos had interest). But in the end, he wound up playing one more season in South Beach.
James has already missed a bit of time with the Broncos. Earlier this year in offseason training activities, he missed about a week with a minor hip injury. Head coach Vic Fangio said it was something he injured while working out over that weekend. It was good news for the Broncos when James was out on the practice field as a full participant the next week during mandatory minicamp.
So, does this mean he’s going to work out for the Broncos?
The signs are good for James, but just like everything in life there are no guarantees. If he’s on the field, then James is likely to be their best tackle. Keeping James on the field is critical for the team’s success in 2019.
Reserves: Elijah Wilkinson, Quinn Bailey, John Leglue, Nathan Jacobson, Don Barclay, Jake Rodgers
Elijah Wilkinson is the main player to focus on from this group. In fact, before free agency and the draft, I thought that Wilkinson was finally going to be starting for the Broncos.
Before the team picked up James, I felt Wilkinson could be a solid starting right tackle after performing well in a reserve role last season. After the team picked up James, I thought Wilkinson could use his versatility (one of his best traits) to start at right guard for the team. Then, the Broncos selected Dalton Risner in the second round of the draft, putting him at left guard, moving Ron Leary at right guard and ushering Wilkinson to the bench.
It’s great to know that Wilkinson can be both a swing tackle and a swing guard for the Broncos. He can play four of the five positions – and play them well – up front on the offensive line. Wilkinson has the talent to start for the team. And if injuries strike at anywhere but center, the Broncos are set with a player like him as a reserve.
The rest of these players have to be considered long-shots to make the team. Some of them are listed as tackles on the Broncos official website (Quinn Bailey, John Leglue) while the others are listed as just “Offensive Lineman.” Looking at Pro Football Focus, that site considers Nathan Jacobson and Jake Rodgers tackles, so we will include them here.
Quinn Bailey was added as a college free agent after the 2019 NFL Draft. He started 34 games for Arizona State and was the team’s right tackle for the entire 2018 season. Bailey is seen as an average athlete who might have to move inside to guard at the pro level. I like the fact that he’s got high football intelligence and is your classic knee-bender as a blocker (it’s incredibly poor technique to be considered a waist-bender). Bailey may lack the athleticism to play outside at the pro level and could be bound for the practice squad if he impresses in training camp.
John Leglue was an undrafted free agent out of Tulane in 2019. Like Bailey, Leglue does not have elite footwork or athleticism. What he does have is instincts and patience required for the position of right tackle. Leglue uses his hands well and keeps a proper pad level when blocking. Perhaps the team keeps him around as a developmental right tackle, but he lacks the versatility of other players on the offensive line.
Nathan Jacobson was offered a tryout with the Broncos during their rookie minicamp earlier this offseason. He did such a good job that the team decided to sign him to a contract. During his college days at UNLV, Jacobson did enough to earn All Mountain West honorable mention for three seasons. The first thing about Jacobson that stands out is his size – he’s small for a pro offensive lineman, measuring in at only 285 pounds. He is athletic and moves well to strike a moving target, but he needs to put on 25 pounds or so in order to stick in the league.
Jake Rodgers has been with eight teams in his NFL career, including three stints with the Steelers. Originally a seventh-round pick out of Eastern Washington for the Falcons in the 2015 NFL Draft, Rodgers was known to be incredibly athletic but had little experience playing tackle from a three-point stance. As a former high school tight end, Rodgers clearly has the athleticism to fit in a wide-zone scheme like the Broncos will implement in 2019. Unlike these other reserves (not named Wilkinson), Rodgers has plenty of experience which might give him an edge – but he’s running out of chances to prove himself in the NFL.
Don Barclay has 25 games of starting experience in the NFL. Too bad those starts haven’t resulted in quality play. An undrafted free agent for the Packers in 2012, Barclay spent last season out of football. He’s getting a chance to earn a spot as a swing tackle with the Broncos, but Barclay can play multiple positions. In fact, when Ron Leary missed a week of OTAs, the team had Barclay in with the first team at right guard. He will have to perform at a high level in order to make the 53-man roster.
The offensive line for the Broncos features multiple versatile players who can line up all over the unit. Due to that versatility, they may only keep three “official” tackles on the 53-man roster and I project they’ll keep nine offensive linemen total.
Bolles and James are locked into their starting spots, and there is little to no competition for either position. Perhaps if Bolles struggles mightily in training camp, the team could turn to James to play left tackle and move Wilkinson to the right tackle spot but I do not see that happening.
I think the Broncos give Bolles one more chance to prove himself. If he doesn’t take to the coaching of Munchak, then they will move on and try to find a new starting left tackle in the 2020 NFL draft or free agency.
If James stays healthy and Bolles plays better, the Broncos could have their first set of bookend tackles since the days of Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris. I believe the entire season comes down to the play of those five starting offensive linemen, with the most pressure to perform coming on the outside with Bolles and James.
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