Whether you like it or not, we may be quickly approaching the end of Garett Bolles in orange and blue. 2019 started off like every other year of the 2017 first rounder’s career: with a lot of holding penalties. At one point I couldn’t so much as float a draft question without getting bombarded with cries about the left tackle’s poor play. The coaching staff clearly noticed, and when there was still hope that Ja’Wuan James could return to play, Elijah Wilkinson saw some practice reps on the blindside.
Things went a different way from there, obviously. Wilkinson never took Bolles job and the former Ute saw his play improve enough over the last quarter of the season that many in Bronco’s Country have bought into the hope that legendary line coach Mike Munchak has finally made a breakthrough.
Do you believe the #Broncos coaching staff is satisfied with Garret Bolles as their starting left tackle?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 4, 2020
That said, it’s hard to ignore the interest Elway and the Broncos coaching staff has shown in offensive linemen this year. Since preparation has really kicked off for the NFL Draft, the Broncos have met with the following left tackle prospects:
- Tristan Wirfs
- Jedrick Wills
- Austin Jackson
- Josh Jones x2
- Ezra Cleveland x2
Every one of them is widely considered a top 50 prospect, so it’s more than a little fair to speculate that the Broncos are looking to add a potential replacement to the mix. Even if Elway and Fangio weren’t so tepid in their support for Bolles (and they are, I’ve been keeping track of this), it would make sense to look into tackles. After all, Ja’Wuan James just missed all but 63 offensive plays in 2019, and Elijah Wilkinson is not cut out for starting reps on the perimeter. If nothing else, improved depth is badly needed.
So what follows are my rankings of the tackle prospects in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, but the players I’ve found best suited for what the Broncos appear most interested in at the position. I’ve ranked them according to how I see their play, with an emphasis placed on pass protection, mobility, and upside.
Do keep in mind that with a rather limited access to college tape, I’ve leaned on the shoulders of giants. The scouting reports by The Draft Network, Pro Football Focus, Lance Zierlein, and Dane Brugler have been a godsend for supplementing what I’ve seen and providing background information and insight into character.
Without further adieu.
Tier 1 - Day 1 starters
These three have the talent and technique to compete for playing time out of the gate.
1. Tristan Wirfs - Iowa
There were two thoughts that ran through my head as I watched Tristan Wirfs break records at the NFL Combine last month. The first was that Mile High Huddle’s Nick Kendell was right: this guy was the kind of athletic stud that could completely change the makeup of the offensive line with guidance from Munchak. The second was that there was not a snowball’s chance in Hades he was going to fall to 15. If it happened, it’d be 10 times as surprising as Bradley Chubb falling to five in 2018.
So more likely than not, this is a thought exercise. Wirfs played most of his college career at right tackle for the Hawkeyes. I’ve heard time and time again how he did so because Alaric Jackson is more comfortable on the blindside, so it was an effort to put the best players on the field. When Wirfs had to move to the left, he did so without much trouble, so it isn’t a blind projection.
Leading up to the Combine, there was a lot of talk that Wirfs could get pigeonholed into playing guard because of concerns about his skills as a pass protector and length. While I do wonder if he’ll have an adjustment period against speed to power in the league, he brings 34” arms with him into the pros, which seems to settle that question quite a bit.
Wirfs’ potential to play inside or outside, right or left, raises his floor considerably. When you combine that with all of the notes about his character, it’s hard to see him busting unless injuries become a factor. It also means he could push Graham Glasgow to center and improve the Broncos’ current group from day one. If Bolles continues the ascent he showed last year, Wirfs’ versatility also gives Elway flexibility with the veteran’s fifth year option.
Sounds like a dream, right? Shame it won’t happen, but we can dream.
2. Jedrick Wills - Alabama
If it weren’t for my faith in Munchak’s ability to squeeze every bit of upside out of a prospect, I’d have Wills higher than Wirfs. That’s how good his tape is, and why you’ll see most draft analysts have him as a top five type of pick.
He’s a monstrously talented dancing bear who makes pass protection look easy more often than not, allowing one sack across his entire career as a starter. It wasn’t just Tua Tagovailoa bailing him out, either. Pro Football Focus’ game charting credited Wills with a sub 4% pressure rate across 2018 and 2019. He’s a stupidly good pass blocker.
Wills will also bury you as a run blocker, and make sure you know it. He’s the kind of tone-setter who lives for the kind of physical play that can raise the nastiness of the whole line. With the mobility to thrive on zone blocks and the sheer power to drive people out of the way on down blocks, he fits the Broncos’ hybrid run scheme perfectly.
So why didn’t he land at number one for me? Wills still needs to improve at protecting his inside, as players like Josh Uche got him feigning out and working in. He also can improve at securing the backside of run plays, closing the door to pursuit. Neither of these are trivial issues, but I have a lot of faith that Munchak could iron them out.
