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Risner taking mental reps; ready for any O-line position if necessary

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It’s always ‘next man up,’ and the second-year guard is preparing to do whatever necessary to lead the team back into contention.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Good morning, Broncos Country!

There’s been a lot of talk - and a lot of worry - about the tackle position on the Broncos’ offensive line this week after Ja’Wuan James opted out due to Covid-19 concerns.

That decision left the right tackle position to Elijah Wilkinson, the man who filled in for James much of last season.

And while the concern over the loss is valid - particularly considering Wilkinson was going to be competition for Garett Bolles at left tackle - it doesn’t have to mean that the O-line still won’t be an improvement over last year.

With Dalton Risner coming in as a second-year starter to join veteran Graham Glasgow to guard the line on either side of rookie Lloyd Cushenberry III, there is still room for optimism.

Granted, this is “optimistic season” in the NFL, where nothing has really happened and everything is just speculation about winning championships.

But Risner more than proved himself last season, and as the veteran standout of the group, his view of the line’s potential has some weight.

In fact, Risner was hoping he’d get to talk about the offensive line during Thursday’s zoom conference with the media.

“Man, I was waiting for someone to ask about the O-line. I appreciate it,” he said.

Mostly Risner couldn’t wait to talk about two of his new teammates on the line - Glasgow and Cushenberry:

Graham Glasgow is awesome. He’s a character. I’m going to learn so much from Graham in terms of leadership. He’s already mentoring me in terms of how to handle myself in the offseason with workouts, stretching and massaging. ...He’s really smart, and he’s really calm and collected. He’s not going to show a lot of emotion. He’s always going to be rocking the mustache and he’s not going to be too high or too low. He’s going to be a great mediator for the group and he’s going to be a great leader. ...That dude is going to be a very consistent player on the football field and just with who he is. I think that’s awesome.

“Lloyd Cushenberry has been extremely impressive. You can tell that he knows his stuff. I wanted to think that I came in and I had it down really, really quick, but that guy has it down really quick. He’s getting it, and he’s making sure we’ve got some snacks in the O-line room. He’s had some dip for me as well, so I really appreciate him for that (laughs). He’s doing a heck of a job and he’s got a lot of talent.”

There are still obstacles, no doubt. Not the least of which is gaining solid chemistry among the linemen to ensure good communication up and down the line.

But Risner - who believes he showed some leadership last year as a rookie - wants the challenge of being a leader for the entire line and entire team this season.

The main “leadership role” for rookies is basically to “work his ass off day in and day out” and gain respect of the veterans.

“That’s what I did all last year. I probably didn’t provide as much leadership as I wanted to,” Risner said. “This year, a huge goal of mine is I want to become that leader. I feel like I paid my dues last year and I did the rookie duties that I was required to do. I worked my ass off day in and day out, and I played all 16 games of the season. This year, I want to be able to be a voice on the offense, and not just the offensive line. ...I just want my voice to be heard this year, and I want to be able to lead when times are tough and when things are down. When we are losing, I want to be able to be that voice that uplifts my team through the good and the bad.”

The first question from much of Broncos Country might be whether Risner is prepared to step in at right tackle if necessary.

Risner’s answer would be “yes.”

But not because he thinks he can/should compete for it over Wilkinson but because offensive line coach Mike Munchak expects all the linemen to know the job of the different positions and be ready to step in if necessary.

“It’s next man up in the NFL,” Risner acknowledged. “I know Coach Munchak expects me to be able to hop in at center at any point, hop in at tackle at any point, and there’s multiple guys that play different positions across the O-line.”

So, yes, Risner is even studying the center position just in case. And when he tells you how smart Cushenberry is, it’s because he understands a lot of the mental side of the game necessary for that position.

“When it comes to center, that’s a whole mental side of football,” Risner said, pointing out that the center has to call out the “Mike” linebacker and know the direction of the play. “That takes a lot more mental capacity. ...You start the play, then the guards listen to you and pass it down to the tackles. Whenever I’m in meetings and whenever I’m out there on the field, I make sure that I’m watching.”

Risner does “mental reps” on the sideline as the center, finding the Mike and figuring out where the play is going.

“That’s a huge part of my everyday process. That’s a part of my studying when I’m in the film room and getting snaps,” he said.

But the second-year guard is also studying the tackle position because he never knows if Munchak will need him elsewhere.

“I play right next to Garett Bolles. I can play that position, and I’m sure he can play guard because we communicate over and over again about what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to double team,” he said. “For a tackle, you’ve got to learn that it’s kick sliding. ...It’s a completely different type and style of play. ...Obviously, that will tone up if Munchak ever comes to me and says, ‘Dalton, I need you to start working at tackle. There’s a good chance you go there. Dalton, I need you to go to center because you might be going there.’ I would definitely tone it up and do more, but I try to stay up-to-date with both positions.”

As for Risner’s tackle partner on the left side, the guard praised Bolles’ work ethic and highlighted his improved play at the end of the season. But he noted the X-factor for Bolles will be the o-line coach.

“I think Garett has worked extremely hard. Him playing better at the end of the season is a testament to his hard work,” Risner said. “I think something that people need to remember is Mike Munchak. ...I truly believe with the way Coach Munchak coaches, it’s perfect for Garrett. He’s going to call Garett out when he needs to be called out, he’s going to uplift Garrett when he needs uplifting and he’s going to teach Garett. ...You will probably see a whole new Garett Bolles this year. A lot more of what you saw the last five games of the season.”

As Jeffrey Essary has pointed out, the Bolles we saw at the end of the season isn’t necessarily what the team needs. But a Mike Munchak-improved Bolles is.

Basically Risner is committing to doing whatever he has to to make the team better because he’s excited about Drew Lock’s second year, excited about the new weapons, excited about another chance to become a really good offense.

“When it comes to Drew, I think he deserves the hype. He played five games last year and proved that he was about it. I think he has a lot more to prove this year, and I know Drew is going to step up to the plate and do that,” Risner said. “As an offensive line, we’ve got to take [protecting Drew] upon ourselves. I don’t just say that with no weight. That carries some serious weight with me. I want to be able to protect Drew this year and I want to be able to give him time to make those plays. John Elway and Coach Fangio went after it and got some tools for us on offense. If we can give [Lock] time to make something happen, I think we can make something shake with the guys we have. ...We’ve got to get after it and make sure we give them time to make things happen.”

Risner has personal goals of improving his play, but his main goal is to push the team to be a 12-win, 14-win team...a contender.

“I watched some of my film from last year, and to be honest, I shake my head. I’m like, ‘I have so much to improve upon.’ I can be so much better of a player than I was,” he said. “This year, I want to have a good season as a team. That’s my man overall thing. I don’t care if we go 2-14 and I might be a Pro Bowler or an All-Pro. I don’t care. I want to go and be a 12, 14-win team this year and do the things I know we are capable of….I can get into the nitty gritty of the offensive line details and how I want to be better, but most importantly, I want to be better as a team, and I want to get the Broncos back to being playoff contenders and Super Bowl contenders.”

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