There’s a lot to look forward to for Denver Broncos fans entering the 2022 season. With a bonafide franchise quarterback in the fold, this offense should finally see lift off for the first time since, say, 2014.
But Russell Wilson will only be as good as his protection upfront. Let’s face it, the Broncos still have some significant question marks on the offensive line.
It’s not for a lack of options, though. We’ll see how the starting five competition shakes out but based on the collection of candidates vying for a job, Wilson could be surrounded with the best O-line talent he’s had in years.
However, the Broncos’ starting five remains the biggest question mark heading into training camp. Only one job is set in stone — Garett Bolles at left tackle — so who are the primary candidates to join him on the starting five?
Let’s meet the dudes.
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Incumbent: Dalton Risner | LG
Risner was Denver’s second-round pick back in 2019, but after an impressive rookie showing, he’s only managed to tread water at best, and arguably regressed at worst.
The O-line coach who drafted Risner — Mike Munchak — is gone, and it’s Butch Barry now calling the shots upfront. How Risner ingratiates himself to Barry will go a long way towards deciding his fate.
No doubt, though, Risner is no longer a shoe-in starter. He’ll have to sing for his supper this year.
If there’s anything that hints at Risner answering the bell, it’s the fact that he’s entering a contract year. Knowing what we do about his intangibles — his leadership traits, football IQ, and work ethic — it’s hard to envision anyone besides him opens the 2022 season as the starter at left guard.
Incumbent: Lloyd Cushenberry | C
Cushenberry was a third-round pick in the draft class following Risner, and like his trenchmate, he started immediately as a rookie. Cushenberry played 100% of Denver’s offensive snaps in 2020, which was impressive, but his play often left much to be desired.
Cushenberry’s biggest weakness has been just that: weakness. He hasn’t held up well at the point of attack when facing strong opposing defensive linemen.
With Denver moving to a zone blocking scheme, Cushenberry’s big football brain should serve him well. But how quickly he gets off the ball will also determine how well he takes to the new scheme and coach.
Wilson has seemingly vouched for Cushenberry this offseason but there is another viable threat to win the starting center job in Denver. Still, it’s Cushenberry’s job to lose.
Incumbent: Graham Glasgow | RG
For the past two seasons, Glasgow has opened the campaign as Denver’s starting right guard. He signed a four-year, $44 million deal in the spring of 2020 and it’s hard to argue that he’s justified the contract.
A combination of lackluster quarterback play, COVID, and injuries have made life in Denver difficult for Glasgow. The Broncos gave him an ultimatum this offseason, after he missed most of the 2021 campaign with an injury: take a pay-cut, or hit the bricks.
Glasgow accepted less money, and if he hits training camp fully healthy, he could push Cushenberry for the starting center job. Glasgow will also be a factor for the starting right guard job, but it won’t be easy fending off the next guy.
Quinn Meinerz | RG
Drafted in Round 3 last year out of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Meinerz proved early on that his year off of football, due to the pandemic, didn’t hamper his development. The previous coaching regime cross-trained Meinerz in training camp last year, both as a guard and a center.
But when the rubber met the road in the wake of Glasgow’s injury, Meinerz’s number was called at right guard. The rookie went on to start nine games at right guard, and turned in impressive film.
Meinerz is a fierce bully as a run blocker but if he wants to lock down the starting right guard job, he’ll need to prove that he’s taken some steps as a pass protector, especially with Wilson under center.
New head coach Nathaniel Hackett somewhat spoiled Meinerz’s 2022 outlook by letting slip a comment that heavily suggested that the Broncos view him as the guy at right guard this year.
But there is another…
Netane Muti | OG
Muti was Denver’s sixth-round pick back in 2020 and the former Fresno State star impressed as a rookie. Year 2 rolled around, though, and with the addition of Meinerz, Muti was somewhat relegated to the background.
However, Coach Hackett praised Muti’s get-off the snap during OTAs, which could portend well for his starting prospects. Muti will push Risner and Meinerz/Glasgow and will not be easy to vanquish in an open competition this summer.
Similar to Meinerz, Muti is one hell of a run blocker but his weakness is pass protection. When it comes to pass blocking, Muti makes Meinerz look like an All-Pro. That’ll be crucial to deciding Muti’s place on the roster in 2022.
Billy Turner | RT
Turner is the favorite to win the starting right tackle job this summer. On his second stint with the Broncos now, Turner spent the past few years in Green Bay with Hackett, and new Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten.
That gives Turner the inside track. Turner’s resume of competently blocking for an elite quarterback will be a comfort to the coaching staff. But he’ll have competition by way of a guy with past ties to Coach Barry.
Tom Compton | OL
The Broncos signed Compton to a one-year deal this past spring and he brings zone-blocking acumen in spades. He also worked under Barry in San Francisco.
The Broncos like Compton as a possible right tackle but he can play inside at guard, too. It wouldn’t be totally shocking if Compton were to unseat a Risner or Meinerz at one of the guard spots, depending on how the Broncos divvy up the O-line snaps.
In the meantime, Compton’s initial look will come at right tackle as a potential option to book-end Bolles and keep Wilson’s edge clean.
Calvin Anderson | OT
Anderson was re-signed by Denver this past spring, and he’s a threat to win the right tackle job. Anderson is making about the same money as both Turner and Compton, so there’s no financial incentive to start one above another.
Right tackle will come down to competency and while I like Anderson’s grit, he’s not as polished as Turner or Compton. But at the very least, Anderson could serve as this team’s swing tackle once again, as he has extensive experience playing on the left side.
Ben Braden | OG
Another former Hackett acolyte in Green Bay, the Broncos signed Braden this past spring. In four NFL seasons — two with the Jets — he’s appeared in a grand total of 16 games with zero starts.
Undrafted out of Michigan in 2017, I’ll be surprised if Braden makes the Broncos’ 53-man roster, let alone wins a starting job. However, he has ties to the new coaching staff, and that history availed him already by virtue of the million-dollar contract he garnered from the Broncos.
Projected Starting Five
- LT: Bolles
- LG: Risner
- C: Cushenberry
- RG: Meinerz
- RT: Turner
This is how I foresee the O-line competition shaping up. But even if I’ve got one or two spots wrong, this is shaping up to be the most talented and competent O-line Wilson will have played behind since, possibly, the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl years nearly a decade ago.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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