Denver Broncos Road To 53: Defensive Line


The Denver Broncos offseason activities are over until training camp starts later next month. So far, John Elway, John Fox and the other coaches, only have OTAs and mini camps to start trying to piece together a roster. Some players, like Demarcus Ware, are obvious choices to make the roster, barring any injury that lands them on injured reserve. After them, however, it is a hard-fought battle, man verse man, to claim a spot.

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Along the defensive line, there are multiple obvious choices to make the roster. Yet, after those obvious choices there could be a couple of surprises. The 2013 season saw many of the defensive linemen fall to injury. Getting them back, healthy will be a major boost, as will a new addition or two.  Since John Elway and John Fox have taken over the team, they’ve carried nine defensive linemen on the 53-man roster twice, with only carrying eight the third year. This year, they carry eight to start the season with another on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to active later in the season.

Demarcus Ware- 

Jun 10, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware (94) speaks to the media following mini camp drills at the Broncos practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

During free agency John Elway made a few big booms, one of them being the signing of Demarcus Ware, not long after he was cut by the Dallas Cowboys. Ware has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL for almost a decade. He also has been one of the healthiest, having missed only three games his whole career, and consistent, averaging double-digit sacks all but two years of his career. He is a shoe-in to start at defensive end and to make the roster.

Terrance Knighton- 

Oct 27, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (94) sacks Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After signing a two-year deal with the Broncos on March 13, 2013, Terrance Knighton really burst onto the scene with the year he had. Entering his final year of the contract, another great year can be expected as he looks to cash in. Now if he cashes in with the Broncos, or elsewhere, is undetermined, but he is one that can be penciled in as a member of the 53, as well as a starter.

Sylvester Williams-  

Aug 24, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (92) lines up during the second half against the St. Louis Rams at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 27-26. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

After being drafted 28th overall of the 2013 draft, Sylvester Williams struggled early on to adapt to NFL play. When he was thrust into a starting job due to injury of another, his struggles still showed, but they were less frequent. He seemed to settle down as the season went on and started showing the potential that got John Elway to draft him. With him entering his second year, he should take a big step forward. He can be marked down to make the 53. There’s a good chance he is the starter as well.

Derek Wolfe- 

Sep 29, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe (95) during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2013 season, where his health was up and down, Derek Wolfe is fully healthy, ready to go and back to his playing weight. During the 2013 year Wolfe dealt with two cases of food poisoning, a neck injury, and seizures that led to him being hospitalized, then eventually injured reserve.  Part of Wolfe’s health issues led to him playing at 260 pounds, 20-30 pounds less than his desired play weight. Now his weight is up to 290 pounds, the heaviest he has ever been with the Broncos. He is a lock to make the 53-man roster and will be a starter along the defensive line.

Quanterus Smith- 

A 5th round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Quanterus Smith spent the 2013 season on IR. His final year in college he was leading the nation in sacks, with a 3 sack performance against Alabama, before he tore his ACL, an injury that caused his fall in the draft. Fortunately, it was right into the Broncos’ laps. During training camp and the preseason, he was still rehabbing, but still was impressing the coaches. In the final preseason game, he suffered a setback that landed him on IR. Now, almost two years removed from his ACL injury, he is fully healthy and it shows. He has impressed the coaches yet again this offseason and has worked with the first unit, due to Von Miller still rehabbing from his torn ACL. Quanterus Smith is a lock to make the roster, bolstering the Broncos pass rushing depth and potentially creating a devastating trio of Ware, Miller and himself.

Malik Jackson-  

Jan 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater (18) passes the ball against Denver Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson (97) in the second half during the 2013 AFC championship playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

After being a 5th round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Malik Jackson has become a great rotational player along the defensive line. He brings versatility in his ability to line up at either defensive end, or defensive tackle. Also, Jackson is a very well-rounded player in being a capable pass rusher, as well as a capable run stopper. With some of Denver’s departures, Jackson should see an increased role with the defense. There is no doubt that Jackson will be on the roster, come the regular season.

Mitch Unrein- 

Oct 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos nose tackle Mitch Unrein (96) pressures New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first quarter against at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

A coach’s player, Mitch Unrein does whatever is asked of him. He may not be the most physically gifted player but he plays his heart out. Unrein is a capable player that can be plugged in to help the defense. Not only is he capable on defense, he is also one of the two players used as a fullback in the rare times one is needed. With a cheap price and being a coach’s player, Unrein makes the roster but he isn’t a lock. If a fellow defensive tackle, Kevin Vickerson, is recovered from injury in time it could be the end of Unrein in a Broncos uniform. Mark him down to make the roster for now, only because of the injury to another.

Marvin Austin- 

A journeyman in the NFL, Marvin Austin has had trouble sticking with a team and even on the field. He missed his whole rookie season due to a torn pectoral muscle. The Broncos picked up Austin just days before that draft in hopes he can bolster the depth on the interior defensive line. With Austin fully healthy, he is no doubt competing for a spot and just may get one. Similarly with Unrein, Austin isn’t a lock to make the roster and an injury to another may help him get the squad. He also can be marked down to make the roster, even if it’s only because another starts on the PUP list.

Kevin Vickerson- 

Nov 24, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by Denver Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (99) in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After injuring his hip last season, Kevin Vickerson has struggled to get back to 100%. Combine that with his age and money and he could be cut. However, he just starts the season on the PUP list. This will give him extra time to get back to fully healthy and allow the Broncos to keep someone who still is recovering. When he is able to be activated off the PUP list, the Broncos can re-evaluate the situation. If Vickerson still isn’t ready to go then, he is cut. If he is ready to go then either Unrein or Austin are cut, unless the Broncos want to carry five defensive tackles. Either way, Vickerson is technically part of the team come regular season, even if it’s only on the PUP list.

So the Denver Broncos will carry eight defensive linemen going into the regular season, with another on the PUP list. The bigger decision will come when Vickerson comes of the PUP list. Maybe by then someone would clearly own a spot on the team. The group Denver takes is a talented, versatile group where many of them can line up in multiple positions on the defense. There are some guys still competing for a spot, but odds are against them. They would have to simply be outstanding to make the roster. There is a lot of time left, so you never truly know.

No matter what though, any opposing QB should look at the defensive line and start shaking. They have players who can get after the QB from anywhere. Then, when you add in the linebackers, the shaking intensifies. The Broncos defensive line has the potential to be one of the best units in the NFL this upcoming season, with talent from top to bottom. This defensive line will cause multiple QB’s to have sleepless nights.