ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Six months ago, Denver Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles was headed toward a prove-it, make-or-break contract year after the team declined his fifth-year option. It was a bit of a snub for a former first-round pick.
With no offseason workouts due to COVID-19 and a long list of on-field items that needed fixing, Bolles dug in and made one of the most dramatic offseason makeovers the Broncos have ever seen.
He did it by working against the best pass-rusher he could find during a pandemic: his wife, Natalie. In the kitchen.
"I really just took it upon myself to know that there's always something that you can do," Bolles said. "You can always run, you can always take sets ... I took sets in my kitchen barefoot so when I get to my proper spot, I know exactly how my weight is between my feet and my toes. I had my wife line up, and she would run after me; and I would take sets, and I'd put my hands on her -- not hard, of course -- but just enough so I can get into a repetition of continuing to do the same thing over and over again."
Bolles took every avenue he could this offseason to get better, and the extra practice paid off.
He is one of the highest-graded tackles in the league this season -- No. 2 among left tackles in pass block win rate by ESPN's Stats and Information for players with at least 250 pass block plays. Bolles, who has not surrendered a sack this campaign, signed a four-year contract extension on Saturday that averages $17 million per year, making him the fifth-highest paid tackle in the league in average dollars per year.
What has happened for Bolles over the past six months is a testament to patience and to Broncos coach Vic Fangio, offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Broncos president of football operations John Elway and Bolles himself. He has gone from former first-round pick who was the most-penalized lineman in pro football over a four-year span to potential Pro Bowl selection with a new contract.
"The key to his turnaround is just persistence both on his part and our part," Fangio said. "Both Mike and Kupe [assistant offensive line coach Chris Kuper] and myself have had faith in him, we've stayed with him and we've talked to him regularly. We all have a good relationship with him. He had a great offseason. He stuck to it; he didn't let the outside noise -- which at times was appropriate -- stop his determination to keep improving. I think he's finally being rewarded for that approach."
It's a stark contrast to each of his first three seasons, when led the league in holding penalties (including penalties that were declined). He looked off balance much of the time, he lunged, didn't have consistent footwork, didn't show enough lower body strength. He let his emotions get to him, with one penalty leading to another like dominoes. He said officials were targeting him. And while none of his teammates ever questioned his work ethic, some believed he didn't always present an open mind to those who were trying to help him.
Bolles was booed, questioned and criticized by Broncos fans and media. At one point, Elway even questioned on the team's radio partner if Bolles knew what would be flagged for holding.
"[Fangio] left me out there when a lot of people told him not to," Bolles said. "... I know you guys have kicked me in my butt over my years and rode me hard, and those times have made me the man I am today, and I'm extremely emotional at being a Broncos for the next four years."
Bolles went to Fangio's office on Saturday when it appeared the deal was all set.
"We had an emotional couple minutes there," Fangio said. "I'm very happy for him."
Bolles credits hard work and a personnel epiphany to move past mistakes as reasons for improvement. He is willing to take a critical look at what had gone wrong.
He also has simply gained more experience. Some in the league were quick to point out Bolles played just one season of top-level college football -- at Utah -- before he entered the draft. He had a very limited exposure to football before starting his collegiate career at Snow College.
He told some teams before the 2017 draft he might have played more lacrosse than football as a young athlete.
"My goal now is to chase greatness," Bolles said Monday as he talked about his new deal. "My goal before was to get a contract, to take care of my family and my kids for many years to come; now it's to chase greatness. ... I want O-linemen down the road, 10, 20 years down the road, looking back at my film and saying, 'How can I be like that guy?' I want to be that role model. I want to chase greatness ... that's going to be mindset."