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Film Study: Did Garett Bolles improve in 2019?

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Digging into the tape to see if Broncos tackle, Garett Bolles was able to make any positive strides throughout the season.

The NFL deadline for teams to exercise the 5th year options on their 2017 first rounders has passed and the Denver Broncos have declined the fifth-year contract option on Garett Bolles. This means that Bolles is heading into a contract year, and what could be his final year as a Bronco.

There has been a lot of talk about Bolles recently due to this news and also due to Denver not taking a left tackle prospect in this year’s draft, essentially ensuring Bolles will start the 2020 season as Denver’s left tackle (Assuming Wilkinson doesn’t take the job in camp).

A common thread I have seen as it relates to a lot of the chatter around Bolles is that while he has struggled for most of his Broncos career, he began to improve around the latter portion the season, particularly when Drew Lock became the starting quarterback.

The three main pieces of evidence I typically see cited in regards to this are 1) PFF grade 2) lack of penalties 3) lack of sacks on Drew Lock.

I honestly hadn’t yet done a deep dive on Bolles’ film from 2019 yet, so after the draft I wanted to dig in myself and see what I could find, and see if Bolles looked as much improved on tape as the above numbers suggest.

Outcomes vs. Process

It is especially important to parse these two variables out in any evaluation we do, whether that’s drafting, front office decision-making, quarterback play, and especially offensive tackle play.

The reason this is important is outcomes are not necessarily repeatable and can be attributed to a variety of factors, often giving a false positive or false negative. Process, however, is repeatable and over time will lead to desired outcomes. It is the more long-term sustainable goal.

Take for example, Von Miller. If you only evaluated based on results you may see a low sack total or even pressure total for a game or season and conclude that he wasn’t very effective, or something was wrong. However, upon reviewing his process on tape, you’ll find he still looks very much like the same player he has always been. When you have a solid process, you can trust that the results will follow.

On the flip-side, when you have a flawed process you can also trust the results of that will eventually follow. A prime example of this is Trevor Siemian. I recall digging into the tape in 2016 and being appalled at how poorly he was processing the field and how he was just not doing things that an NFL QB needed to do from a process standpoint, but his results still weren’t too bad and he had decent stats for a little bit. That process eventually caught up to him and we all saw it unfold as he began tossing footballs to the other team.

I bring this up because this is a big piece of how I try to approach evaluating players, coaches, and even John Elway. You’ll hear me, Joe Rowles, and also Joe Mahoney talk this at length, especially when it comes to Garett Bolles, as it was a key piece of the conversation on our recent Cover 2 Broncos episode and our dialogue around Bolles over the last week.

Outcomes

Let’s start with the PFF grade. I don’t claim to be an expert in their grading system, and Pro Football Focus puts out a ton of great info and content which I appreciate, enjoy, and will cite when it fits my argument (kidding.....kind of....you know you do it too).

So I’m not going to spend time arguing with their grade other than saying this: from what I have seen from PFF grades, they are much more focused on grading outcomes, not process, i.e. ‘did player X let player Y by him for a sack/pressure/hit?’

Additionally, sacks and penalties are also outcomes. Now, I’m not dismissing using outcomes as a measurement. After all, wins are the ultimate outcome. But if you don’t dig into what caused the outcome, or lack of an outcome, it’s hard to know if that is repeatable or not.

The fact is Bolles did reduce his penalty count over the last few games of the season. He was only flagged three times, once for holding, and the other two were pretty garbage calls against him, in my opinion that shouldn’t have been called. Additionally, Drew Lock was only sacked five times in his five starts, which is an improvement from when Joe Flacco/Brandon Allen were starting at QB.

Purely looking at outcome, it would appear that Bolles showed some improvement, particularly in the latter part of the season.

So I dug into the tape to see what was going on.

Process

When I dug into the film, I attempted to look solely at Garett Bolles’ process and find improvements there, regardless of outcome.

The first piece I wanted to understand was why/how Bolles was giving up sacks, and also why he was primarily being called for holding. Here is what I found.

This will look very familiar to Broncos Country. This is a clip from 2017, Bolles’ rookie year and epitomizes some of the issues he has had, particularly in pass protection.

The two biggest callouts here to notice are hips and hands. First, you’ll notice that by just his 2nd step, his hips are nearly perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. He has turned nearly 90 degrees since the snap, which gives any rusher who wants to bend around the edge to flatten to the quarterback a much easier time.

Additionally, by turning so quickly into his set, Bolles essentially shortens the pocket for the QB. If the defender flattens and runs around Bolles, he has a much more direct route to the QB than if Bolles continued to set deeper and then turned, at least giving the rusher more of an obstacle to get through around the edge.

