After they showed interest in the vast majority of the left tackle class leading up to the NFL Draft, it was shocking that John Elway passed on every single one until the Undrafted Free Agent period. This could be seen as a vote of confidence in his 2017 first round pick, at least until the Broncos’ general manager said after the draft that the plan is for Elijah Wilkinson to compete with Garett Bolles for the starting job.
Most scoffed at the idea that Wilkinson will really push Bolles for playing time. After all, his PFF grade improved while his penalties went down over the final five games of the 2019 season.
The good on Garett Bolles?— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) April 30, 2020
In the last five weeks -- with Drew Lock as the QB -- he allowed one pressure every 46.8 pass-rush snaps, per PFF. That ranked 9th of the 87 OTs who played at least 50 snaps in Weeks 13-17.
So if Bolles’ production improved with Lock under center, why did the Broncos look so closely at prospects that would replace him? Why is Elijah Wilkinson supposed to push him for playing time?
Did Bolles really improve, or did Lock and the coaching staff find a way to hide 72?
Process Over Results
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 Gamepass is free for the month of May, so it would not cost you anything to do so.
First and foremost, the question I want to answer is “can the Broncos win with Garett Bolles?” This may seem obtuse. They haven’t lost every game since he was drafted, after all. What I mean by asking the question has more to do with how I try to evaluate players than the general question. Every player in the NFL is essentially broken down into four tiers:
- You win because of.
- You can win with.
- You can win in spite of.
- You can’t win with.
For most of Bolles’ career there’s been a debate about whether he fits into that second or third tier. My goal is to try and settle that.
I’m looking to evaluate Bolles’ traits. That means how he looks during a play is more important than the results of said play. Did he stonewall Khalil Mack only for Joe Flacco to run into a sack? Did he blow a block that Phillip Lindsay shook out of? Did the refs really target him, or did he get away with holds that weren’t called?
For this piece, I went back and watched six of Bolles’ games. I watched his first and last game against the Raiders because they represent both the beginning and end to his season against the same opponent. This should make it clear where progress took place. In between, I watched the Vikings, Browns, Lions, and second Chargers game. These matchups were chosen because it caught a sample of all three quarterbacks, as well as some of the better edge rushers Denver played in 2019.
It’s worth noting that I did one of my first GIF Horse studies on Garett Bolles two years ago. Since then, I like to think I’ve improved at studying film, but if you’d like to compare notes from then to now, you can do so.
Who is Garett Bolles?
Bolles is entering the 4th year of his career, having started games the Broncos have played since he was drafted 20th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. 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. For the first time in his NFL career, Bolles had the same left guard for the majority of the offensive snaps in 2019.
When the Broncos passed, Bolles utilized a mix of jump sets, 45-degree sets, and vertical sets in 2019. As the left tackle, his primary responsibility was protecting his right-handed quarterbacks’ blindside from the opposing pass rush.
What does Bolles do well?
Garett Bolles has good arm length, a solid bubble, and looks to have little bad weight on his frame. He shows good athletic ability with adequate lateral mobility. His foot speed is decent and shows in how he’s able to reset and recover back inside on his pass sets. He looks fluid in space.
Throughout Bolles’ career with the Denver Broncos, he has never played less than 98.14% of the offensive snaps in a single season. This availability means that he’s had ample time to gain experience over his professional career, and one area where it does present itself is how he recognizes stunts where he is now solid.
Bolles is solid on zone blocking assignments and takes the proper angles on combo blocks to help double teams gain movement in the ground game. He also shows a solid ability to climb off of a combo block to reach and impede opponents at the second level. Bolles’ mobility is an asset for him on gap blocks, as he has the necessary athleticism to get into space on pulls or leads and make blocks on second and third level defenders. One area where Bolles made progress from week one to week 17 is his use of hands in the ground game, as he shows a better use of placement in order to help him avoid holding calls when he’s run blocking.
When Bolles is asked to jump set or make a 45-degree set in pass protection, he looks solid. His hand timing and punch are solid on these sets and he has the necessary athleticism to get his hands onto opponents and his foot speed helps him to recover if an opponent tries to counter back inside against him. He does a solid job holding up anchoring on these pass sets when he doesn’t set his feet too wide.
Where does Bolles struggle?
At about 300 lbs, Bolles is beneath the 25th percentile for offensive tackles’ weight and his balance is moderate for the position. These two issues together present themselves in his adequate play strength, which impacts his down blocks, anchor, and push at the point of attack in the run game.
Bolles displays marginal competitive toughness, as he is simply an adventure from down to down. He’s far too inconsistent, especially in vertical passing sets. These issues seem to leak into his mental processing, leading him to respond to the snap late or lock onto his pre-snap assignment in situations where he needs to adjust to defensive games or blitzes happening in front of him. For these reasons, his mental processing is adequate, as he is below average against the speed of the NFL post-snap.
When blocking on gap runs, Bolles is adequate and his lack of play strength presents itself in how ineffective he is at driving an opponent when tasked with one-on-one blocks. He’s adequate as a backside fill player and will occasionally miss filling for a pulling guard because he’s late off the snap. His use of hands is adequate in the run game, and over the course of the season it appears Munchak may have coached him to be overly cautious in this regard, so there are instances where he won’t bring his hands up at all for fear of drawing a flag.
On vertical pass sets, Bolles is marginal at best. He turns too quickly at the snap, which compromises the pocket and puts him into situations where speed to power can overwhelm him. He’s also at the mercy of edge rushers who can beat him to the edge and display the ankle flexion to bend the arc. His hands in pass protection are also marginal, most notably on vertical sets. He’s late to get his hands up and too often gives up his chest or the outside and then tries to recover, which leads to the kind of plays where he draws penalties.
First play: 3rd & 6 with 45 seconds before the half in week 17.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 1, 2020
Second play: 3rd &12 w/ 6:56 left in the third in week 2.
One of these plays was flagged. Can you guess which #Broncos' Country? pic.twitter.com/8rLFvkJSuP
What does it mean?
There has been a prevalent narrative that Garett Bolles improved once Drew Lock became the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and it’s false. The rookie quarterback’s mobility and the coaching staff’s attempts to avoid vertical passing sets led to better results for the embattled left tackle, but all of his issues remain.
Looking at Pat Shurmur’s play calling with the New York Giants does hint that there are ways the Broncos can use Bolles’ mobility to help the ground game, such as pin and pull sweeps and counters. There are areas where you can win with Bolles, most notably as a combo blocker and on shorter pass sets, but he is a liability on true passing downs, which is a crippling problem for a left tackle.
It does not surprise me that John Elway and the Broncos did not pick up Garett Bolles’ fifth year option because he is not a player that a playoff contender should want starting for them. Mike Munchak will continue to provide hope for many in Broncos’ Country that Bolles can somehow figure it out in the fourth year of his career, but it is far more realistic to expect the coaching staff and front office to secure a better blindside protector as soon as it’s possible to do so.