My bigger concern is that Wills has zero game reps at left tackle. Zero. He played on the right side in high school and served as the left-handed Tua’s blindside protector at Alabama. In an interview with Stick to Football, he mentioned a willingness to do what coaches ask of him, but also admitted to his comfort on the right side. I haven’t been able to forget that since.
The fact Denver talked with him at the Combine leads me to believe they see him as flexible enough to find a home somewhere, and I’d trust him to push Bolles, James, or find a spot at right guard early. Still, there’s a bit of an unknown there. My belief in Wirfs’ flexibility, ceiling, and floor made the difference.
3. Andrew Thomas - Georgia
Every year like clockwork, there are prospects who suffer from little more than being too good for too long. This year’s primary candidates appear to be Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, who ran a disappointing 4.45 40-yard dash (right?), and Thomas. Pay no mind to the fact that both have dominated in the SEC for the entirety of their collegiate careers on a snap-to-snap basis. If you focus the microscope, you can find flaws.
Doubters have questions about Thomas’ focus on balance. More specifically, he tends to play out over his feet too often, which causes issues with maintaining his base. He’ll also need to improve his punch in the league to do a better job wrangling opponents.
You’d never guess that with both those issues, he’s been an All American the past three years. Unlike Wirfs and Wills, he started from his first day on campus in the SEC and held up to future professional football players on a week-to-week basis, starting 41 games in all. Of the three, he easily has the longest arms with ridiculous 36 1/8” vines.
There’s a decent chance the Broncos are one of those teams cool on Thomas. After all, he is the one top-tier guy they didn’t spend any time with at the NFL Combine, so there’s a distinct possibility I’m higher on him than Elway is. If I’m wrong, he’d be a great pick at 15 and could lock down the blindside for the foreseeable future.
Tier 2 - Toolsy projects
There will be an audible groan from parts of Broncos Country if these guys are selected because they’re probably a year away from quality reps. Ignore them.
4. Josh Jones - Houston
I suspect the Cougar was a bit of an afterthought considering the Broncos didn’t formally interview him at the Combine, especially as the hype kicked off over the wide receiver class. This led to some interesting reactions when I wrote about the meeting between Jones and Munchak on the eighth.
Yes, Josh Jones is a first round talent. In a normal tackle class he’d be firmly in the top tackle conversation. Consider this: I prefer him to both Kolton Miller in 2018 and Garett Bolles in 2017. I’d have him behind Andre Dillard last year, but I was sky-high on Dillard. It speaks to how abnormal this crop is that so many fans have completely ruled out the possibility of him going at 15.
On the field, Jones shines brightest as a pass protector. He’s a natural left tackle who has played 45 games on the blind side in a shotgun spread offense. He has light feet and the fluidity in his lower half to get into his drop and redirect in order to mirror an opponent deking inside. He has the best hands of any player in this tier, plus the easy body control and balance you’d expect from a former basketball player. Houston believed in his mobility enough to ask him to pull across the formation as a run blocker.
As he reaches the league, he’ll need to get stronger and go through a technical revamp. The strength will help him anchor better, impact pass rushers more effectively, and improve his skills as a run blocker. That last one is an area where he’s merely adequate at the moment. Improving his technique is paramount to becoming more consistent on a down-to-down basis, as there are instances of him over-setting, opening up his chest, giving up the outside, or being late with his punch.
The Broncos are clearly interested, and Jones has all the tools to grow into the kind of starting left tackle you forget about. There’s a remote possibility he slips out of the first round, but chances are he’s the kind of first round pick you stash for a year and fall for in year two.
5. Austin Jackson - USC
I suspect fan reaction to the selection of Jackson will depend quite a bit on what clips they’re exposed to. If you go back and watch his worst reps against A.J. Epenesa or Bradlee Anae and stop there, you’re going to hate the pick. There are some really ugly moments.
However, if you look through the entirety of his games against both, you’ll find that Jackson is really, really toolsy. Did I say really? Because I mean it. He may have the best feet in this class and it shows in how easily he can slide back to redirect and recover inside if an opponent tries to force him to overextend. Those feet are just one of the things I couldn’t get over as I wrote my scouting report for Jackson out last week, and even I was surprised how long the positives went.
- Has length teams covet in a left tackle.
- Elite athleticism with very good foot quickness, lateral mobility, and agility.
- Good bend and fluidity shows in how easily he can adjust to mirror opponents.
- Has a short memory, doesn’t let bad plays haunt him, and adapts over game to opponent.
- Solid play strength, displayed in his punch and playside run blocking.
- When he’s playing with sound technique, he’s a good drive blocker.
- His good punches show an ability to latch on and control opponents.
