Welcome to the end of another week. We have quite the discussion for you today as we look at the Denver Broncos situation at offensive tackle. There is going to be quite some changeover this offseason with Demar Dotson and Elijah Wilkinson both unrestricted free agents and Ja’Wuan James set to return after opting out of the 2020 season over COVID risks.
The emergence of Garett Bolles as a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle took literally everyone by surprise. I am sure the massive reduction in the amount of holding penalties call in the NFL helped, but it was clear from the tape that this was only part of the Bolles’ improvement at the position. His technique and smarts on the field were a bigger part to his overall improvement last season.
So what should the Broncos do at right tackle since that is the only real major question market right now at this position. Scotty Payne, Joe Rowles, and I discuss that here in this post.
Broncos offensive tackle position group
|Anderson, Calvin||OT||6' 05"||300||24||ERFA|
|Bailey, Quinn||OT||6' 06"||323||25||Signed through 2022|
|Bolles, Garett||OT||6' 05"||297||28||Signed through 2024|
|Dotson, Demar||OT||6' 09"||315||35||UFA|
|James, Ja'Wuan||OT||6' 06"||311||28||Signed through 2023|
|Paulo, Darrin||OT||6' 05"||312||23||Signed through 2022|
|Wilkinson, Elijah||OT||6' 05"||329||25||UFA|
Scotty: Bolles is entrenched as your starting left tackle for the foreseeable future (imagine saying that back in September and feeling good about it lol)The real question is about right tackle, which has been the case for like every offseason I can remember. Ja’Wuan James was your big ticket free agent signing who was supposed to cure this weakness, but he has played in just two or three games since signing now two offseasons ago. His first was derailed by knee injuries and his mental/physical ability to get back on the field was publicly questioned a bit by Head Coach Vic Fangio. Then, this last season he decided to sit out the season due to covid-19 concerns. So who knows what we’ll expect from James.
Also, you have Bolles saying James needs to earn back the trust of his teammates. It’s unclear what this is referencing, but James has a lot of work to do before he steps on the field as the starting right tackle for the Broncos again in 2021.
Joe: I know this won’t be popular, but anytime we talk tackles it needs to be said. The Broncos would be idiotic to cut Ja’Wuan James. It would carry a $19,000,000 dead cap hit and only save $4,000,000. While it’s true that trading him could be cheaper, Denver would need to eat some of the dead cap hit for another team to bite.
Scotty: Joe hit the nail on the head. The Broncos are stuck with James in 2021. This appears to be another awful John Elway right tackle contract.
Joe: So tackle comes down to accepting what is an inevitability this year and hedging your bets for the long term. Garett Bolles and Ja’Wuan James will be the day 1 starters. Depth behind them is a huge question.
I thought a lot of Demar Dotson last year, but when Munchak benched him down the last stretch for Elijah Wilkinson it signaled to me that no one expects the 35-year old Dotson to return.
Scotty: Elijah Wilkinson is a free agent and he is a favorite of OL coach Mike Munchak apparently so I could see them re-signing him to be the swing tackle/James protection.
Also, Calvin Anderson did fill in admirably at left tackle for the Broncos in a game this season, so they actually have some decent depth it appears.
Joe: Would think they’ll explore the market and keep tabs on both of them to return if it’s a favorable number.
Because James and Bolles’ cap numbers I can’t see the Broncos spending big on a free agent lineman this year. I do think it’d pay to go after a swing tackle or utility guy in the draft, preferably one who has starting potential down the road.
Scotty: Longtime Steelers left tackle Anderson Villanueva will be a free agent name to keep an eye on if they decide to add someone in free agency. His connection with Munchak could have him joining the Broncos if they feel they need to move on from James.
But as Joe said, with the money tied up there already, doubtful they will make any big splashes in FA. However, OT is most certainly in play in the draft. It’s a fairly deep OT class and if Munchak finds one he likes on day two, I could see them pulling the trigger.
Tim: I think the Broncos need to address right tackle in the draft. Ja’Wuan James and that contract make it unlikely they move on from him and the free agent market never seems to work out for the Broncos. Are there any right tackles you like in the second or, maybe, the third rounds that could be a good fit?
Scotty: John Elway has one foot out the building already, so I’m not going to hold Elway’s failures on Paton when it comes to finding a respectable RT.
Tim: Well, it would seem they are hot for Matthew Stafford and a bit disinterested in Deshaun Watson, so I’m already starting to think we’re going to see more of the same. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt after Paton proves he can make better roster decisions.
Joe: It comes down to the cost. The Broncos already have $18 million allocated to their tackles next year and would have more if the vast majority of Bolles’ contract wasn’t pushed out of the COVID-cap year. His 2021 cap hit is just $5 million before it jumps to $21 million in 2022.
They’re basically stuck with James because if they cut him it will cost them more to move on than keep him. It’d also blow a $19 million hole in their cap space.
Tim: That’s why drafting a guy early and developing him to take over James’ spot is the ideal move here at right tackle this year.
Scotty: Well, if they want to make a big play at OT, Christian Darrisaw is as smooth as they come and would be a day one starter at RT but he will selected within the top 15 picks.
Clemson’s Jackson Carman is a massive tackle but he might be best suited for guard in the NFL. Dillon Radunz is another top 40 name to watch as well. Otherwise, I really haven’t done much digging on this group just yet.
Joe: I’ve been putting off studying the line because there’s so many pressing needs elsewhere, but everything I’ve heard from draft guys I trust is this is supposed to be a really good tackle class.
Scotty: A good and deep tackle class is what I’ve seen. A good run on them in the first two rounds appears to be the expectation.
Joe: I would think it’d give us a good idea what Munchak and the Broncos think of Ja’Wuan James’ future if they take a tackle in the top 50.
Tim: James is a solid player, but I think everyone is unsure of his future. Drafting a guy in the Top 50 is something they should do regardless of whether they think James is the guy or not.
Joe: Not against it. Just kind of comes down to the board and if the right guy is there. Broncos have pressing top 50 type of needs at a couple spots. Taking an early tackle puts stress on them.
Scotty: Is James a solid player? We’ve seen him in like two games since 2019. What he did in Miami means nothing to me after basically sitting out two straight NFL seasons.
Tim: We’ll find out in 2021! Also we still only have one licensed image of James in a Broncos uniform to use for our posts.
Scotty: This is total speculation on my part, but I wonder if retirement is an option for him? Again, this is me speculating, but his willingness to play has been questioned by Fangio and he lost trust of that locker room over something, so maybe he just isn’t feeling it and decides to hang up his cleats?
Probably unlikely, but something to think about.
What I would do
The only thing the Broncos can really do here is improve via the 2021 NFL Draft. James’ contract makes it improbable that they target a right tackle in free agency, but it is clear they are weak at the right tackle position. James should be a solid starter there, but he hasn’t proven he can stay healthy when he is healthy to start and there is uncertainty behind him depth-wise.
I’d probably take a long hard look at right tackle options on Day 2 if I were George Paton. If the class is as deep as people think at this position, then perhaps waiting for their third round pick to go tackle would be a good long-term investment at the position.
What do you think Broncos Country? How should the Broncos improve at right tackle in 2021? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.