Nathaniel Hackett’s Projected Denver Offense: Part 2

The play of the offensive line is arguably the most distinctive, recognizable, and crucial element of Shanahan-tree offenses. The very best lines playing this style of offense (such as LA Rams and SF 49ers) appear almost to move as one, with each player forging one link of a moving phalanx. Players are coached to play by certain relatively simple rules– whether a player is “covered” (meaning with a defensive player lined up opposite them), “uncovered”(meaning the opposite), and to the play side or not– determines the entirety of the offensive lineman’s role. However, within those simple rules are endlessly complex nuances, with specific steps accounted for, and with players required to fully trust that those to each side of them are following those rules (about who to block, who to team block, and who to ignore) with equal subtlety and commitment.

As such, coaching is extraordinarily important to the success of this scheme, and coaches who teach this style of play are in very high demand (particularly as this scheme has exploded in popularity over the past 5 years). It is likely no coincidence that Hackett’s first hire was intended to be Green Bay’s offensive line coach (Adam Stevanich), and when GB– desperate to retain him– instead promoted Stevanich to preclude his leaving, Hackett turned to San Francisco (with arguably the very best coached Shanahan-style O-line) for his next hire.

To play this style of offense requires a commitment to a very specific sort of highly technical play. And Denver’s current players on the OL– even with as much outside zone as they’ve run in previous schemes– will almost certainly need a period of adjustment before they are playing with anywhere near the cohesiveness and consistency of top-tier Shanahan-style offensive lines. However, on reviewing the players that Denver has assembled to play this scheme, the talent (particularly regarding mobility) is tantalizing.

The left side of the Denver’s line is easiest to project, since both players already played in this scheme under Shanahan-tree offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello in 2019. Garett Bolles is a natural fit in a movement based scheme, with excellent mobility, center core strength, and endurance/ tenacity. Bolles’s most relevant biomechanical weakness– lateral strength– will mean that his first step will arguably be his most important, since he will need to maximize his position/ leverage to prevent defenders from beating him to the outside. But once Bolles is able to play with technically-refined confidence, he will likely play this scheme at a very high level. In general, as Bolles’s early career raw athleticism has translated increasingly to technically solid play, Bolles’s playing level has risen accordingly, and it seems likely that his play in Hackett’s scheme will follow a similar arc.

Dalton Risner, on the other hand, is a natural fit for this sort of scheme (and was drafted in 2019 specifically to play this style of offense). While Risner can sometimes struggle being asked to drop straight back one on one in pass protection (as he was asked to do very often over the past couple seasons), his balance and strength in motion are noteworthy and rare. Few guards can exert as much consistent leverage/ push while their feet are moving (and still maintain balance/ equilibrium), and so in a scheme where offensive linemen are consistently in motion (laterally, or moving to the second level after team blocking), Risner’s rare movement traits will again become high-level assets.

Lloyd Cushenberry also shows excellent mobility (for a center), even if his ability to leverage/ push while moving is not to Risner’s level. Cushenberry in 2021 still showed excellent length/ developmental potential, but also still showed a lack of independence between thoracic and lumbar areas. Specifically, Cushenberry’s base is still not able to stay fully rooted while he is exerting consistent pressure with his upper body. As a result, his play strength is not to the level suggested by his length/ raw efficiency, and will still need to be improved over time. So while Cushenberry’s mobility will be an asset in this scheme, his ability to create creases/ consistent protection when not engaged in team blocking (where he already excels) will likely be lacking. In the short/ medium term, it seems very likely that Cushenberry will be a strong asset when team blocking, but a somewhat weaker link when isolated one on one.

Moving now to the right side of the line, Quinn Meinerz is already closing in on elite guard play, even as he remains somewhat raw technically. Meinerz’s center core strength/ balance is truly superlative, and when going straight ahead he becomes a nearly unstoppable force. In addition, his mobility is excellent (again, particularly going forward), as is his ability to leverage his strength while in motion. Where Meinerz will likely see large improvements to his game (via technical refinements) is in his lateral agility and ability to position himself to maximize his leverage (and prevent defenders from attacking him to the outside– much like with Garett Bolles). Meinerz plays like a living bulldozer, and as he learns the nuances of the outside zone scheme, will be increasingly able to position his bulldozing for maximal effect.

