Work in Progress: Broncos offensive line still in formative stages
The Broncos league-altering trade for quarterback Russell Wilson revived the team’s long-dormant playoff hopes. But unless their offensive line does a much better job at protecting him than his line in Seattle did over the last two seasons, the Broncos’ six-season playoff drought — tied for the NFL’s longest with only the woebegone New York Jets — could extend to a very unlucky seven.
With Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner entrenched at left tackle and left guard, respectively, and with center Lloyd Cushenberry III drawing raves from Wilson throughout the offseason, the Broncos appear to have three of their five starters in place with the returning trio.
However, Bolles finds himself in something of a make-or-break season after regressing last fall. And with no immediate, potential successor on the horizon, the Broncos are counting on him to return to his 2020, All-Pro form.
“I can control what I can control, which is making myself compete at a high level and being mature about it; focused and being detail-oriented,” Bolles said last week. “I think that it starts with me; with the guys up front… When I do my job, everyone else plays better. It gives ‘3’ (Wilson) enough time to be back there and to fire to our star receivers or give the ball to our running back’s hands. Consistency is a huge thing for us. The more consistency we have, the better we will be down the road.”
Consistency, however, has been the line’s biggest problem. Fortunately, Risner seems to be a natural fit for the Broncos’ new, outside-zone scheme that emphasizes agility and quickness over brute strength.
“He has really bought in and he’s doing a fine job running off the ball — and [he’s] great in pass protection,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said on Monday. “He’s done a really good job, and I’m really excited about where he’s at.”
For offensive coordinator Justin Outten, the expectation is that the team’s new blocking scheme will maximize the abilities of not only the Broncos’ linemen, but for second-year running back Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon, as well.
“The whole world with the outside zone is just pulling the trigger, rolling, running and not measuring. That’s where you get in trouble, when you start to measure and slow down,” Outten explained on Tuesday. “When one guy is off, the back’s track is off and then it just turns into a bad deal. Getting them to buy into the technique that we’re getting them to do is a little bit outside of the box, as far as this system. This system is extremely special, and you have to have that trust factor. It takes a couple of weeks for them to realize what we’re asking them to do. Once they see the back matchup with their tracks, it starts to get really nice.”
Blocking for Wilson, however, carries vastly different responsibilities than blocking for last year’s quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. Wilson is all but notorious for holding onto the ball as long as possible, probing down the field for an opportunity to throw deep. Outten isn’t looking to change that; he’s planning to let Russ cook — and that means that his line will simply have to be better, for longer.
“No doubt. We try to be aggressive as heck down here. There is a lot of throwing the ball down the field, just to see the landmark of the receivers and just to see the timing of the quarterback. We encourage those tight-window throws,” Outten said.
For his part, Wilson’s satisfied with what they’ve been able to accomplish together prior to his first training camp with the Broncos starting in earnest next month.
“I feel extremely confident in what we’re doing. We look really good. We’re going against a great defense every day. That’s the challenge we want every day — to go against the best,” he said on Monday. “We’re making key plays on key third downs. It feels great. Offensively, I’m really excited about the offensive line. I think those guys are doing a great job up front giving me enough time and blocking it up for me.”
“Those guys” might be an apt description of the carousel of Broncos linemen that have been cycling in and out of the right side. With free-agent addition Billy Turner on the shelf for the foreseeable future due to a knee injury that led to his release from the Green Bay Packers in March, Denver’s had to make do at right tackle.
Calvin Anderson and former San Francisco 49er Tom Compton look to be the best fits at this stage, with former Arizona State teammates Quinn Bailey and Casey Tucker competing at the NFL level. Intriguing prospect Sebastian Guiterrez, from tiny Minot (North Dakota) State University, may be ticketed for the practice squad. Nevertheless, Outten’s been satisfied by what he’s seen from the lot.
“I think those guys have stepped up to the plate. (We’re) asking those guys to run off of the ball, typically when they’re not used to that, and going out of their element a little bit and going into the unknown,” Outten noted. “I talked to the offense (on Tuesday) about trusting the whole process and trusting the scheme. We’ll never put them in a situation where it’s going to hurt them or try to put them in a bind. Getting those guys to buy in — I thought that they did a really good job of stepping up and giving us really good time in the pocket.”
At right guard, things are just as unsettled. Returning veteran Graham Glasgow may have an uphill battle reclaiming his starting spot; burly Quinn Meinerz finished his rookie season admirably, taking over effectively for Glasgow despite having to make the leap from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. It’s not Meinerz, however, that caught Hackett’s attention on Tuesday. Netani Muti, a sixth-round selection out of Fresno State in 2020, appears to be at home in the Broncos’ new system.
Muti, far more nimble than his power-packed 6-foot-3, 315-pound frame might suggest, found himself a topic of discussion at Dove Valley on Tuesday.
“He’s doing a really good job. He’s running off the ball and he’s a big, strong interior lineman,” Hackett said. “He’s picked it up really well. He’s been a big surprise for us throughout this whole offseason, and I’m excited to see him keep rolling.”
The fun-loving head coach also noted Muti’s off-ball energy, as well.
“I love that he does some great celebrations, too, whenever we get touchdowns,” Hackett added. “Those have been showing up.”
With fresh eyes across the coaching staff — a new head coach in Hackett, a new offensive coordinator in Outten, and a new offensive line coach in Butch Barry — Muti has carved out an opportunity to impress a staff that doesn’t have any particular attachments to any of the Broncos’ holdovers. It would be something of a surprise — but certainly not a shock — to see the the 23-year-old make the leap to starter.
Outten would like that starting five to materialize as soon as possible into training camp, allowing more time to build the necessary consistency that Bolles discussed.
“You ideally like it in the first week. It’s going to be a competitive environment in that room all the way through training camp. When the pads come on, that’s traditionally when you start to see the movement, and you see the solidification up front. That’s when you get an idea of who your guys are going to be.”
With Wednesday’s minicamp session representing the close of the Broncos’ offseason programs, Wilson knows that the real work begins on the searing July fields at Dove Valley, but with training camp looming, his optimism hasn’t waned.
“I think about the linemen and how connected they are, too,” the quarterback said. “We’re going to have a really good football team. The running backs we have, the tight ends, the receivers, and the line. I think we have a chance.”