The Denver Broncos’ 2017 first-round pick Garett Bolles turned 28 years old on Wednesday, May 27th. Older than a typical rookie when he was drafted, Bolles was still relatively inexperienced as he entered the NFL back in 2017.
After just one season of playing Division I football at left tackle for the Utah Utes, Broncos GM John Elway decided the athleticism, tenacity, and perceived upside was worth the No. 20 overall selection in the draft as the first OT off the board.
Bolles' tenure for the Broncos has been erratic at best. While he has been the epitome of healthy and available, only missing a few snaps his rookie year after what appeared to be a serious injury, leading to him being carted off the field in Week 2, Bolles hasn't missed a start.
His play on the field has been up and down and maligned with penalties, though. Bolles is far from the worst tackle to take the field in the NFL, but he has not lived up to the expectations that come with being a first-rounder.
Pro Football Focus, often the most vociferous defender of Garett Bolles, believes that on the entirety of the Broncos’ roster, he is the most underrated player. Probably due partly to some local radio consistently railing on Bolles, specifically when there was plenty of blame to go around, or perhaps the lack of nuance in understanding just how poor OT play is across the NFL landscape, but if there is one player that draws the consistent wrath of Broncos Country, is No. 72 on offense.
PFF doesn’t think Bolles is ‘great’ but any means but he has consistently scored well according to their metrics. Earning grades of 72.9, 72.8, and 76.1, respectively, over his first three years in the league, PFF’s grades would indicate at the worst an average player at left tackle.
However, many would disagree. For the offensive line, consistency beats flash and Bolles has been anything but consistent with his play on the field. Still, does the high level he displays front time-to-time warrant being considered most ‘underrated’? Here's PFF's rationale.
Quick, what's the word that comes to mind first when you hear Bolles’ name? Penalties? Bust? While it’s fair to harp on the penalties for Bolles after he ranked among the top-three offensive linemen across the league in penalties in each of the past three seasons, the negativity surrounding Bolles has gone too far. It’s hard to say he qualifies as a bust. Looking at qualifying left tackles since 2017, Bolles’ overall grade of 76.1 puts him at 15th out of 37 total players. Sure, that’s not the high-end player Denver was hoping for when it took him in the first round, but Bolles is still at least an average starter — not the bottom-of-the-barrel option he is sometimes portrayed to be.
There was a good amount of debate earlier this offseason on whether or not the Broncos would or should extend Bolles’ fifth-year option. Given the lack of obvious long-term options to supplant Bolles after Elijah Wilkinson’s struggles in 2019, Ja’Wuan James' consistent stints on the injury report, and Denver not taking a single OT in the 2020 draft, many thought Bolles might receive the fifth-year option for some stability at tackle, even if his play was inconsistent.
The Broncos, in the end, decided the fifth-year option wasn’t worth it, resulting in 2020 being Bolles’ last year on his rookie contract and likely his last year in Denver barring some unforeseen circumstances unfolding this upcoming season. It would be a shock to see Bolles finally play at a very high level consistently enough to make the Broncos want to place the franchise tag on him next offseason or even extend him given his career to date, but stranger things have happened.
More Deserving 'Underrated' Options
There were perhaps some other options that come to mind as being underrated for the Broncos’ roster entering 2020. Todd Davis is never going to an ‘elite’ coverage linebacker, but he is consistently consistent in his run fits, reads, and is the defacto signal-caller for the defense.
No roster is ever going to be full of All-Pros across the board and while Davis’ lack of athleticism in coverage can get the defense in a bind from time-to-time, there are far worse linebackers. If anything, Davis is consistently average and that isn’t bad.
The other player who comes to mind that might deserve a shoutout as being underrated is Kareem Jackson who converted from a decade-long cornerback to safety for the Broncos last year. Despite missing the last two games of 2019 due to a DUI suspension, Jackson overall had a really good season for Denver last year in the Vic Fangio defense where his ability to play both safety and cornerback allowed the defense to be versatile and match up differently from snap-to-snap.
Jackson isn’t a household name, but he did really well in his new role for the Broncos last season and should be in line for another good year in the secondary.
The debate over Bolles will continue to rage on for as long as he is on the roster. Was he the right pick in the first round of 2017? Should Denver have done more to replace him this offseason?
Is he as bad as ‘they’ say or are his struggles just amplified due to the spotlight of a first-round pedigree? Or is has his inconsistency stemmed from having to block for some stinkers at quarterback for the Broncos over the last three seasons?
2020 will likely be a career-defining year for Bolles. If he can show consistency and avoid penalties, he could prove to indeed be an underrated player like PFF suggests. In such an event, Denver may regret not using the fifth-year option on him.
Good tackles are hard to find in today’s NFL, but even if Bolles is ‘average’, he has some semblance of value. Now, is he average? That depends on who you ask.