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Broncos free agency: Thanks to Bolles, offensive line now a team strength

Four starters return and the fifth, Ja'Wuan James, appears finally ready to earn his money.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Think of where the primary complaints from Broncos followers were at this point last year. Or the previous three years for that matter.

Garett Bolles and the offensive line.

To John Elway’s credit – is it OK to credit Elway? – he ignored those complaints. He didn’t exercise Bolles’ $11.064 million fifth-year option. So he didn’t show his left tackle complete confidence. But when Bolles made a quantum leap in his play last season and performed at a second-team All Pro level, Elway did much better by giving him $21 million in signing bonus and salary for 2021.

As Bolles goes, so goes the Broncos’ offensive line. The front line is now a position of strength. After three seasons of excruciating growing pains, Bolles is has become one of the league’s top 4 left tackles both in terms of average annual compensation ($17 million a year) and grades by scouting websites.

> Video above: Garett Bolles gets second chance with second family.

Bolles anchors an offensive line that will have all five starters returning – counting right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who opted out last season and missed most of 2019 with injuries – plus three top backups in swing tackle Calvin Anderson, guard Netane Muti and center-guard Austin Schlottmann.

9NEWS continues its series on Broncos free agency, which begins March 15, with a look at their offensive line. Thanks to the fourth-year development of Bolles, the Broncos may do little more than add a veteran interior reserve blocker in free agency.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos offensive tackle Dalton Risner protects during an NFL football game between the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Denver.

What they have: Elway rebuilt his offensive line in parcels over the final years of his general managership. He selected Bolles in the first round of the 2017 draft. He took left guard Dalton Risner in the second round of 2019, and center Lloyd Cushenberry III in the third round of 2020. Right tackle James was given a record-setting, four-year, $51.15 million contract – although to much regret – in free agency of 2019, and right guard Graham Glasgow was signed to a massive four-year, $44 million contract in free agency of 2020.

To develop that offensive line, Elway hired renowned offensive line coach Mike Munchak in 2019.

Elway has now moved upstairs to a consultant-type role while George Paton was hired as the Broncos’ new general manager. Paton has much to worry about with his inherited roster but he should not fret about his offensive line. Drew Lock, for all his quarterback inconsistency last season, was only sacked 19 times in 13 games last year – only Ben Roethlisberger was sacked fewer times among QBs who made at least 400 pass attempts.

The team is high on Anderson to the point the plan is for him to replace Elijah Wilkinson, who is now a free agent, as the swing tackle, and Muti, a sixth-round rookie last year, who could push Risner and Glasgow for some playing time this year.

Risner had a strong rookie campaign but he got mixed reviews in his sophomore season. He wants to become a Pro Bowler and All Pro and he’ll have to get better to reach his personal goal. Still, Risner is way ahead of the curve as many interior offensive linemen redshirt their rookie year and break in in year two. Same with Cushenberry, who struggled in pass protection as a rookie but made every invaluable snap in all 16 games.

Glasgow was solid if hampered by a bout with COVID and injuries to his ankle and foot last year.  

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James (70) stretches during NFL football training camp in Englewood, Colo.

The unknown: Simply put, if not for the $10 million guarantee James has coming in 2021, the Broncos would have moved on from him. He drew $17 million in 2019, his first season with the Broncos, and in return he gave them just three starts, none of which he lasted past halftime. He suffered a knee injury in the season opener and it never came around, although the Broncos said around midseason he was physically cleared. He then chose the COVID opt-out prior to training camp last year.

After a two-year layoff, how effective will James be in 2021? He was 26 when they signed him. He’ll be 29 by the start of training camp this year. If he struggles, the Broncos believe Anderson is ready.

Credit: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
Ben Garland during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz.

Possible free-agent help: Wilkinson has the type of versatility and experience the Broncos could use especially with the uncertainty of James at right tackle. But while the Broncos might take Wilkinson back at, say, $2.5 million a year, he may command a $5 million a year from an offensive tackle-needy team through free agency.

San Francisco free agent Ben Garland, the former Bronco and Air Force defensive linemen turned center-guard, would be a nice interior backup option. Some other veteran backup possibilities would include Brian Winters, Chris Reed, Tom Compton, John Miller and Tyler Shatley.

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