This week in our season grade series, we’re moving into the trenches.
The Broncos were hit by injuries along the offensive line, which meant eight different linemen played extensive roles in 2022 and a handful of others earned opportunities as well.
Overall, the line was a disappointment. The Broncos gave up 63 sacks, which was 23 more than the league average. But the advanced metrics typically grade the Broncos’ line out somewhere between 16th and 25th among NFL teams.
In my grades, the Broncos average halfway between a C and a C- on a per-snap basis. This might be a little bit high, but Russell Wilson deserves his fair share of the blame for the sacks, and the Broncos’ tight ends didn’t do the line many favors.
We’re using the same criteria for the grades as always:
- There is no curve. Stars are graded on the same scale as reserves. Rookies are graded like vets. All that matters is what a player does versus the expectation you’d have for an average player at his position.
- Sample size doesn’t matter. Injuries don’t matter. We’re grading the players based on what they do when they’re on the field.
- The average grade is a C+. A C is slightly below average. A B- is slightly above average. You get the point.
Here’s how the offensive linemen and tight ends graded out…
LT Garett Bolles – C+
Three holding calls. Two false starts. One illegal formation. Five games played.
Bolles made progress with his penalty problems over the past two seasons, but they flared back up in a big way in 2022. And they knock his grade down significantly.
Other than the penalties—a big caveat—Bolles was having an excellent season. The only non-penalty disappointment was a weak outing against the 49ers, in which Bolles gave up a sack and a handful of other pressures. But San Francisco has one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. His other four outings largely make up for the 49ers game, though.
Combine it all, and you have a league-average left tackle performance.
LG Dalton Risner – C+
The Broncos’ starting left guard had another solid season and was the Broncos’ most consistent piece up front as he started 15 games.
Risner’s best work, as expected, came in pass protection where he gave up a few sacks over the course of the year but typically didn’t allow more than two or three pressures per game. If we were only grading his work in pass protection, he might have earned an A grade.
Risner’s work in the running game was alright. He isn’t the biggest or strongest guard, making it tough for him to push defensive linemen backward and open up holes. He was rarely out of position, though. He didn’t doom many plays.
Risner’s best game came against the Colts. He only allowed one pressure, and he worked well in space where his mobility plays up. He led the way on a pair of screens, and extended to the second level on running plays to find work against the linebackers.
C Lloyd Cushenberry – C-
The third-year center was stellar in the passing game in the eight games before his season-ending injury. He anchored and held his ground in the middle of the line and his long arms gave him a wide margin for error when he needed to bail himself out. Outside of an awful day against the Jets—and mostly against All-Pro defensive tackle Quinnen Williams—Cushenberry never gave up more than one pressure in a game. If not for the Jets game, Cushenberry would’ve had an easy case to be the Broncos’ top pass protector this season.
But in the running game, Cushenberry doesn’t provide all that much. He simply wasn’t that good at moving defensive linemen. Maybe the grown-man strength is still on the way—he didn’t turn 25 until he was done for the season—but his mobility is sub-par and unlikely to improve.
A good-to-very-good performance in the passing game and a bad performance in the running game would typically result in an average grade, but six penalties in less than eight games knock him down to a C-. (And I expect fans to say the grade is still too high.)
RG Quinn Meinerz – B+
The bright spot on the Broncos’ offensive line in 2022 was Quinn Meinerz.
The second-year guard, who turned 24 in November, was easily the Broncos’ best run blocker. His strength stood out on the interior of the Broncos’ line, where he blew open hole after hole. He was instrumental in a couple of touchdown runs. It’s no coincidence that the Broncos ran better to the right than the left over the course of the season.
In pass protection, Meinerz wasn’t as strong. He had a couple of weak games in the middle of the season, giving up two sacks against the Jaguars and one against the Panthers. Overall, he was better than average, but the midseason lull is a knock on his grade.
I was tempted to give Meinerz the A-, but I couldn’t quite do it. One more “Angry Runs” type play would have been enough. He ties with Jerry Jeudy for the Broncos’ best offensive grade this season.
