Joe Webb didn’t see No. 40 in green. Or if the Houston Texans third-string quarterback saw the linebacker lurking, he overlooked him. Webb tried to lob a pass over the top, but that linebacker — sporting a number usually reserved for future castoffs — leapt into the air and tipped the ball away.
That’s the story of Curtis Bolton’s football journey to this point. Bolton has gone from a lightly recruited high school player to Oklahoma’s special teams maven who earned his way onto the field in the Big 12 to an undrafted free agent now staring a starting linebacker job with the Packers squarely in the eyes.
If you don’t know the player Pro Football Focus graded as the top defender from Week 1 of the preseason, you aren’t alone. NFL Draft Scout, the gold standard for draft coverage, projected Bolton could go as high as the 5th round, with a team most likely to snag him in the 6th or 7th round. He was their 21st ranked outside linebacker.
In fact, Bolton was such an afterthought to many as a prospect, he doesn’t even have a MockDraftable page to check his testing numbers. His RotoWorld page only features two news items, neither from the year he actually spent starting for the Sooners. Search YouTube, and the only highlights you’ll find are from when “Buzzy” was a three-star recruit in Murrieta, California.
Yet Bolton was an honorable mention All-Big 12 player last season with 138 tackles, 12 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, and 2 passes defended in his one year as a starter for the Sooners. Players from blue blood programs who put up those kinds of numbers generally get noticed more than Bolton. At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, he’s undersized and lacks the athleticism that jumps off the page the way NFL teams covet. His Relative Athlete Score of 7.15 is just a touch better than Kyler Fackrell (and just ahead of ex-Packer Carl Bradford) but at 6-foot-1 228 pounds teams would want something faster than a 4.59 40-yard dash and better agility times.
On the other hand, as Bill Belichick would say, don’t tell me what he can’t do, tell me what he can do.
Early in Bolton’s college career, Oklahoma linebackers coach Tim Kish decided the best way to use Bolton’s first-step explosiveness was on the edge. Kish says Bolton was the team’s second-best pass rusher, a dime package specialist put on the field to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
Injuries kept him from making a bigger splash before his standout senior season. A shoulder injury robbed him of the chance at significant playing time as a junior and he wasn’t expected to start even as a senior with the Sooners moving a five-star recruit to inside linebacker. Bolton won the job, shocking everyone but his position coach.
“That’s exactly the player I expected him to be,” Kish says. “I think he would have had a similar outcome to his junior season had be been able to play through that year without getting hurt.”
With just that single season of production, size and the history of injuries, NFL teams worried about his role at the next level. Could he hold up? But the talent, the obvious skillset with his ability to play in space, was all there.
Lance Zierlein, who scouts draft prospects for NFL.com said this about Bolton: “Bolton needs to get bigger and improve his hand usage, but he plays a persistent brand of ball and showed vast improvement by the end of the year. His fluidity in space and knack as a blitzer could earn him a legitimate shot as a 4-3 backup WILL linebacker who could become one of the steals of the late rounds.”
SB Nation’s Dan Kadar saw a similar player on tape, also pointing to potential as a WILL linebacker in the NFL. Some of Kadar’s notes on Bolton include the following: “Is more of a space player than someone who will come up and fill a gap. Has on-field speed and hustle to chase. Could be a solid blitzer. Intriguing as a cover linebacker because of his movement skills.”
The combination of size (or in Bolton’s case, a lack thereof) and coverage ability is what had analysts pegging him as a weakside linebacker. The Platonic ideal at WILL has long been Derrick Brooks, the greatest pass-defending outside linebacker ever. Undersized linebackers who struggle to get off blocks in the run game get put that that box, which is an unfortunate shape for a 3-4 defense where Bolton has to stay inside.
Kish dismisses the notion Bolton has to be a weakside run-and-chase linebacker.
“Curtis is not afraid to go in there and mix it up inside,” Kish says, noting the NFL game has followed the college game by removing many of the traditional power looks that smaller linebackers would have struggled to defend in generations past.
“For him to be able to run down counters, and powers, tosses and sweeps and anything that’s outside the tackles box, I think that’s something he’ll really thrive in,” he says.
“I had no hesitation playing him at the WILL inside linebacker in college. He held his own.”
Fluidity in space kept Antonio Morrison from being a bigger part of the defense for Mike Pettine last season and Bolton’s ability to shoot gaps as a blitzer dovetails with Pettine’s affinity for double-A gap pressures. He was also one of the most efficient blitzing linebackers in the 2019 draft class with 29 pressures in 87 pass rush snaps, and finished 7th in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric, ahead of top-10 linebacker picks Devin Bush and Devin White.
This is Bolton’s pass-rush prowess on display, the trait that earned him reps on the field to start his career.
But despite his size, Bolton makes an impact in the run game as well. Run stop percentage how measures how often a player makes a tackle that results in a non-successful play for the offense. Bolton’s run stop percentage at Oklahoma (10.74%) was just a tick below the aforementioned White (11.24%) and well ahead of Bush (6.76%). Those numbers could have been even better if he’d tackled more efficiently.
Aside from size, reliability as a tackler stands out as Bolton’s biggest flaw. For a Packers defense with precisely that ailment going back years now, the rookie linebacker has to get that part of his game worked out if he wants to be on the field for Green Bay.
“I gotta finish plays,” Bolton told Matt Schneidman of the The Athletic on Sunday. “My first or second play in, I should’ve got a TFL, didn’t get it. I tipped a pass and jumped, could’ve picked it, didn’t pick it. I cleanly beat the running back on a pass rush, don’t get the sack. Those are things that, if you wanna play in this league, you gotta finish those. This isn’t high school. This isn’t college. There’s 100 people out there waiting for the opportunity that you have. Those are the type of plays you gotta make if you wanna stick around.”
Bolton already has to deal with challenges from fellow Big 12 rookie Ty Summers, who has made a push of his own in training camp. Even before Bolton’s big preseason opener—Summers had one as well—Bolton often ran ahead of Summers in the inside linebacker rotation. With Oren Burks having no clear timetable for recovery following a chest injury, Bolton has received the first crack at trying to replace the versatile Year 2 cover linebacker.
“You hate to see that stuff go down. I’ve seen all the work (Burks) put in in this last year too,” Bolton said. “It’s tragic. We’re all praying for him, for a speedy recovery. At the end of the day, football’s football, but this is life. This is his livelihood. I recognize that, but at the end of the day I have to be the type of person that, I play his position. It’s a next man up mentality and I’m just trying to take advantage of my opportunity.”
Challenges, even deeply personal ones, are nothing new for Bolton, who lost his father, his idol, in high school. He plays the game now as an homage to his dad. From personal tragedy to injuries and competition from five-star recruits, now to facing the prospect of going from camp body to starter, Bolton doesn’t back down from these challenges.
“He’s a tremendous competitor,” Kish insists. “He doesn’t think anyone can beat him. He wouldn’t say that to you, but I will.”
On Thursday night, Buzzy will get his first chance to run with the starters in a game where they’ll actually get meaningful playing time against the Ravens, an AFC playoff team from a year ago. We also found out Tuesday Oren Burks’ pectoral injury likely won’t be season ending, but there’s no time table for his return. Could his job end up being taken when Burks can get back healthy? Given the way his football life has unfolded to this point, underestimate Bolton at your own peril.