- Good zone blocker when technique is on with the ability to reach and cut off at the second level.
- Very well developed ability to match and mirror opponents in pass set.
- Solid anchor, seems to have a knack for absorbing a bull and redirecting.
- Consistently quick recovery and doesn’t die easy.
- 20-years-old with a frame to add good weight.
That last point and the fact that Jackson donated bone marrow shortly before the 2019 season are two big reasons I can’t throw dirt on him over the bad reps. Jackson saved his sister’s life and got back to division 1 athletics only days later. He badly needs to get stronger and undergo something like the “Munchak NFL Tackle 101” class in order to improve his run blocking, anchor, punch, and patience in pass pro, but the tools and character are certainly present. There are far worse prospects to take a swing on.
6. Ezra Cleveland - Boise State
Let the record show that the Broncos met with Ezra Cleveland before he destroyed the athletic testing. If you watch his tape, it isn’t a surprise as that athleticism shines through. This Bronco has the kind of mobility that should let him easily come down to fill the void left by a pulling Dalton Risner or swing out and pick up Frank Clark or Maxx Crosby threatening the edge.
Truth be told, if the Broncos went with Cleveland over Austin Jackson, you wouldn’t hear too much complaint from me. Both have things to work on, but Cleveland is probably further along in his development than the Trojan is. He shows solid mental processing in how he anticipates opponents and angles. This helps him stay patient in his pass drops and rarely take the cheese on blitzes or stunts. His movement through space is developed enough that he’s become a competent positional blocker, and in time he should be an asset getting to the second level and interfering with backers.
The biggest concerns with Cleveland start with his strength. His punch needs more oomph behind it, and he could use some more sand in his pants. Right now he gives up too much ground to bull rushers and looks like an unreliable drive blocker. I suspect he’ll always be closer to adequate than elite on gap runs because he may never have the kind of mean mentality to punish an opponent.
Which brings me back to why Jackson is just a hair above him: I think his ceiling is higher in Munchak’s blocking scheme, even if Cleveland is better suited to start as a rookie.
7. Prince Tega Wanogho - Auburn
This may be a surprise to some because Tega Wanogho has had a pretty nightmarish pre-draft process. Coming off a “meh” senior season that saw him play through a September injury to his right knee, he wasn’t able to participate in the Senior Bowl or workouts at the NFL Combine as he recovered from a scope. The areas where he did participate, he came up short, measuring in with just 33 1/2” arms.
Like the other members of this tier, the Tiger’s saving grace are his athletic tools, namely his quick feet and body control. He’s in his element when operating out in space. In time, he could be a weapon as a puller and wall at the second level. Those same feet also show up in how he gets depth to protect the edge in pass protection and redirect to mirror.
What holds PTW back is something he has relatively little control over: he was late to the field after coming to the U.S. as a basketball player. In fact, he became a four star recruit after just one season of playing defensive end. He didn’t switch over to the offensive line until his redshirt season at Auburn, so it’s pretty understandable that his mental processing, hand technique, and footwork lag a bit behind his tools.
Starting 32 games at left tackle in the SEC, I like his fit for the Broncos because his work ethic, character, and tools are the kind of mix that should really shine with Munchak there to polish out the rough edges in his game. With a little luck, he’d be a draft-and-stash for a year with the idea that he’ll be able to compete for a job in year two.
Tier 3 - Intriguing fits
These are players who make sense for what the Broncos appear to have prioritized for their tackle prospects, and display starting promise on one side or the other.
8. Matt Peart - UConn
Awhile back I had a friend ask me why I take this Husky so often in my Mock Drafts. Well, there comes a point where it’s just too hard to pass him up. Even if the draft started with a left tackle, he offers the traits to grow into an eventual starter on the right side. Plus, I love huskies.
One of the things I really like about Peart is that he’s started half his career on the left side before switching over and finishing on the right. It’s not a simple projection or hope that he can serve as a swing tackle, but real tape where he’s worked both edges and shown he can hold up in pass protection. Projecting him to an offense badly in need of a swing tackle that will almost surely pass more than 60% of the time is welcome news.
Peart has a calm demeanor in how he approaches pass pro. His basketball background shines through his light feet and good mobility for such a large man. He also has 36 1/8” arms and is no slouch in how he uses them to lock out opponents. He also looks solid on combo blocks and climbing to the second level.
Munchak will still need to tighten his punch to maximize the power and refine his stance so he doesn’t come out so wide. Alongside adding some girth to his frame, that should help improve his anchor. However, his height may always work against him a bit in terms of recovery against top tier speed.
