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Broncos Bye Week Report Card: Offensive and Defensive Lines

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The Broncos have a bye in Week 10, as they are basically at the halfway point of the 2019 season. Through nine games, Denver has a 3-6 record. They sit at the bottom of the AFC West and they have one of the worst records in the entire conference.

After the team’s Week 9 win over the Browns, head coach Vic Fangio commented on the Broncos record.

“We are 3-6. Could we be better? Yes. Could we be worse? No. I don’t really know how to answer that question other than we’ve had more than our chance to have a much better record than we do, but it is what it is,” Fangio said.

The Broncos have a really strong defense. They rank as fourth in the league in terms of yards allowed per game so far this season. Under Fangio’s guidance, the Broncos have bought in defensively and are making plays consistently even though they have had a lot of injuries to key players on that side of the ball.

While the defense can be suffocating, the offense can suck the life out of the game. They are averaging only 16.56 points per game, ranking No. 28 in the NFL after nine weeks of action. This team looked better offensively in the game against the Browns, but it’s only one game and they have much tougher tests coming up after their bye.

This week, I’m going to take a look at each position on the roster and hand out grades for their performance so far. In today’s blog, let’s grade the offensive and defensive lines.

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Offensive Line

Most any Broncos fan you talk to can rant for at least 10 minutes about how the team needs to improve their offensive line. It’s been a problem for years, and the Broncos have tried multiple ways to fix what they have up front.

The Broncos have allowed 29 sacks this year, ranking No. 2 in the NFL and trailing only the Buccaneers (30) so far in 2019. This unit is clearly better at run-blocking than they are at pass-blocking.

Garett Bolles has been a bust for the Broncos – but there’s no way they can replace him as their starting left tackle. A first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Bolles is one of the most-penalized players in the league at his position. He is regularly booed on the field when the Broncos play at home and Bolles has struggled to take to coaching – no matter what coaching style the Broncos use to get through to him.

With Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach (and his Hall of Fame resume), this was a make-or-break year for Bolles and it’s not looking good for his future with the team. Bolles is incredibly gifted athletically, but his movement is not the problem. He’s overly aggressive as a tackle and his bad plays will get into his head and stay with him throughout the game.

The team would have already replaced Bolles if they could. Injuries at other spots up front have caused the team to have to stick with Bolles at left tackle. Do not expect him to be in that spot for much longer if the Broncos can find an upgrade in the 2020 offseason.

Dalton Risner is the best offensive lineman on the Broncos roster. He’s the smartest player in the room and is a fan favorite who is also a highly coachable player. Risner, a second-round pick out of Kansas State in 2019, grew up in nearby Wiggins, Colo., and knows what Broncos Country is all about. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has an infectious energy and love for this game that comes through when you watch him play.

Risner is country strong and athletic enough to get out and pull with great results. He’s looking to eliminate his man on every play, and he’ll even toss his running back into the end zone by hand if he needs to. Risner is a cornerstone player for the Broncos and someone you can build the rest of the line around. His presence on this line really helps out the overall grade.

Connor McGovern took over as the starting center for the Broncos this year since they didn’t re-sign Matt Paradis in free agency. He had problems with shotgun snaps during the offseason, but those problems have not been apparent during the regular season. McGovern is incredibly strong and can push his man around with ease. His athleticism isn’t as good as others on this line, and I still like him more at guard than at center. McGovern’s footwork does need improvement as at times he will get pushed right back into the quarterback – not because of his strength but because he’s losing the leverage battle.

Ron Leary has never played a full 16-game season in his pro career. Injuries have always been a problem for the grizzled veteran. This year, Leary is healthy so far and let’s hope he stays that way for the rest of the season. Leary is strong and capable of being a road-grader at right guard. He moved from the left guard position last year even though the left side is his more natural position. Leary has been penalized quite a bit this year, but his play is solid yet unspectacular.

Eli Wilkinson was not supposed to be a starter, but here we are. Wilkinson certainly has talent and is arguably the most versatile player on the offensive line, as he could play all five positions up front if need be. Wilkinson is smart and athletic, plus he’s quite capable playing either tackle position or either guard position. Injuries have thrust him into the starting lineup, and he’s responded with average play.

