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Can the Broncos offensive line protect its new franchise QB?

New O-line coach Butch Barry must bring blockers together so Russell Wilson, who was sacked 222 times the previous 5 years in Seattle, can scramble and let 'er rip.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A new era in Denver Broncos history is about to begin.

There’s a new owner. A new head coach. And a new quarterback.

That’s all. It was time for this slumping franchise to start fresh. The past six seasons ended with no trip to the playoffs. The past five seasons ended with records of 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, 5-11 and 7-10. It was the Broncos’ worst five-year stretch in 50 years -- since 1968-72. Following 1972, the Broncos took off on a remarkable 43-season run of success that featured fewer losing seasons (7) than Super Bowl appearances (8).

At the risk of being greedy, it’s time for another run. And the Broncos are counting on owner Rob Walton, head coach Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Russell Wilson to lead them.

RELATED: How to get tickets to Broncos' 'Back Together' training camp event

Broncos players report for the start of 2022 training camp two weeks from Tuesday. The first training camp practice is Wednesday, July 27 and is open and free to the public. Bring your sunscreen for the shadeless berm. If you really want to get in the new team spirit, Walmart sells several top-rated sunscreen products. The Walton ownership group, which includes Rob’s son-in-law Greg Penner, his daughter Carrie Walton Penner, and partners Mellody Hobson and Condoleezza Rice, is not expected to be formally approved by the 31 other NFL owners until the first or second week of August.

The impact of the Walton family as the Broncos’ new ownership is one of 9 questions confronting the new era Broncos as they embark on their new season. Here’s another:

Can the newly coached offensive line protect its franchise (and NFL’s most sacked) quarterback?

When Garett Bolles made a near 180-degree transformation from oft-booed, penalty-riddled left tackle in the first half of 2019 to a $17-million-a-year trusted blindside protector in the second half of 2020, among the reasons he credited was having the same offensive line coach for a second consecutive year for the first time in his career.

Jeff Davidson was the Broncos’ offensive line coach in 2017, Bolles’ rookie season. Sean Kugler and Chris Strausser were the line’s co-instructors in 2018 and Mike Munchak moved from the Steelers to Denver in 2019. Three seasons, three offensive line coaches.

Credit: Brian Olson/KUSA

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Munchak needed a year to hone Bolles’ skill set before the Broncos’ first-round draft pick out of Utah in 2017 developed into one of the league’s top 5 tackles in 2020, a status he maintained last year.

But Munchak was let go after the 2021 season, along with head coach Vic Fangio and most of his other assistants. So it goes in the NFL.

New head coach Nathaniel Hackett is devoted to the wide-zone blocking concept and to help him teach it, he hired Butch Barry to become his new offensive line coach. Barry worked with the Green Bay Packers in 2020, when Hackett was his offensive coordinator, and moved on to become an assistant offensive line coach last year for Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast system in San Francisco. Shanahan, Hackett, LaFleur, Kubiak, McVay, O’Connell, Taylor – they all run pretty much the same offense.

And so Bolles will have to adjust again, as will the rest of the Broncos’ offensive line group that returners starts at every position but right tackle, which has had a new starter every year since 2013. And even at right tackle the Broncos bring back super sub Calvin Anderson who figures to benefit from the new blocking system that prioritizes agility over brute strength. The new system should also help Bolles, who is more athletic than most left tackles.

“I’m going to miss coach Munchak,’’ Bolles said in April. “I love him dearly. I had a great relationship with him. I think the world of him. I think he helped me in so many ways. But it’s a new coach. I have my ways and he has his ways, so I have to get used to that. But I think we have a great relationship.

“This whole coaching staff is all about love. I think that’s one thing that’s good for this whole organization is it’s about love. We’re going to bring that family atmosphere that we needed. It’s going to be business, but at the same time, family is a part of it. When you go to work, you’re providing for your family, so you might as well bring your family as a part of work. I think that’s really cool.’’

The other three offensive line returning starters besides Bolles – left guard0 Dalton Risner, center Lloyd Cushenberry III and right guard Quinn Meinerz (and Graham Glasgow, a starter before injury) – were groomed by Munchak and his gap, mano y mano blocking system.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos offensive guard Dalton Risner (66) prior to an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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The new blocking system won’t be the blockers only adjustment. Wilson, for all his tremendous mobility, long-ball accuracy and ability to score touchdowns off script, often needs his offensive line to give him an extra second or two.

While Wilson had one of the league’s best touchdown (165)-to-interception (39) ratios the past five seasons, he also was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback with 222 – 44.4 a season, and 14 percent more than runner-up Matt Ryan, who had 195 sacks the past five years.

NFL’s QB sack leaders (2017-2021)

Quarterback …….. Sacks

Russell Wilson ….… 222

Matt Ryan ………..… 195

Carson Wentz …..… 178

Kirk Cousins ……..… 176

Deshaun Watson … 174  

And Ryan had nearly 500 more pass attempts than Wilson. Watson is like Wilson in that he has the athleticism to extend plays and make big plays off improvisation, but the flip-side to excitement is holding the ball a tad longer can make a quarterback more vulnerable to getting caught behind the line.

Here are the QB sack leaders based on pass attempts the past five years (minimum 1,000 attempts):

Quarterback………………….. Att …… Sk .… Pct

1. Deshaun Watson …….. 1748 … 174 … 10.0

2. Russell Wilson ……….... 2454 … 222 …. 9.0

3. Ryan Tannehill …………. 1572 … 137 …. 8.7

4. Jacoby Brissett ………... 1153 ... 100 …. 8.7

5. Daniel Jones ……………. 1268 … 105 ..… 8.3

25. Derek Carr …………….. 2724 … 166 ..… 6.1

30. Justin Herbert ……….. 1267 ..… 63 ….. 5.0

32. Tom Brady …………….. 3093 … 126 .… 4.1

33. Patrick Mahomes …… 2345 …. 95 ….. 4.1

34. Ben Roethlisberger … 2511 …. 98 ….. 3.9

35. Drew Brees ……………. 1793 …. 62 ….. 3.5

The Hackett offensive system should help Wilson as it asks the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. Count Bolles among those confident Wilson will not be taking as many sacks with his new team.

"I told him, I know you’re used to getting hit," Bolles said earlier this offseason. "You’re not going to get hit here."

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