These above four players are likely foundational pieces for Nathaniel Hackett’s offense going forward, and health permitting, will likely be playing in Denver for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, while Graham Glasgow might actually be Denver’s very best offensive lineman when healthy and in a properly-fitting scheme (his ability to drop back and defend against pass rushers one on one is truly elite (again, when he’s fully healthy)), Glasgow’s one main weakness is his lack of mobility. Glasgow is a powerful blocker and shows excellent short area strength/ balance, but his ability to maneuver laterally and bring leverage/ force to his blocking while in motion is far from optimal. Overall, Glasgow is an excellent player (who unfortunately was rarely at his best in Denver, often playing hurt), but if every other player on this list stays healthy through preseason, it would not at all be a surprise to see him traded. He is likely far more valuable to a team running a different sort of scheme (like Pat Shurmur’s, which he was originally signed to play), and may therefore become a more valuable trade asset than player for Denver.

Billy Turner and Tom Compton, on the other hand, were signed from Shanahan-style offenses (GB and SF) and are perfect fits in Nathaniel Hackett’s similar-style offense. Both players are lateral oriented anterior dominant and therefore unsurprisingly show excellent lateral agility (and mobility in general). Turner shows very quick feet in setting up for pass protection (as well as good agility/ endurance), and is the more likely player of the two to start the year as an every down player (at RT) given his greater/ more balanced overall development (meaning he is more likely to stay healthy over time). Turner is also more capable in pass protection than Compton, who can be exposed by powerful rushing DE/ OLB (Compton was a major liability in pass protection against Von Miller in the NFC Championship game, where Turner at least mostly held Miller in check during their matchup in GB). Compton however is no slouch, particularly in the run game (where he is excellent at moving/ occupying defenders laterally from their gap), and as a backup/ short term starter (at either T or G) will likely prove to be very valuable. Both Compton and Turner are similar in that they combine good mobility/ agility with somewhat underwhelming forward push (and in Compton’s case, somewhat poor balance when dropping straight back). Turner was likely at least somewhat protected by Aaron Rodgers’s quick reads/ release in GB and so may be hard pressed to repeat his statistical success with a slower-playing QB in Wilson. Nevertheless, both players are excellent and experienced fits in the projected scheme, who will help teach the nuances of this technical style to their line-mates while serving as quality short-medium term starters.

Calvin Anderson is similar in that he combines reasonably high levels of lateral anterior efficiency with under-developed (and under-powered) posterior areas. However, while Turner and Compton fall largely above the starter/ backup line in terms of talent (particularly when accounting for scheme), Anderson likely sits solidly in backup territory. Anderson shows good initial ability to drop back in pass blocking, with good first-step quickness/ positioning. However his overall efficiency/ development (particularly in posterior areas) is simply not up to the level of his line-mates, and when he is faced with tenacious consistent pressure, will likely eventually give way. A solid short term starter at tackle as a pass blocker (particularly left tackle, given that he is better at facing speed rushers than power rushers), he would likely be exposed when facing the demands of a full schedule (and with more tape for defensive coaches to study). And his lack of balance/ strength when moving forward/ laterally (so when run blocking, particularly in a Shanahan-style scheme) would likely become a liability. A good backup to have on the roster– someone who can play well in short spurts– but who will probably not be competing for a starting spot (again, assuming health for the players above him on this list).

Overall, this makes for 5-7 quality starting options (6 of whom are excellent scheme fits) for an offensive line that can only start 5 players. Meaning that this line is composed of both quality and depth (even if/ when Graham Glasgow is traded). Again, there will almost certainly be an adjustment period for this line (perhaps one longer than a single season)– even for players familiar with this scheme, it takes time to build habits and trust with the players surrounding you (on whom you are reliant for team blocking). But if this line can cohere anywhere near as well as the top-end Shanahan-scheme lines (which seems quite possible, given the level of talent and the provenance of the coaches), Denver may be able to run a very prolific and successful offense once the learning curve is crested.