Wilkinson will allow defenders to get by him from time to time, but he does respond well to coaching and doesn’t often make the same mistake twice. He’s a young player who has been thrust into a role the team didn’t plan on at the start of the regular season.

This team has tried for years to solve their woes at right tackle through free agency. Whether it was guys like Donald Stephenson or Menelik Watson, all moves they’ve made at the position have failed. This year, the Broncos took a big swing again at right tackle when they paid Ja’Wuan James a four-year, $51 million contract earlier this offseason.

James has played in two games and a total of 32 snaps. During his time with the Dolphins, James was known to battle various injuries and miss more time than you’d like. This year, his knee problems are back in a big way. James is supremely gifted as an athlete and he’s a bright player, but if he can’t stay on the field then this is looking like another bust at right tackle. We’ll see if James can ever get healthy enough – and stay healthy – to make a positive impact for a team that took a big financial risk by bringing him on board.

Position Grade: D+

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Defensive Line

The Broncos defensive line is one of their strengths on the entire team. The battle is won and lost in the trenches, and the Broncos have this side of the ball figured out almost completely. They not only have a great starting trio on the defensive line, and the Broncos also have quality depth here – something you can’t say about every position on the team.

Derek Wolfe is having one of the best years of his career. He already has five sacks on the season, and his career high of six sacks (2012) is well within his reach with seven games to go this year. Wolfe has battled a couple of nagging injuries while playing 390 snaps this year. His toughness on the field is something other players can follow, and Wolfe is a trusted veteran inside that locker room.

When Vic Fangio was introduced as the head coach earlier this year, Wolfe was one of the most-visible players at the introductory press conference. Perhaps that’s because he knew how much of a great fit he would be in Fangio’s system. Wolfe is in the final year of his contract, and his play shows that there’s still plenty left in the tank.

Mike Purcell was a great find by the Broncos. He’s been cut 10 times, while having also started eight games in the NFL before getting a real chance with the Broncos this year. Purcell is built like a classic nose tackle, and he can eat space in the middle of the line with ease. He is tough to move when his feet are planted, and Purcell’s presence allows the linebackers behind him to make plays.

You no longer see offensive linemen get to the linebacker level regularly because they’re too busy dealing with Purcell’s size. The defense took a huge leap forward when Purcell was inserted into the starting lineup around a month ago.

Shelby Harris began the season playing out of position at defensive tackle. While he can play there on passing downs, Harris is a liability there as a run-defender on a full-time basis. When the Broncos moved Purcell to tackle, Harris began to thrive on the outside at defensive end. Harris plays with a lot of energy and can help create interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In addition to what he does as a rusher, Harris can also get his hands up to knock down passes or block field goals from time to time.

Behind those three starters, the Broncos have some intriguing young prospects – and Adam Gotsis. The Broncos defense has performed much better after Gotsis was made inactive and taken out of the starting lineup. Gotsis, a second-round pick in 2016, has started for years but has never really developed as hoped or produced at an average level.

The young prospects worth watching include guys like DeMarcus Walker and Dre’Mont Jones. Walker, a second-round pick in 2017, had not done much in his first three years in the NFL. His first season in the NFL, the Broncos had him stand up and play outside linebacker, but that did not work well. His second year, the Broncos had him bulk up and put him back on the defensive line, but he only played 21 snaps in three games, spending most of his time inactive. Now, this new coaching staff gave him a fresh start and he has responded by playing at a high level as a rotational player.

Jones, a third-round pick in 2019, has the upside to be a starter one day soon for the Broncos. He’s huge, strong and plays with a non-stop motor. Jones can play inside at defensive tackle or outside at defensive end. His versatility and on-field energy make him a fun player to imagine what his future for the Broncos could look like.

Jonathan Harris, an undrafted rookie from Lindenwood, was just picked up at the end of October from the Bears. He’s a strong and active player who was a surprise addition to the active roster when he was picked up, but the upside is there to make him a developmental prospect worth keeping an eye on.

Position Grade: B

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Next up… LBs and DBs