The Broncos' 2020 season is almost here, and as training camp approaches, we're taking a look at each of the Broncos' position groups. In this set of previews, we'll take a deep dive into what we know about the given position group and what we still need to learn. We'll also identify a player to watch and choose a battle that bears watching. At the end of the series, we'll provide an overarching look at the best training camp battles and which players have the most to prove.
We continue the series with a look at the offensive line.
What we know:
As the Broncos enter training camp, the team should feature a considerably different offensive line than the one it trotted out in 2019. Regardless of who starts at left tackle, the Broncos' line will feature three players who did not play a majority of the snaps last season.
Second-year guard Dalton Risner is the only 16-game starter from 2019 who seems guaranteed a starting job, and he'll look to improve on a All-Rookie season to make the Pro Bowl or earn All-Pro honors.
Garett Bolles, the former 2017 first-round pick who has started all 48 games in his career, could maintain his starting job, but he will have to battle Elijah Wilkinson after holding penalties derailed another one of his seasons.
To Risner's right, there will be plenty of new faces. Third-round pick Lloyd Cushenberry III will aim to earn the starting center job as a rookie. The LSU All-American has impressed the team's coaches, but he must translate the classroom knowledge to the field. Second-year player Patrick Morris should compete with Cushenberry after seeing brief playing time in 2019.
Free-agent addition Graham Glasgow should slot in at right guard after the Broncos signed him to a four-year deal in March. The fifth-year player has allowed just one sack over the last two seasons and had just three penalties enforced against him in 2019.
At right tackle, Ja'Wuan James will aim to put together a more successful follow-up campaign in Denver. The Broncos signed the former Dolphin to a four-year deal in 2019 that briefly made James the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL. The season, though, didn't go as planned. James suffered a knee injury in Week 1 against the Raiders, and he failed to remain on the field during both of his attempted returns during the season. The former All-Rookie team member played just 63 snaps last season.
In addition to Cushenberry, the Broncos also drafted Fresno State's Netane Muti, a talented player with a long injury history. Denver also returns reserve linemen Calvin Anderson, Quinn Bailey, Nico Falah, Tyler Jones, Jake Rodgers and Austin Schlottmann. College free agent Hunter Watts rounds out the position group.
What we need to learn:
We often hear about how offensive lines need time to jell, but those snaps will be limited ahead of the 2020 season. Without organized team activities, Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak may have to accelerate that development in training camp even as Bolles and Wilkinson compete at left tackle and Cushenberry tries to earn the starting job at center.
Cushenberry may be the most-intriguing piece of the entire unit, as he could solidify a strong interior if he's able to progress quickly enough. As a team captain at LSU, he anchored the best line in the country and held up well in pass protection. With Risner and Glasgow on either side, it seems possible that Cushenberry will be able to handle the difficult task of starting in Week 1. If he does, the young core of Risner, Cushenberry and Glasgow could soon be viewed as one of the strengths of the team.
We'll also be watching whether Muti can solidify a spot as the backup guard and if he'll be able to push for playing time in the near future. With his injury history, it may be smarter to treat an unorthodox 2020 as a redshirt year of sorts.
Player to watch:
James isn't a new addition, but he'll need to prove again that he can be the near-elite talent he has been when healthy. In Miami, James showed flashes that suggested he was among the game's top options at right tackle. After a year of battling a variety of knee injuries, does the Tennessee product still have the same athleticism?
He'll be tested often in camp, as Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will likely rotate in against the 6-foot-6, 312-pound player. James largely held his own in training camp in 2019, and he should be a massive upgrade for the Broncos at the position if he can stay healthy. One reason to believe he may stay on the field: James has alternated seasons in which he played at least 15 games or missed at least eight games. That unscientific pattern would suggest James is good for 15 or 16 games in 2020. Still, there are few players on the Broncos' roster who face as much pressure as James does this season.
Battle to watch:
Forget Bolles vs. Wilkinson being the battle to watch at this position group; it's likely the most-anticipated competition of all of camp.
Bolles has held the left tackle job since entering the league in 2017, but after he was whistled for 13 holding penalties last season, President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway declared an open competition at the position.
Wilkinson, who started 12 games at right tackle in 2019, appears to be Bolles' primary competition. The fourth-year player is perhaps the Broncos' best option as a backup right guard and right tackle, but the Massachusetts product has the chance to beat out Bolles for the starting job. It's worth noting, though, that Wilkinson has never been the primary starter at left tackle, dating back to college.
And while Bolles' penalty numbers must come down, he allowed just four sacks in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Wilkinson, by comparison, allowed 10 during his time at right tackle.
Bolles also may hold the edge in the run game. Last season, the Broncos were the third best team in the league in runs off left tackle, according the Football Outsiders. Denver was ninth in runs off right tackle.
Sack numbers, though, may decrease in general — in part because of Drew Lock's mobility. Before Lock entered the lineup, Denver allowed 3.18 sacks per game. Once the rookie took over, the Broncos gave up just one sack per game. That rate would've been the best in the league had Lock maintained it for a whole season. The 3.18 number, though, would've ranked in the bottom quarter of the league.