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How do the Broncos survive Ja’Wuan James opting out?

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It’s easier than it sounds. The Denver Broncos offensive line was thin at best and losing Ja’Wuan James in 2020 to opt out is going to be difficult to overcome.

Three days ago, the Broncos’ offense looked like one of the more exciting unknown sides of the ball in the entire NFL. They had a second year quarterback who flashed promise, receivers most of the league is high on, and both Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon to help ice leads.

While the skill position talent is mostly unproven, the biggest question facing the Broncos was the status of their tackle situation. Outside of the devout Pro Football Focus believers, most were surprised John Elway chose to forgo addressing the left tackle situation in a loaded 2020 NFL Draft. Even those who believed in Bolles saw his expiring contract as well as Ja’Wuan James’ health questions and knew tackle was a big unknown in the long term.

The Broncos’ starting right tackle had every right to prioritize the health of his family over playing in 2020. While some want to bemoan him over this decision, you can’t replace family.

The fact that James played all of 65 snaps in 2019 means Mike Munchak and the rest of the Broncos’ coaching staff know what life without their right tackle feels like. Last year, it was mostly Elijah Wilkinson. This year looks like it will be the same.

It will be okay.
Elijah Wilkinson is likely the best option Denver has at right tackle in 2020.

How does Elijah Wilkinson win?

After the NFL Draft Elway announced Elijah Wilkinson would compete with Garett Bolles for the starting left tackle job, I dove into Wilkinson’s 2019.

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.

Elway helped him this off-season.

The final games Wilkinson played in 2019 saw him lining up beside Austin Schlottmann, who may not make it out of camp this year. Moving from Ron Leary to Graham Glasgow is going to be an immediate upgrade at the right guard spot. First and foremost, his ability to pull and block in space will give a boost to the running game, leading to less third and longs. Glasgow should also better protect Elijah Wilkinson’s inside against speed to power and counter moves in 2019, so when those passing downs happen, it will be a little harder to abuse his lack of foot speed.

Graham Glasgow will make Elijah Wilkinson’s job easier.

How can the Broncos best play around him in 2020?

While every offense wants to control the ball and avoid third and long situations, in reality both sides get paid. Third and longs will happen. These situations often call for the quarterback to hang in the pocket longer to provide time for his receivers to get open on deeper routes, which means more stress on tackles. While Elijah Wilkinson’s footwork is quite good, his lack of foot speed often creates issues for him in these situations because he’s so outclassed athletically.

Wide rushers with give Wilkinson trouble.
Players like Preston Smith can fly by Wilkinson when given space to operate.

The Broncos’ new offensive coordinator spent the last three years calling plays with Mike Remmers and Ereck Flowers starting at right tackle, so it’s not as if he’s new to bad match-ups on passing downs. One way Pat Shurmur can help his new right tackle is through his alignment of personnel. Bunched formations or a tight end often widen the alignment of an opposing end and create additional space between him and the quarterback.

Shurmur knows how to protect his tackles against bad matchups.
Having a tight end helping on a rusher such as Mack is well worth it.

Above you’ll see the Giants are facing 3rd and 8, which gives Khalil Mack an opportunity to pin his ears back against a backup right tackle and rush Eli Manning. To give Chad Wheeler a chance, Shurmur aligns Rhett Ellison alongside him, which gives Mack a wider arc to make it to the quarterback. On the snap, Ellison lunges out and meets Mack before he releases into his route. By the time Wheeler has come into contact with the All Pro Edge rusher, Manning has stepped up into the pocket. Easy completion and a first down.

Asking a back to stay in and block is another way Shurmur can help Wilkinson when the Broncos need extra time in the pocket. This is also one area where Melvin Gordon should represent a major upgrade over the 2019 backfield.

Keeping a back in to help pick up extra rushers should give the QB time on plays that demand time.

Here the Giants are facing 3rd and 10 down, 35 to 14 in the fourth quarter. It’s about as obvious of a passing situation as there is, and Bill Belichick threatens an all-out blitz against rookie Daniel Jones. Shurmur keeps Saquon Barkley in to block and the line fans to pick up the extra pass rushers. Even after botching the snap, Jones has a clean pocket to pass from.

If these two ideas seem obvious, that’s because they are.

Summary

As Jeff Essary and I discussed on Cover 2 Broncos, the Broncos are at a point in the preseason where any potential acquisition comes with significant questions. Veterans who remain on the free agent market will need to clear COVID-19 tests before they can step foot into the Broncos’ facilities, so time to pick up the offense is going to be tough to come by. While Calvin Anderson is an intriguing option I’m hoping to see more of after time to learn under Mike Munchak, both Jake Rodgers and Quinn Bailey saw game action ahead of him last year.

Wilkinson isn’t the perfect replacement, but odds are he’s the best Denver has in 2020. The good news is Pat Shurmur and the infusion of talent to the offense should take some of the burden off him.

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