Over the past two drafts, Broncos general manager John Elway felt he added a pair of long-term pillars to the offensive line: left guard Dalton Risner and rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry.
But in that same time frame, Elway also doled out a record contract to right tackle Ja’Wuan James, only to see that four-year, $51 million deal look like a bust with James starting just three games in 2019 due to injuries and opting out of 2020.
This season will be a big litmus test to see if Elway has made the right choices, as the unit relies on youth and another expensive free-agent acquisition — right guard Graham Glasgow — to bring some seasoning up front and enable second-year quarterback Drew Lock to grow into his job.
“As an offensive line, we’ve got to take protecting Drew upon ourselves,” Risner said. “I don’t just say that without any weight. That carries some serious weight with me. I want to be able to protect Drew this year and I want to be able to give him time to make those plays. John Elway and (coach Vic) Fangio went after it and got some tools for us on offense. If we can give him time to make something happen, I think we can make something shake with the guys we have.”
While Fangio emphasized the Broncos “can’t have cracks or leaks in the fort” they had several of those last season as the unit allowed 41 sacks (tied for 16th in the NFL).
There are numerous question marks around the line as currently constructed, even with Glasgow and Risner (a PFWA All-Rookie team selection in 2019) as stable anchors at the guard spots. Glasgow figures to be a clear upgrade over Ron Leary, who remains a free agent after the Broncos declined his option in the offseason, while Risner has Pro Bowl potential if he continues on his current trajectory.
But there will be a learning curve for whoever wins the center battle, whether it’s Cushenberry coming from the college game or second-year pro Austin Schlottmann, who started four games at right guard in 2019. And in place of James at right tackle, either 34-year-old veteran Demar Dotson (signed to a free agent deal Aug. 11, 106 career starts) or fourth-year pro Elijah Wilkinson will have to pick up James’ slack.
Does that cast make you nervous, Broncos fans? It makes Glasgow optimistic.
“The entire line as a whole is very young, and we have a lot of young, talented players along with a couple new veterans who are hungry to go out and prove themselves,” he said. “That’s a recipe for success in the NFL.”
Of course, the most anticipated performance on the line comes at left tackle, where Garett Bolles’ maddening inconsistency was somewhat curtailed over the final stretch of 2019. The former first-round pick from 2017 enters a prove-it year after the Broncos declined his fifth-year contract option in May, making Bolles a free agent next March.
Risner assured fans “will probably see a whole new Garett Bolles this year.”
“Him playing better at the end of the season is a testament to his hard work,” Risner said. “I think something that people need to remember is (offensive line coach) Mike Munchak. That guy is a Hall of Famer and he has a Gold Jacket… I truly believe with the way Munchak coaches, it’s perfect for Garett. He’s going to call Garett out when he needs to be called out, he’s going to uplift Garett when he needs uplifting and he’s going to teach Garett.”
A look at the starts made by the Broncos’ offensive line since the start of the 2016 season:
Left tackle: Two (Garett Bolles 48, Russell Okung 16).
Bolles has not missed a game since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2017.
Left guard: Four (Max Garcia 35, Dalton Risner 16, Billy Turner 7, Ron Leary 6).
Garcia started every game in 2016-17 and Risner started every game last year as a rookie.
Center: Two (Matt Paradis 41, Connor McGovern 23).
Paradis started 41 consecutive games until breaking his ankle in 2018. McGovern started every game last year.
Right guard: Six (Ron Leary 23, Michael Schofield 16, Connor McGovern 13, Elijah Wilkinson 7, Austin Schlottmann 4, Max Garcia 1).
Leary ended on injured reserve in all three of his Broncos’ seasons. Schlottmann started the final four games of 2019.
Right tackle: Ten (Donald Stephenson 17, Elijah Wilkinson 12, Jared Veldheer 12, Menelik Watson 7, Allen Barbre 4, Billy Turner 4, Ja’Wuan James 3, Ty Sambrailo 3, Jake Rodgers 1, Cyrus Kouandjio 1).
Constant turnover at right tackle. The most games started in one season was 13 by Stephenson in 2016.