9. Ben Bartch - St. Johns
There are few scouting habits I hate more than calling a prospect a “small school” guy because it’s so vague that it’s virtually pointless. There’s a rather large difference in competition between Wyoming, Appalachian State, and Northern Michigan. That said, Ben Bartch is most definitely a “small school” prospect after coming out of division 3 St. Johns. To give a little perspective, the last time the Johnnies had an NFL prospect was months before Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate.
Forgive me if I’m a little hesitant to sip Bartch’s weight gain shake, for he does show the athletic tools and mental makeup to survive and potentially thrive on the blindside in time. Like most of the Tier 2 tackles, he could become a reliable bookend after time with an NFL strength program and work in the Munchak lab to refine his punch and feet.
What makes him a bit more scary than them is that the NFL will be the first time he’ll see many of the pass rushing moves those other players dealt with throughout their career. Just as an example: every year you see top tier NFL Edge rushing prospects come out who are scary athletes that need a lot of work developing pass rush moves. These are prospects from the blue blood programs. Now imagine how that kind of polish and athleticism starts to fall the farther down the tiers go. I did film work at a D2 school. I love our guys, but I’ve seen why they’re not playing in the NFL nowadays.
So in the end, I like Bartch. I think if he can land with a competent coaching staff and train up, he could be a really fun story out of this class. If Munchak has faith in him, I’m very optimistic. What he’s set out to do has been done before, but there’s a reason it’s the road less traveled.
10. Lucas Niang - TCU
One of the hardest parts about writing this board is figuring out how I value Niang compared to Bartch, Peart, and Tega-Wanogho. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up the best of the bunch, but even still I think I got it right. Maybe.
Niang proved his toughness in 2019 as he gritted through a labrum tear in his hip to try to beat Texas. There is little doubt the injury impacted his mobility and pass sets. Still, he displayed his comfort dropping back and using his frame to impede opponents from their goals. He’s a good pass protector and had some really impressive reps against Ohio State in his junior year. He has a good anchor and meat hooks for hands. He has the power to drive people off the ball in gap blocks and can serve as a wall on zone runs.
My biggest knock compared to some of the other prospects on this list is his viability on both sides in the NFL. Every other prospect has played snaps in college on the left side, while Niang hasn’t done so since high school. There’s definitely a chance that matters little to Elway and the Broncos coaching staff as Ja’Wuan James’ contract becomes far more easy to move in 2021, but unless they see him as a potential swing guy, I wonder where he fits in the short term. Beyond that, many of the same technical refinements I’ve said 10 times now apply to him too: he needs to continue improving his placement. His feet can get him into trouble sometimes, and he’ll get out over his skis, which hurts his ability to recover and redirect.
All told, it feels a bit harsh to drop Niang so low. He’s a good enough run blocker and has been a pretty consistent pass blocker despite relying more on natural talent than actual coaching to this point. He has promise, I just don’t know if he’s the same kind of fit for the orange and blue as the others are.
Tier 4 - The other guys
What follows are other tackles that have caught my eye and look like they could make sense for the Broncos’ hybrid gap/zone scheme, plus offer promise in pass protection.
11. Jack Driscoll - Auburn
Better production than tools, but he got his Master’s degree in five years and kept improving as he jumped from UMass to the SEC. Potential 6th OL type.
12. Hakeem Adeniji - Kansas
When in doubt, I bet on smart, super experienced athletic left tackles, and this Jayhawk played 48 games on the edge while showing the potential to serve as a 6th OL type.
13. Charlie Heck - North Carolina
Feet, body control, and length. Heck has to iron out a lot of the technical issue with his game and his height does work against him some, but there’s flashes of promise.
14. Alex Taylor - South Carolina State
6’8 with basketball background, nice feet, and 99th percentile arm length. Raw like sushi, but there’s tools to work with.
15. Colton McKivitz - West Virginia
Lacks the length and some of the ability in space I suspect Munchak wants. That said, he held up in pass pro across left and right tackle. May get pushed inside in league.
Tier ? - The rank-me-nots
Everything I’ve seen studying the Broncos since Munchak came on board combined the players they’ve shown interest in leads me to believe Denver wants a certain kind of tackle. These players tend to look like they fit in a zone blocking scheme, but also have potential as drive blockers. I suspect this is partly because Risner’s (and now Glasgow’s?) ability to pull out and lead the way is a big part of the running game, so a tackle who’s quick enough to protect the vacated space as well as hold up in an island in pass pro is valuable. I also believe Elway’s last two years suggest that character is an important part of the evaluation.
So no, I did not forget about the following players. I just don’t believe they fit what the Broncos want. If they surprise me, I’ll be happy to go back and try to identify why.
- Mekhi Becton - Louisville
- Isaiah Wilson - Georgia
- Saahdiq Charles - LSU
- Tyre Phillips - Mississippi State
- Yasir Durant - Missouri
- Trey Adams - Washington