Since the NFL Draft there may not be a position on the Denver Broncos with more questions hanging over it than left tackle. John Elway and the coaching staff made it clear that they were not satisfied with Garett Bolles’ 2019 performance.
Leading up to the draft they spoke with Tristan Wirfs, Jedrick Wills, Josh Jones, Ezra Cleveland, and Austin Jackson. While they passed on taking a tackle, Elway made it clear in his post-draft press conference that tackle was a position that simply had to improve in 2020. He followed that up by confirming what KOA’s Benjamin Allbright mentioned in April: Elijah Wilkinson would compete for a starting job. To put an emphasis on their dissatisfaction with their former first round pick, the Broncos declined Bolles’ fifth-year option that was only guaranteed for injury.
With all of that hanging over Bolles, I spent last week his investigating 2019. I wanted to separate the talk about PFF grades from the film and figure out if the Broncos could win with Garett Bolles over the long term or if he’s simply a mistake they have to endure until a better alternative emerges.
To be clear, I saw nothing to suggest Drew Lock starting games down the stretch suddenly turned Bolles into a different player. His vertical sets looked as worrisome in week 17 as they did in week 1, and while working to avoid dropback passing can mitigate some of the damage it’s worth wondering if the Broncos can turn elsewhere.
Which brings me to Elijah Wilkinson.
Process Over Results
As I said last week, my hope with this tape evaluation is to be as transparent as possible. If you disagree with what I discover, I hope you can at least see that I put forth an honest effort and laid out the framework for you to do your own digging into the Broncos’ left tackle. NFL Game Pass is free for the month of May, so it would not cost you anything to do so.
I’m looking to evaluate Wilkinson’s traits. That means how he looks during a play is more important than the results of said play. Did he hold up to Danielle Hunter only for Brandon Allen to run into trouble, or did he blow a block that Phillip Lindsay shook out of? Did he get away with an uncalled hold with crappy technique?
The reason this is important for evaluation is because I’m not necessarily looking to tell you what he did last year. You have eyes. You can go back and see how the Broncos’ line performed. Instead, my hope is that by highlighting the things I see it’s easier to understand how I can project him forward into 2020 and beyond.
For this study, I went back and watched six of Wilkinson’s games. I watched his first start against the Bears because it gave him a week of practice to prepare rather than coming in for an injury. After that I watched his second games against the Chiefs and Chargers as well as the matchups against the Vikings, Packers, and Lions. Most of these were decided upon to get an idea for how he held up to different types of pass rushers, but I also wanted to get a sample of his play under all three quarterbacks and over the entire course of the season.
Who is Elijah Wilkinson?
Wilkinson is entering the 4th year of his career after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2017. After spending September and part of October on the practice squad his rookie year, he was signed to the active roster and has remained ever since.
He has started seven games at right guard and 12 games at right tackle in his career. In 2019 he played 835 snaps at right tackle before finishing the season inactive due to an ankle injury. 2020 will be his second year under Vic Fangio and learning under offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Pat Shurmur will be his fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Last year’s blocking scheme under Munchak was a hybrid zone/gap scheme. In the previous years under Bill Musgrave and Rick Dennison, there was more emphasis on zone runs than 2019. When the Broncos passed, Wilkinson utilized a mix of jump sets, 45-degree sets, and vertical sets in 2019.
What does Wilkinson do well?
Weighing in at 328 lbs makes Wilkinson the heaviest tackle on the Broncos’ roster and puts hims above the 75th percentile for weight at tackle. With 34” arms, Wilkinson possesses solid arm length and there is noticeable bulk in his arms and lower body. He displays solid competitive toughness with his consistent technique and short memory from down to down. He shows solid mental processing with alert eyes and the aptitude to move to pick up late stunts and blitzers who aren’t in his immediate vicinity. He’s the kind of blocker who looks for work outside of his initial responsibility.
Wilkinson gets movement on double teams whether it be on gap or zone blocks and he shows both the eyes and feel to stay alert and climb off of a double to get to the second level. He’s at the point of attack when asked to down block or stick with an assignment in close quarters, and he doesn’t let his feet die on first contact. When he gets his hands inside the frame of his opponent he does a solid job of latching on to maintain control.
In pass protection you can see Wilkinson’s technical growth. His kick slide on vertical sets is good and how he times up his hands and feet on jump sets and 45-degree sets are solid. When facing off against speed rushers he works to push the edge past the pocket if beaten to his landmark.
More than once I noticed how Wilkinson’s play improves when he has a tight end beside him. On outside zone it helps him to reach his assignment along the line off a tight ends block, and if a player like Noah Fant or Jeff Heuerman chip the edge in pass protection it provides him time to get a step towards his pass set.
Where does Wilkinson struggle?
First and foremost, Wilkinson is a marginal athlete for a tackle with marginal foot quickness, lateral mobility, and explosiveness. He also displays adequate balance and will get over his skis a bit when trying to make plays in space. He also displays adequate play strength throughout his game, which impacts his ability to move defenders in the run game, deliver a punch in pass protection, or hold up to a bull-rush.
Wilkinson is an adequate zone blocker who lacks the fluidity to get to and stick with his assignments on plays like outside zone or consistently stick to an opponent on the second level. He’s an adequate gap blocker who’s far likelier to stalemate or than drive an opponent at the point of attack when tasked with a one on one. His hands are adequate and too often fail to grasp onto an assignment within their frame, which compromises his ability to steer and control.
In pass protection, Wilkinson is adequate. His biggest issues stem from his lack of athleticism and there’s instances where his lack of foot speed simply gives him no chance against rushers teeing off on the quarterback. He also displays adequate pad level and will get caught too high with marginal hand placement, which leaves him susceptible to bull rushers. These issues lead me to believe his anchor is adequate because when he’s too tall he will wind up in the pocket.
What does it mean?
During training camp last year there was some talk about how Bolles’ issues meant the Broncos should bench him for Elijah Wilkinson. At the time I mentioned how that should be a last resort because the latter offers nothing resembling the potential upside. That remains as true today as then.
I believe Wilkinson would be best suited to slide inside and serve as a guard or settle in as a sixth lineman and swing tackle. Barring significant growth with his hands, it’s hard to imagine him getting better against speed. Watching his matchup against Danielle Hunter of the Vikings was painful because he was so badly outclasses that Brandon Allen had little to no chance on multiple plays. The combination of issues with both his hands and feet also cropped up against Frank Clark of the Chiefs in the second Kansas City game and left him particularly helpless against the edge rusher’s ghost technique.
One thing I really like about Wilk is how you can see how he’s taken to coaching since joining the Broncos. I do hope Elway can find a reasonable number and extend him going forward because his versatility and strengths make him a valuable depth piece. That said, if he’s starting at left tackle in 2020 I suspect it says more about Garett Bolles’ failures than Elijah Wilkinson’s growth.
Who should the Broncos start at left tackle in 2020?
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