Second are his hands. You’ll notice here they are nearly at his knees. For offensive linemen, you always want their hands up, and ready to punch. Lastly on his hands, when Bolles does engage, his arms are typically outside the defender’s frame, which in this case leads to the defender being hooked and Bolles being flagged.

So it’s not just enough to say “he needs to stop holding”. We have to dissect his technique to understand why he is being called for holding, or the steps that lead to him resorting to holding on these pass plays.

Joe Mahoney had a great find in this clip from Bolles’ time at Utah. Here you’ll see each of the pieces I spoke to, Hips nearly 90 degrees from the line of scrimmage, and hands outside the frame of the defender.

Regardless of outcome, even if the quarterback throws a touchdown pass, this is bad technique and bad process from Bolles.

Reinforcement

For clarity, my goal is not to pile on Garett, or disparage him in any way. I do my best to root for any player who dons the Orange and Blue, and Bolles is no different. My hope has always been that he would be a great player, and I’ll still hope to that end this upcoming season.

However, I think it’s necessary to establish a baseline of what are the flaws that continually show up technique-wise, so we can have a better understanding of what a player brings.

With that, I’m always trying to learn from others smarter than me (which doesn’t take much!). There are a few voices in the offensive line evaluation community I trust, so I dove into what they had to say about Bolles technique as well.

This is a video from Duke Manyweather, who runs an offensive line clinic that routinely coaches some of the top offensive line prospects coming out of the draft, and is also responsible for creating the OL Masterminds event with Eagles tackle, Lane Johnson (which is essentially the Von Miller Pass Rush Summit for offensive linemen), Manyweather breaks down some of Bolles’ plays from his time at Utah.

In the above breakdown, which is when Bolles was a draft prospect, you’ll hear Manyweather call out Bolles’ hips.

“You can see the edge rusher is able to turn the corner very easily because Bolles opens hips. On Sundays, this pass rush is going to hit home in the NFL.”

The other thing he mentions right at the end of the video are how Bolles’ hands land outside the defender.

A couple other guys whose opinions I trust are Brandon Thorn and Matt McChesney and they both call out the hips and hands issues in pass protection. This clip was from the 2019 preseason.

Lastly, Paul Alexander is a former NFL offensive line coach who coached for 20+ years with the Cincinnati Bengals and now has a Twitter presence breaking down offensive line clips.

So I think we have a pretty decent quorum of folks that have diagnosed the primary issues. Now, these aren’t the only opportunities, and we haven’t even gotten into run blocking, or anything else, but this is where we’ll focus as this is Bolles’ primary weakness, and the one that is responsible for the majority of the holding calls.

To be clear, cleaning up the holding calls is not necessarily the only thing we’re after. If we just wanted the holding calls to go away, then we’d be fine with the latter part of 2019 and move on. What we’re interested in is Bolles actually becoming a better player and improving the systemic issues that eventually lead to all the holding calls.

2017

So let’s get to it. I dove into all three years of Garett’s career, and while this is far from a comprehensive review of his career thus far, I attempted to see if I could find improvement in these problem areas.

Here is the clip we talked about above, as well as another one from the 2017 season. This one will draw a flag for the extra tug at the end of the rep, but the rest of the play is very similar to the one above.

2018

We knew Bolles struggled his rookie year. What about 2018?

This one I actually don’t mind the hips as much since it looks like it’s a quick 3-step drop jump set, but the hands are still outside the frame and hooking the defender.

There’s a lot going on here, but it just shows how difficult opening your hips up that wide at the snap becomes to recover if the defender counters inside.

This is one I liked from Bolles. He does a better job staying square and maintaining half-man and manages to get his hands more inside the defenders frame, generating some power and control.

This is a good time to stop and insert one of my favorite tackles to watch, Tyron Smith, to showcase what you’re looking for a tackle to do against a wide rusher off the edge.

The first thing to notice is how smooth Smith’s kick slide is. Joe Mahoney does a nice job breaking this down on our Cover 2 Broncos episode. The other piece I really like is Tyron’s left hand. I think Smith’s hands may be some of the strongest, and best in the NFL. Look how the strong left hand pushes the rusher off his path, and Smith is right there with him guiding him past the QB.

Now, I recognize that anyone looks bad after playing a clip of Tyron Smith, but notice the difference particularly in Bolles’ left hand. It wraps around the defenders frame and is completely ineffective at generating any kind of movement or force besides pulling.

This is another one that shows how difficult opening up the hips too early is for generating any kind of power. When you’re turned at that angle to the defender, and he’s cornering past you, there isn’t much left to do besides grab ahold of him at that point.

