ENGLEWOOD - A first-round pick should be an immediate starter, right? For most NFL teams, the answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes. To the Broncos, in John Elway's tenure, nearly the exact opposite has been the case.
The Broncos' last four first-round picks all fell under this unusual umbrella, falling short of the starting lineup: Sylvester Williams (2013), Bradley Roby (2014), Shane Ray (2015) and Paxton Lynch (2016). The lone exception in the Elway era: No. 2 overall pick Von Miller in 2011.
Sure, Ray and Roby joined a few of the NFL's elite units. Ray had no chance of leapfrogging DeMarcus Ware or Von Miller on the depth chart and the same would be said about Roby overtaking Chris Harris Jr. or Aqib Talib.
On the other hand, Lynch joined a unit with Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian — at the time, a seventh-round pick just the year before. That didn’t prevent Lynch from finding a seat on the bench for 13 games during his rookie season. As for Williams, he had an opportunity to start, but couldn't beat out Kevin Vickerson or Terrance Knighton — two solid starters, but certainly not unbeatable players.
Along with the new coaching staff brought in this offseason came new philosophies. However, one aspect that Vance Joseph has made clear in his five months on the job is the best player will play, no matter where they were drafted, how much they've played or how much they make.
During OTAs, Joseph backed up his words with his actions by not playing Bolles, just because he is a first-rounder. By the end of offseason workouts, Bolles had overtaken Donald Stephenson on the depth chart, but was splitting reps with Ty Sambrailo at left tackle.
"Bolles is alternating with Ty [Sambrailo] at left tackle every other series,” Joseph said. “He’s made a lot of progress. It’s a tough spot to play as a rookie, and it takes a lot of football IQ to play that spot in the NFL. When he knows what to do, he can block his guy. His talent shows. The ultimate issue is knowing what to do and how to do it.”
This doesn’t mean that Bolles can’t, or won’t, take the starting job by the start of the season. It means it won’t be given to him. He’ll have to earn it. For Bolles, that means getting up to speed with the mental aspect of the game.
“He has to learn what to do first,” Joseph said. “Obviously he has talent as a first-rounder. He’s tall, he’s long and he’s athletic, but it’s a tough offense to learn. That’s the first part for rookies, to learn what to do first before they can perform.”
With training camp and preseason still ahead, there is plenty of time for Bolles to learn. Sambrailo has started games at left tackle in his career, but isn't established in that role — hence the reason Denver used their first-round pick on that position.
It may be a tougher road than than originally thought for Bolles as Sambrailo, a former second-round pick in 2015, could be the healthiest he has been since Denver drafted him.
“He’s looked athletic this offseason. He’s getting his strength back,” Joseph said on Sambrailo. “He’s doing fine. He’s coming along great.”
Just because Bolles wasn't the lone starter with the first-team during the offseason shouldn’t be a concern for his future prognosis. But don’t expect him to be given the job in September if he doesn’t earn it in July and August. Joseph, and Broncos’ history, don’t mind putting a first-round pick on the bench.