Reasons to believe Meinerz could improve on this grade next season are easy to find. Meinerz was only 23 for most of the year. He battled a lingering hamstring issue for most of the year. He played multiple games on a partially torn plantar fascia (which I don’t believe has been reported anywhere else.) He’d never played out of a two-point stance before entering the NFL, which explains some of the mistakes in pass protection.
And he still was Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 guard in the NFL this season.
RT Billy Turner – D+
The Broncos were probably hoping for more than eight appearances from Billy Turner when they signed him this offseason, and they probably expected him to be more valuable when he was on the field.
The best way to describe Turner is like the old guy at the YMCA who was crafty enough to keep up with the younger players but didn’t have the juice to actually beat them. He wasn’t going to line up and push somebody over. Travon Walker beat him for a sack, because the 2022 No. 1 overall pick is a freak talent. Kyle Van Noy beat Turner for a sack because he has the same vet game.
Still, Turner was a solid, steady presence when he was on the field. He was rarely out of position. He showed great timing on a couple of blocks, including when he put Cardinals safety Budda Baker on the ground.
At this point in his career, Turner is a good backup tackle or a pretty weak starter. But expecting him to be available for more than half the season seems like a stretch.
C/RG Graham Glasgow – D+
The Broncos needed their 30-year-old interior linemen desperately in 2022.
Graham Glasgow was demoted from his starting right guard job in favor of Quinn Meinerz for the 2022 season, but he was thrust into action in Week 1 when Meinerz went down with a hamstring injury. He played five games at right guard then 10 games at center after center after Lloyd Cushenberry got hurt.
The results were fine. Glasgow was essentially an average to just below-average lineman in every way.
When he subbed in for Cushenberry, the pass protection dropped off fairly significantly, especially toward the end of the year. Glasgow gave up one sack in his first 10 appearances but gave up a sack in four of his final five games. In the running game, Glasgow was a clear upgrade over Cushenberry but wasn’t an all-star by any stretch of the imagination.
The problem for Glasgow: seven penalties, which were two more than any other Broncos lineman.
If Glasgow had played a penalty-free season, he probably would have finished with a C+. With the penalties, Glasgow’s grade drops significantly.
Denver would save more than $10 million by moving on from Glasgow this offseason, which will probably be an easy decision. It might be smart to try to bring Glasgow back at a lower number. He could be the best backup interior lineman in the NFL if he cuts out the penalties.
RT/LT Cam Fleming – D+
For the first few weeks of the season, the Broncos seemed to have found in 30-year-old tackle Cameron Fleming.
Fleming was filling in for Billy Turner at right tackle and was bowling over edge defenders in the run game. The Broncos were electric running to his right side. He was the headliner in our first Game Grades of the season.
But by the end of the season, Fleming had allowed two more sacks than any other Broncos lineman and the ninth-most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The run-blocking prowess dried up, too.
At the last minute, I switched Fleming from a C- to a D+. He gave up the most sacks on the team that led the league in sacks allowed. We saw flashes of productivity, but it wasn’t enough to outweigh the flaw. The Broncos could do much worse at swing tackle next season, though.
LT Calvin Anderson – D+
The 26-year-old tackle played more in 2022 than in the rest of his career combined, and the results were… fine.
Anderson is solid enough in pass protection but doesn’t provide much pop in the running game. For that reason, he’s a much better fit on the left side than the right. His pressure rate allowed is lackluster, but it’s worth remembering that he typically drew the toughest assignment and was generally able to avoid allowing sacks.
C/G Luke Wattenberg – F
I hate to give the rookie an F, but there’s really no option.
Wattenberg gave up three sacks in 54 pass-blocking snaps. Only three players in the NFL were asked to pass block 54 times or more and gave up pressure at a higher rate than Wattenberg. Two of those players aren’t offensive linemen. It was brutal. He started the first game against the Chiefs, and Chris Jones abused the youngster. Wattenberg was benched by halftime.
The 25-year-old’s career isn’t doomed by any means, but it’s tough to find any positives in his 2022 work.
RG Tom Compton – F
Only one NFL lineman played pass-blocking snaps and gave up as many sacks as Luke Wattenberg: Tom Compton.