What’s interesting about Bolles is that when you watch him, it’s clear he’s athletically gifted. Watching him next to Elijah Wilkinson is like night and day from an athletic standpoint. Bolles has the ability to recover quickly when beat, which helps mitigate some of the damage, but you’d like to see him utilize that athletic ability in conjuction with proper technique.

Another tackle I like to watch is Mitchell Schwartz, because he is definitely not the most athletic guy out there, but he’s a technician and is (as Joe Rowles puts it) boringly consistent. He’s certainly not winning an athletic contest with Von Miller, but he’s able to make Von’s arc wide enough that Mahomes has an easy lane to step up into.

Here’s another good one from Mitchell recovering when he’s initially beaten. Bolles definitely has the athleticism and hustle to recover like this. The issue comes in his punch, as I rarely see him land a solid punch to knock a rusher off his path.

2019

All this leads us to this past season, 2019. Mike Munchak was hired in January of 2019 with the task of not only helping the entire line, but particularly Garett Bolles, reach his full potential.

This is not a reflection of Munchak’s coaching ability in my mind, but 2019 started out with more of the same.

Right away, Bolles not only struggled with holding penalties, but it was the same issues that have plagued him his entire career that were the culprit.

The Bears game got a lot of attention because of the four holding penalties in the game, but really the issues started on the first drive, well before the flags started flying.

If you’re looking at just the stat sheet, this actually goes down as a win for the offense.

Now, I get that blocking Kalil Mack is no easy task, especially in Week 2, but take a look at the difference in approach by Elijah Wilkinson at right tackle, here. He quickly gets a nice first step in his set, stays square and is able to keep a stable base and deliver a nice punch that stops Mack’s rush.

Contrast this with Bolles on the other side who could very well have been called for another holding here. Again, on the stat sheet, this goes down as a win for the offense, as Flacco got the pass out, but it demonstrates a failure of technique and process by #72.

Fast forward a couple games, and against another tough rusher, it’s more of the same. This time Wilkinson is beat as well, even though he has a nice pass set, as he is just not athletic enough to recover from his punch being countered like it was here.

Now I did see a rep I liked better from Bolles in this game.

This one he demonstrates a really nice ability to reset his feet, and shows what can happen when he’s able to get his hands inside the rushers frame. That left hand set all of this up. With that established, he was able to leverage and reset his base, then land both hands inside to stand the rusher up.

It’s plays like this that show the potential of Bolles if he is able to put together even one of the pieces he’s currently missing. This rep reminds me of one from David Bakhtiari.

Bakhtiari is a good example of what Bolles should aspire towards as he’s not the most powerful guy, but wins with quickness and superior positioning. Here he is able to make up for missteps and quickly reset. His hands even go dangerously into Bolles territory for a second, but then he’s able to reset his base and recover.

Moving on through the season, the Vikings and Browns games were rough outings due to the level of competition faced.

Again, I’m not expecting perfection against very good rushers, but I didn’t see any difference in approach than we had seen for the majority of the season.

Now we get to the Drew Lock portion of the year. The five games where Bolles had reportedly improved. I say that a bit skeptically as I write this since I now know the conclusion, but I really went into this study not knowing what to expect, since I hadn’t studied Bolles’ 2019 a lot up until this project.

I think this clip from Joe Rowles about sums up what I found over the final five games.

From a process standpoint, nothing changed with Garett Bolles. He didn’t magically become a better player, or change anything significantly about his technique. The numbers, I suspect, are a combination of playing with a more mobile quarterback, and a QB who showed better prowess at the quick passing game than the previous two.

To be clear, Drew Lock did not make Garett Bolles a better player or in any way change what Bolles was doing, he just made his job a little easier. Which is something, I guess, but it doesn’t really help our conversation regarding the 4th year left tackle.

I’ll quickly go through as many examples as I can.

Hips still turning, hands still outside the rusher’s frame, and the patented hooking technique is still alive and well.

The fact that the two above plays (among others) weren’t called and/or didn’t result in a sack seem to have given Broncos Country a false positive on Garett Bolles’ development.

Wrap up

In summary, what I saw in 2019, was more of the same. Were there flashes of potential? Here and there, yes. Does this mean that Bolles cannot improve this upcoming season? Not necessarily. I hope he proves me and the rest of Broncos Country wrong, shows up and balls out in 2020.

However, let’s be clear: as of right now, from what I have seen, Denver still has the same Garett Bolles they have always had. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any significant improvements in his approach or technique that suggests something began to click in his game this year that hasn’t in the past. I think he got lucky, and the offense (particularly quarterback) improved at hiding him in the latter part of the season.

Can Pat Shurmur and Drew Lock do that again in 2020? I hope so. Because unless Bolles shows something this upcoming year that I haven’t seen in three years of tape, they’re going to have to.