ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A day after tackle Ja'Wuan James opted out of the 2020 season, Head Coach Vic Fangio admitted the Broncos' depth at tackle "is going to be challenged."
Fangio, though, seemed optimistic on Tuesday about the Broncos' options at both tackle positions.
Elijah Wilkinson appears to the be the favorite at right tackle to replace James, and he has plenty of experience at the position after he started 12 games in James' stead last season.
"I thought Eli made a lot of progress last year throughout the season," Fangio said. "He [missed] the last game and a half or so where he hurt his ankle, but as far as it goes as it relates to Eli, it's a good thing for him personally because now he gets to go back to the position he spent 800, 900 snaps at last year and all the practice that goes with that. From his perspective, it's a good thing."
Wilkinson, a fourth-year pro, has appeared in 36 career games at a variety of positions.
The left tackle job, meanwhile, is Garett Bolles' to lose, according to Fangio.
"I think he took a step last year during the season," Fangio said. "He played better the last half, last third of the season than he did in the early part of the season. I think he's had his best offseason as far as where he's at. He had a really productive offseason when it comes to physical workouts. I think he's in a better place mentally and emotionally than he's ever been in at this time of the year. He's got Mike [Munchak] coaching him now for the second season in a row, which I don't think he had previously in his career. I think we all sense that he's in a better spot in all areas than he has been in his past. He's gotten bigger. I think he's gotten more knowledgeable, and I think he's ready. Can I guarantee it? No. We'll all see when we start playing real games. But I'm cautiously optimistic."
The former 20th-overall pick has not missed a game in his three years as the team's starter.
James, who posted a lengthy statement following his decision, now remains under contract with the Broncos through 2023.
Fangio said he did not think the 2019 season — in which James missed the majority of the season with a knee injury — played a role in James' decision to opt out.
"I don't think that factored into it at all," Fangio said. "Ja'Wuan and I had several conversations in the offseason. They all were very good and productive. I don't think it had any bearing on it whatsoever. He was training to have a good season all through the offseason. I thought he had a good offseason. We spoke many times. Down toward the end here when he had to make a decision, he just chose to opt out, which is his choice and we're fine with [it]."
Without the benefit of preseason games, the Broncos may have to adjust their practice schedule. Fangio said the team may include some live-tackling periods.
"We will probably do some of that during camp, possibly introduce it late in the first week after we have pads on," Fangio said. "Maybe the sixth or seventh or eighth practice and then play it by ear after that."
Fangio said the Broncos' first official training camp practice will be Aug. 14.
The Broncos dealt a seventh-round pick for five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey this offseason, and Fangio said he's "optimistic" about what the 30-year-old defensive lineman will bring to Denver.
"What I've been able to sense so far is obviously he's got experience," Fangio said. "But some guys have a lot of experience and they have a hard time of using it and conveying to others. I don't think that will be the case with him. I think part of it is because he really likes football. He really likes helping people. Those are two qualities you have to have to lend your experience to others. I think he has those. I think he's excited to be here, with my conversations with him. We're excited to see how good he is for the Broncos moving forward, but we're optimistic."
MAKING THE TRANSITION
After an offseason of virtual workouts, the Broncos' rookies have finally hit the field for walkthroughs. That's a jump for young players like Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Michael Ojemudia and Lloyd Cushenberry III, but Fangio doesn't expect immediate perfection.
"It's been good," Fangio said of the rookies' transition. "It's a step. To go from the classroom virtually — which is different and not as good as the real classroom — to now take it to a slow-pace walkthrough has been good. Now we're going to have to take it to Phase II practices here in a few days, which are still not full speed. And then we take it to the full-speed practices. And that will tell us more at that time. It's a work in progress. I don't expect them to be perfect by any means early on. But we want them close to perfect by the time we line up against Tennessee."