The 33-year-old veteran spent most of the year recovering from injury, but his lone performance (30 snaps against the Cardinals) was a tough one.
RT/LG Quinn Bailey – D
The 27-year-old earned the first extensive look of his career this season, appearing in four games and starting the season finale against the Chiefs.
He played well for a backup.
The pressure rate was higher than you’d like to see and he wasn’t creating many holes in the running game, but Quinn Bailey avoided penalties and generally looked like he belonged. He isn’t vying for a starting job, but he’s probably a worthy depth piece somewhere in the league.
LG Netane Muti – B-
The 23-year-old only appeared in one game and only played 28 snaps, but he played well.
Netane Muti aligned at left guard against the Chiefs after Luke Wattenberg’s early struggles and didn’t allow a single pressure. He was probably the beneficiary of a small sample size.
The next day, the Raiders signed Muti from the Broncos’ practice squad.
Greg Dulcich – B-
The Broncos’ rookie tight end is tough to grade.
His 41.1 yards per game were the ninth-most among NFL tight ends. His 411 receiving yards were the second-most among rookie tight ends. He provided a receiving pop from the position that no other Broncos tight end could muster.
But as a blocker, Dulcich struggled. Mightily. He whiffed. He was pushed backward. He rarely contributed anything in the running game.
Luckily for the 22-year-old, he was asked to run routes twice as often as he was asked to block, so blocking only accounts for one-third of his grade.
If not for the blocking struggles, Dulcich would probably have earned a B+ grade, which would be stellar for a rookie. Even the B-, which means he was an above-average NFL tight end, is a great mark. If he can turn into an average blocker, there’s no reason he can’t earn an A in 2023.
Eric Saubert – D+
The 28-year-old tight end’s big training camp translated into a 22-yard touchdown against the Texans in Week 2, but the production came and went throughout the season. His best day was a five-catch, 36-yard outing against the Colts.
Eric Saubert was the most versatile of Denver’s tight ends, with a nearly 50-50 split between running routes and blocking. He didn’t particularly excel in either area, but he was solid enough in both. I’d grade his efforts in the receiving game slightly ahead of the running game.
Andrew Beck – C-
The Broncos’ fullback got off to a hot start in Week 1. He caught 25- and 27-yard passes and made a couple of key blocks. He just about scored a touchdown on a shovel pass, too, but a penalty negated the play.
Over the rest of the season, Beck only touched the ball five more times. One of those was the infamous fullback option play on a third-and-short, which came the next week.
Fun fact: Andrew Beck had the most yards per route run of any Broncos tight end.
Eric Tomlinson – C-
Nine catches for 79 yards while playing in every game doesn’t scream C, but it’s important to remember Tomlinson’s job. He’s a blocking tight end and he was asked to block 75% of the time he was on the field. And Tomlinson did a solid job when he was blocking, though there weren’t many highlight plays.
As a receiver, Tomlinson was nothing special. But his grade is mostly about what he did as a blocker because he was mostly a blocker.
Albert Okwuegbunam – D-
Albert O can’t really block. That makes it tough to put him on the field, but the Broncos probably could have found more opportunities for him.
Emphasis on the probably. For example, against the 49ers he was asked to pass block on one snap. He gave up a sack on that snap. On another play, his job was to block and then release into a route, and he the defender he half-blocked and left wound up with a sack. If you wanted to, you could make a case that he gave up two sacks on one pass-blocking attempt. After that game, Okwuegbunam’s usage dropped significantly. He played two snaps the next week then only appeared in one of the next eight games.
But writing all of that might have been a waste of time since Albert O blocked 20% of the time he was on the field, so it’s only worth 20% of his grade.
His grade falls off because of what he did as a receiver. Albert O picked up .69 yards per route run, which was the worst of the Broncos’ tight ends. Greg Dulcich nearly doubled him up.
Part of the problem is probably that the Broncos never tried to get Okwuegbunam into a rhythm. He was in and out of the lineup, and the Broncos didn’t maximize his talents. But on a per-snap basis, Okwuegbunam struggled in 2022, and his grade reflects that.