Last week, Pro Football Focus released a list of each NFL team’s most underrated player. Surprisingly to most in Broncos Country, Garett Bolles made the list as Denver’s most underrated player.
We covered the piece here at Mile High Report when it came out, and it led to some robust debate. As a refresher, he is what Ben Linsey, of Pro Football Focus wrote:
“Quick, what’s the word that comes to mind first when you hear Bolles’ name? Penalties? Bust? While it’s fair to harp on the penalties for Bolles after he ranked among the top-three offensive linemen across the league in penalties in each of the past three seasons, the negativity surrounding Bolles has gone too far. It’s hard to say he qualifies as a bust. Looking at qualifying left tackles since 2017, Bolles’ overall grade of 77.1 puts him at 15th out of 37 total players. Sure, that’s not the high-end player Denver was hoping for when it took him in the first round, but Bolles is still at least an average starter — not the bottom-of-the-barrel option he is sometimes portrayed to be.”
Now, if you have followed myself or Joe Rowles writing, podcasting, or Twittering, you know we have some decently strong opinions of Garett Bolles, born out of a lot of study of his game this past offseason. So whenever we see something that surprises us a bit, based on what we’ve seen on tape, our ears perk up a bit and we get curious.
Fortunately for us, PFF writer, Ben Linsey was super gracious and agreed to come on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos and sit down with Joe and I to discuss it.
Process over results
I swear we didn’t put him up to this, but one of the first things that Ben mentioned when he came onto the show was that one of the key criticisms they get at PFF is that they don’t watch the tape, which he stated isn’t true at all - “that’s all we do,” he said, at least as it relates to how they formulate their grades.
Linsey said their goal with their grades is to really look at process over results. Which was music to mine and Joe’s ears. He went on to describe the PFF grading process, which was great to hear first hand about something that often feels like a black box.
While he acknowledged that it isn’t perfect (no one metric or methodology is), Ben walked us through the overarching goal with grades, is to assess whether a particular player did their job on a given play or not. Based on how well or not so well they did their job, their assigned a grade, anywhere from -2 through +2, in half point increments.
This led to some interesting discussion as we talked through how to reconcile what we were seeing on tape, and what PFF was seeing when they have graded Bolles as about an average-ish left tackle over the last year.
Here’s a nugget we stumbled on as we talked through it, and just goes to show the value of sitting down and talking football with people, I always learn something.
The primary distinction, or disconnect, that we discovered is while both of us are attempting to parse out the process vs just the result or measurable stat, where we focused on the technique used and less on how Bolles actually did on the play, PFF leaned more towards ‘did he do his job’, regardless of how it looked or if he used proper technique.
Linsey said essentially, “even if it’s ugly” as long as the player did their job (protected the QB, walled off their block in the run game) that’s a positive in PFF’s grading system.
Which makes sense, especially for Bolles. He is athletic enough at times to recover when he’s initially beat due to bad technique, and still potentially get a piece of the blocker, leading to his job being done. However, his continuing to do that job with repeated poor technique is what leads to the inconsistency - sometimes it bites him and sometimes it doesn’t.
So, PFF isn’t necessarily dinging him for bad hand placement and opening up his hips too early, as long as he can chase his guy past the QB after he’s beat, and my analysis wasn’t setup to give him credit for still doing his job, even if it was ugly, as I was looking at repeatability and specific improvements in technique.
Two sides of the same coin, both looking at the same tape, attempting to answer a similar overarching question, with different approaches. Who would’ve thought that was possible ;)
Beggars can’t be choosers
Another thing I learned from Linsey is that Denver fans (myself included for sure) at times can get myopic on just watching their players year after year, and not have as much context or a reference point for what “league average” really looks like.
I joked on the podcast that Broncos Country definitely suffers from this when it comes to QBs. All Denver has known for literally a decade now is either Hall of Fame level QB play, or bottom 5 QB play, no in between.
I think a similar thing potentially has happened at left tackle. Linsey watches a lot of different teams and players and said on the podcast that “there are just a lot of bad tackles in the NFL right now.” So while Bolles is far from the ideal player, and Denver could certainly upgrade the position, being “league average” is probably just as much an indictment on the state of the left tackle position across the league as it is an endorsement of Bolles, perse’.
All in all, it was a really fun conversation, and we were grateful to have the opportunity to chat with Ben Linsey and peek behind the current a little at Pro Football Focus’ process. Ya’ll be sure to check out Linsey’s work on PFF.com, follow him on the Twitters, and check out the full podcast interview on Cover 2 Broncos.
Oh, and he thinks Denver’s offensive line was one of the most improved units in the NFL this offseason.