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How Broncos’ Calvin Anderson prepared for starting shot with help from Joe Staley

As he took his seat on the Broncos team plane bound for Carolina late in the 2020 season, Calvin Anderson assumed he would be occupying his typical role as the team’s swing tackle during its upcoming game against the Panthers. In other words, play a few snaps on special teams and otherwise wait on the sideline, only playing on offense if one of the team’s starting tackles went down.

Then, 30 minutes before the Broncos were set to head to the stadium to warm up for the game, Anderson got word that starting left tackle and close friend Garett Bolles had fallen ill and would miss the first contest of his career. All of a sudden, Anderson was up.

“What I’ve learned, being a swing (tackle) the last few years, is that no matter what happens during the season, you always have to be ready to play,” said Anderson, who is entering his fourth season as a member of Denver’s active roster and is a prime candidate for the team’s starting right tackle position. “The mentality has shifted as I’ve gotten older to where you always have to be thinking, ‘I’m the starter,’ at least from an offensive line perspective. We always have to be thinking we’re playing and practicing like a starter because we never know when our time will come. Now, I have a bigger opportunity to be a consistent starter, but still my mentality is, ‘Every single play, I’ve got to be ready.’ You never know what might happen. People could get hurt. We might have to shift the line around. You never know. So I want to be that for this team, a guy who is always ready to play.”

Anderson views himself as Denver’s starting right tackle, even as a battle looms at some point with Billy Turner, the free-agent acquisition with history in coach Nathaniel Hackett’s offense who is currently on the physically able to perform list as he rehabs a leg injury. It’s why, when he re-signed with the Broncos on a one-year deal back in March, Anderson made no secret about his desire to lock down the starting job at a position that has been a revolving door for Denver during much of the last decade. Since then, he has received all of the first-team reps at right tackle during both OTAs and the first seven practices of training camp.

For a former undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas who was cut by two teams as a rookie in 2019 before landing with the Broncos, Anderson isn’t going to apologize for having a head-start in what some had assumed would be Turner’s competition to lose. He’s also not taking it for granted. That much has been clear to the coaching staff.

“He’s another guy, in this system, who has really been able to show off his athleticism,” Hackett said. “And you’ve seen it, man. We had a couple plays (during Tuesday’s padded practice) that were absolutely phenomenal where Calvin was at the point of attack. When things like (Turner’s absence) happens, it gives another guy an opportunity to get all those reps. He’s developing, learning and buying in, and I really appreciate all he’s been able to do.”

The change to an outside-zone blocking scheme was one of the main reasons Anderson was eager to sign his one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Broncos in the offseason, calling it a system that “naturally fits my innate aptitudes.”

Calvin Anderson, left, and Quinn Meinerz take the field before a game last season. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

“I’m more of an athletic guy, that’s always been my thing,” Anderson said. “Where I can get out of my stance quick and run out on guys.”

For Anderson, who has a degree in mathematical economic analysis and can solve a Rubik’s cube behind his back in last than a minute, understanding how to grasp the outside-zone scheme philosophically was as important as testing himself within its confines physically. So when Anderson’s agent, Chase Callahan, offered to set up a meeting in California this offseason at the home of another client, six-time Pro Bowler and long-time former 49ers tackle Joe Staley, Anderson was elated. Anderson was already training in California with Bolles, another Callahan client and himself a friend of Staley’s, so a drive down to Staley’s house outside Orange County was a no-brainer.

“That’s a legendary player in my book, so it was just cool to be around him,” Anderson said of Staley, who played in the wide-zone scheme for virtually his entire 13-year career with the 49ers, which ran through the 2019 season.

As Staley began breaking down the intricacies of a tackle’s responsibilities in the system, Anderson listened intently, visualizing himself on the field, shooting off the ball as Russell Wilson called for the snap. Beneath the granular details of the conversation was a simple commandment for a tackle to follow, similar to the mindset Anderson had developed after being thrust into the starting lineup that afternoon in Carolina: be ready.

