It’s been a long road for John Elway and company, but after four offseasons of building, it appears as though the Broncos have finally found a front seven that they can brag about defensively.
There have been some really good players coming in and out of Denver, but I can’t recall — at least on paper — a unit that was as good and deep as the one the Broncos are expected to trot out at training camp when it opens on July 24th.
How will players coming off of injury last year come back? Will the young players be able to step right in and make the impact they are capable of? There are some legitimate questions here but let’s look at what the Broncos have up front that not many teams in the NFL have.
The starting unit up front is the best possible combination of strength, speed, athleticism, and contains a whole lot of upside.
The Broncos used three picks between the 2012 and 2013 NFL Drafts on defensive linemen Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Sylvester Williams, all of whom are expected to play huge roles in 2014.
Wolfe was injured for a good portion of last season, and missed every game from December on with complications from a neck injury suffered in the pre-season stemming into significant weight loss and seizure-like symptoms. He’s back this year, and is the heaviest he’s been in his professional career at over 290 pounds. Wolfe is a combo inside-outside player who will primarily play base LDE for the Broncos. His size allows players like Von Miller to have one on one situations with tight ends and tackles that Miller can eat up.
Working inside, defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams provide the Broncos with a 1-2 punch at the defensive tackle spots that will soon be one of the most envied duos in the NFL. Williams started the last four games of last season with Kevin Vickerson out for the season with an injury, and he played phenomenally at times, especially against Houston where he racked up five tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack.
The Broncos are counting on the development of ‘Sly’ along with the continued dominance of second-year Bronco Terrance Knighton, a player who has history with Jack Del Rio dating back to their Jaguars days and who came on last year to become one of the top ten defensive tackles in the entire NFL.
Knighton’s play last year improved steadily over the course of the season, and he became a force against the run as well as a key piece of what turned out to be a hodge-podge pass rush unit. Knighton, you’ll recall, made one of the biggest plays of the Broncos’ 2013 season when he sacked Tom Brady on a fourth down play that helped the Broncos win the AFC Title Game.
With a fringe ‘elite’ player like Knighton emerging in the middle, the Broncos have the interior locked up but the depth is overflowing where it once was barren.
Behind Knighton and Williams is veteran Kevin Vickerson, a guy who was picked up early in the Josh McDaniels regime and who has been a really solid contributor for the Broncos, especially in terms of his run defense. Vickerson’s experience will be highly valued for the Broncos’ defensive line unless they look to the potential of some of their younger guys, like the versatile Mitch Unrein.
Unrein played significant snaps last season at defensive tackle and has also contributed in the Broncos’ goal-line offense, even catching a touchdown pass. He’s a former undrafted free agent out of Wyoming who is a classic overachiever, and provides another big body in the middle.
A true sleeper on the defensive line right now is Marvin Austin, a former NFL Draft darling who was considered a top prospect coming out of North Carolina before he was suspended his final season there. Still, the talent was there and Austin flashed his athletic ability at the UNC pro day, where he showed enough to warrant a second round pick from the New York Giants.
After being released from the Giants, Austin played some for the Dolphins and Cowboys before winding up in Denver this offseason. According to some reports out of minicamp, Austin looked really good and could be a dark horse to not only make the roster but make contributions this year and beyond. That would be very exciting.
On the outside, the Broncos have some intriguing options. One player who would win “Sixth Man of the Year” in my mind is Malik Jackson, who was a breakout player for the Broncos last season. Jackson’s skillset is versatile. He can play inside or out, and flashes the strength and quickness to be effective both against the run and pass. The Broncos can use him as a third down defensive tackle or as an end in their base package, and he’s a legitimate threat to take Derek Wolfe’s starting job this season. He was named a “Secret Superstar” by Pro Football Focus.
The big fish on the defensive line is future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, who was released by Dallas and immediately flown to sign in Denver the next day. All reports indicate Ware is back at full speed, looking as quick as he did when he was in Dallas. I’m already incredibly impressed by his leadership abilities and the way he influences the players around him, just from what they say about him. I feel like Ware will be back to his old self and bring Denver a major presence from the RDE spot, but he also has the versatility to stand up and play rush linebacker whenever they want him to. he can move around the formation.
Along with Ware, the Broncos hope Von Miller can return to form. Miller is the best pass rusher in the league when he’s on his game. People forget after last season’s weight gain experiment that Miller is lightning fast off the snap. His bend around the edge is ridiculous, and his ability to close on the quarterback and finish plays is alarming. Post-ACL surgery, Miller himself told me he feels like his situation is ‘different’ than other ACL recoveries. He feels like he can be better than he was before the injury.
The Broncos also have a really intriguing piece in pass rusher Quanterus Smith, the guy who abused Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio (2014 2nd round pick) to the tune of 3 sacks and was leading the nation with 12.5 before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the year. He was picked by Denver in the 5th round of the 2013 draft, but most agree he would have gone much sooner had it not been for that devastating injury.
Other players who are going to be counted on in a big way are Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan, the latter of which had a huge season in 2013. Trevathan was the Broncos’ best coverage linebacker and led the team in tackles. He received the calls from coordinator Jack Del Rio and really came into his own as a player last year. He returns as a leader of a young group of LBs, where Nate Irving is going to need to step up in a contract year.
Irving made some plays last season, but through whatever set of circumstances hasn’t been able to hit a groove at inside linebacker. The Broncos have gone to free agency to sign a veteran body each of the last two seasons to mask Irving’s raw abilities, but it appears as though this year is different and they are counting on him to play a significant role for the defense.
The Broncos also used two draft picks on linebackers, including LSU’s leading tackler Lamin Barrow. They also drafted the athletic Corey Nelson out of Oklahoma, who missed a portion of last season with a torn pectoral.
Not to mention, Denver has intriguing 2013 undrafted free agent Lerentee McCray, who blew up training camp and the pre-season last year and was well on his way to making the 53-man roster before a season-ending injury. McCray is back, and even working with the first-team defense with Von Miller recovering from injury.
Furthermore, the Broncos signed Colorado State star Shaquil Barrett after the 2014 draft, a player who was the MWC Defensive Player of the Year last season and who has the instincts and pass rush ability to make an impact at the next level.
The defensive front seven is as deep in Denver as I can remember it. And it feels good.