From the moment a lisfranc injury in Week 2 of the 2013 season derailed Ryan Clady’s NFL career, offensive tackle woes have been a constant issue for the Denver Broncos. From that point forward, the ends of the Broncos’ offensive line were manned by a revolving door of horrible-to-just-okay veteran free agents and the occasional depressingly bad draft pick. The result has been a lot of pain endured by Broncos quarterbacks.
John Elway looked to the draft to stop the bleeding & provide a long term starter on the QB’s blind side. That led him to select Garett Bolles with the 20th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Name: Garett Bolles
College: University of Utah
Note: Bolles is currently 25, but will turn 26 this Sunday, May 27th. If you’d like, tweet him a Happy Birthday this weekend @gbolles72!
Bolles was the lone bright spot of a 2017 draft class that mostly got red-shirted. He played over 1,100 snaps comprising 98.14% of the Broncos’ offensive snaps last season. Including special teams snaps for all players, he played nearly 500 more snaps than the rest of his draft class combined. Only center Matt Paradis registered more snaps than Garett did.
Despite playing nearly 200 more snaps than almost any other Bronco last season, an optimistic view of Bolles’s play would probably best describe it as just “okay”. Penalties were a major issue for him as a rookie, landing him on the 2017 All-Penalty Team. It certainly wasn’t the stellar rookie campaign that Ryan Clady put together back in the day.
Pass blocking was the major issue, as Bolles consistently earned himself holding penalties that killed a number of drives. That’s a large part of why Pro Football Focus ranked Bolles as just the 73rd best pass blocking tackle. Ouch. He ranked 77th in penalties out of 83 offensive tackles listed in PFF’s Elite stats, which is pretty horrible.
It’s really as simple as that at the heart of it for Bolles: he absolutely must fix his issues in pass blocking, or he’s not going to be holding a starting job after a while.
How, then, could his rookie season be considered “Okay”? Mostly, because Bolles’s run blocking was as good as his pass blocking was bad. He ranked 12th out of 83 offensive tackles in that aspect of the game. That could be essential for the Broncos this year, so he at least has something to hang his hat on while working to improve the other areas of his game.
Beyond that, though, there are some mitigating factors. First and foremost is that Bolles was learning on the job even though he was still quite raw. The former Ute only had one season of Division 1 NCAA football experience and coaching, and was facing a massive learning curve as a rookie. That means there is plenty of potential for Bolles to get better with another offseason of strength & conditioning and technique training.
Then there’s the personnel around him. Bolles was arguably set up to fail as a rookie, with three major liabilities impacting his game:
Quarterback: A good QB raises all boats, but a bad QB sinks them. Bolles had the misfortune of trying to block for not just one bad QB, but three. With a revolving door of quarterbacks holding on to the ball too long behind him, some of Bolles’ penalties were more about saving his QBs from themselves than about bad technique on Bolles’s part. Left Guard: Max Garcia was average as a starter in his prior work, but was far below average last season. Whatever the cause of his regression, Garcia didn’t pull his weight in 2017 and his lack of performance resulted in Bolles having to try and cover for a far more experienced player. That in itself led to mistakes by Bolles. Right Tackle: If the Broncos’ QB position was a revolving door, the right tackle spot consisted of a couple of exposed, rusting bolts where a revolving door used to be. Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson proved to be utterly incapable of performing at an acceptable level on the right end of the line, forcing the team to tilt assistance via blocking tight ends and chip blocks heavily toward that side. That meant more exposure and less help for Bolles than he’d normally get.
Those situations have changed, though. Case Keenum is sharp under pressure and can get the ball out quickly when needed. That alone is a huge boon for Bolles and the rest of the offensive line, and should contribute to bringing those penalty numbers down. Additionally, Bolles will certainly enjoy lining up next to Ronald Leery this season as the veteran guard appears poised to resume his preferred spot at left guard. Jared Veldheer at right tackle also profiles to be a significant upgrade if he can stay healthy. All of which means that in 2018 Bolles should enjoy shorter blocks, a huge upgrade to the play beside him, and more help when he needs it.
Head coach Vance Joseph was very specific in what he hopes to see from Bolles in 2018.
“First of all, physically he has to get bigger and stronger. That’s his first issue. His second issue is technique. I think having Chris Strausser as his full-time coach is going to help that. I’m excited to watch him grow as a player. But as a rookie to survive 16 weeks at left tackle, that’s going to pay dividends for him. I’m excited to watch him come back and get better and better. He’s a talent that just needs time to grow into the position. He is going to be a very good player for us in the future.”
Bolles is a lock for the team’s final 53 man roster, and is almost certainly a lock as the starting left tackle. He should again record one of the highest snap counts on the team. Here’s hoping that experience and coaching will combine with improvements around him in order to make the quality of Bolles’ work on the field as great as the quantity.
By the midpoint of the 2018 season, the second year tackle will almost certainly accrue the most starts at left tackle of any Bronco since Ryan Clady. This is his opportunity to step up his game and prove that by selecting him, John Elway locked down one of those troublesome offensive tackle spots for years to come.