“The biggest thing I took away from Joe is that when you’re running outside-zone scheme, especially as the backside tackle — but, really, any play as a tackle — you’ve got to be ready to always take the backside (defensive lineman), whether it’s a three-technique or a four-technique,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to come off the ball like you’re taking him by yourself every play. That’s what he told me his approach was every time, whether he had a ‘B’ block (double-team) with the guard or not, he always came off the ball like he was taking that guy himself. That makes a huge difference in the lanes you run because the placement of you on that guy’s body is different than if you come thinking you’re going to have help. Then, you’re behind the block. He was giving me some insight on that. That was one of the first things he pointed out to me. Again, that’s 13 years of experience, so you’re going to soak all that in.”

As Anderson is explaining Staley’s teachings, he’s turning his hips and raising his hands, mimicking his movement off the line in pursuit of perfect blocking position on a defender. So much about excelling in this new scheme, he said, is about turning these movements into muscle memory, about becoming the comfortable lead in a complicated dance. When Anderson returned to practice after meeting with Staley, he was almost caught by surprise by how well their session at his house had translated onto the field.

“When we got back out here, I saw it really quickly,” Anderson said. “That’s one of the things I pointed out because it was night and day. As soon as I got out here, I realized, ‘OK, that’s exactly what he was talking about.’”

Taking every snap with the first-team offense since the playbook install began in the spring has only further ignited Anderson’s desire to lock down the right tackle job, a potentially big leap for the 26-year-old with only five NFL starts to his credit. But what he isn’t doing is allowing himself to take anything — not even a practice rep in the sweltering August sun — for granted.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to about how I came into the league, I’ll tell them, ‘I learned the NFL is a business really quick, so you’ve got to cherish these moments you’re on the field,’” Anderson said. “You never know when it’s going to be over, whether that’s for injury or business or whatever. I’ve been cherishing these moments. It’s a great opportunity with who we’re protecting back there. We’ve got to protect Russell Wilson, man. That’s a big responsibility and I feel like the pressure that creates is making me better, taking me out of my shell even more. I appreciate knowing that that’s the responsibility.”

Extra points

• Hackett said he spoke to Tim Patrick on Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after the veteran wide receiver suffered a torn ACL that will sideline him for all of 2022, and the two shared “a big hug.” After the team’s jog-through practice later in the morning, the coach said he appreciated the professionalism of Patrick’s teammates as they went about their business without him — and running back Damarea Crockett, who also tore his ACL on Tuesday — on the field.

“We all know that stuff happens in this game,” Hackett said. “It’s about how you bounce back from it. It happens around the league, throughout the whole year. You can never get too high or too low. We’ve talked about it and it’s not something we’re going to hide from. We’re going to support and love him and be there for him, and we’ve still got to move on. We have a job to do.”

Quinn Meinerz and Netane Muti have alternated spots at first-team right guard during training camp. During Wednesday’s slower-paced practice, Muti got reps at left guard, where Dalton Risner is the presumed starter. It’s all part of Hackett’s stated plan to cross-train players at various spots along the offensive line, preparing for the likelihood that injuries will force movement at some point during the season.

“Everybody needs to work with everybody,” Hackett said. “We’re going to need all the guys. Dalton has done an absolutely incredible job … but in the end, everybody’s got to be ready to play every position. We’ve tried to get as many guys in there as we can to be prepared for everything. That’s our jobs as coaches.”

• The injuries at wide receiver aren’t limited to Patrick. Tyrie Cleveland missed his second straight practice with a throat injury and Kendall Hinton was a non-participant Wednesday because of “maintenance” on a knee issue, Hackett said. Seth Williams, a sixth-round pick out of Auburn in 2021, saw some first-team reps in Patrick’s place Wednesday.

• The Broncos signed former Washington State running back Max Borghi to the 90-man roster Wednesday while placing Patrick and Crockett on injured reserve. Borghi, who attended nearby Pomona High, was with the Broncos during their June minicamp as a tryout player. The Broncos’ active roster currently stands at 89 players.

(Photo: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

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