Broncos-Raiders: Derek Wolfe’s return presents fun dilemma


As with many players coming off of suspension, it could be assumed that the Denver Broncos are going to try and ease defensive end Derek Wolfe back into the lineup this Sunday in Oakland. The Broncos already have some experience with a player coming back from suspension this year in T.J. Ward, who missed the season opener.

Ward said upon coming back that he felt like he was in game shape, felt prepared, but there was just getting back into a game that caused a bit of a slow start to the season. Ward has since been playing excellent football, so much so that he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week in week 4.

There’s no rush for Wolfe to get back at this point, as well as Denver’s defensive line has played so far. Sylvester Williams in the middle and the three of Malik Jackson, Antonio Smith, and Vance Walker have more than held their own through four games. All of those players have positive grades on Pro Football Focus so far except Smith, and all are contributing to the most ferocious pass rush in the NFL.

It’s hard not to get excited for Wolfe’s return, especially when he’s saying things like he’s been feeling like a ‘caged animal’ anticipating this week. But the coaching staff in Denver as a really interesting and fun dilemma on their hands — how do you find snaps for all of these guys?

Not only is Wolfe back from suspension and ready to go, the rest of the defensive line is fully healthy and you have a player in Kenny Anunike who hasn’t even played a snap yet this season.

In the end, this is going to be a real victory for everyone involved. Wolfe is definitely one of the Broncos’ better defensive players as a former top draft choice out of Cincinnati. He has had some wild things happen to him in his NFL career, like a scary spine injury against the Seattle Seahawks in a pre-season game two years ago followed by seizures and a hospitalization later in the season.

Wolfe had lost a ton of weight after his scary injury, but he played through it and just wasn’t himself. Back at full strength, we saw a bit of what Wolfe was meant to be when the Broncos drafted him last year, but it has been clear throughout his Broncos career that he’s been playing out of position.

At Cincinnati, Wolfe was a defensive tackle. With the Broncos, he moved to base end in a 4-3 defense. That was an okay spot for him as a run stopper, but the Broncos drafted Wolfe for his ability to collapse the pocket and put pressure on the quarterback, which he’s best at on the defensive interior.

With different gap responsibilities in a 3-4 and the best talent around him he’s ever had, it will be interesting to see how Wolfe responds to playing in a three-man front.

With Antonio Smith and Vance Walker having played 145 and 137 snaps respectively, the return of Wolfe will be a welcome one for the veteran Smith, who is struggling a bit against the run in his snaps. Denver’s run defense hasn’t exactly ‘struggled’ this season, but Smith’s grade vs. the run isn’t great. He’s been excellent as a pass rusher, contributing 7 hurries and a sack.

Wolfe has a reputation as one of the best run defenders on the team, and Vance Walker has also excelled in run defense.

The return of Wolfe should allow more rest for Malik Jackson, who has been great as the Broncos’ most active defensive lineman (192 snaps).

It would be really hard for the Broncos to justify activating seven defensive linemen with a three man front on a weekly basis, but it would be really great to see what all of these guys can do. It’s not just that they are good players on paper — everyone who has gotten in the games has made plays with this front seven.

The success of the defensive line has been documented, but even Lerentee McCray came in this past week and had his first two tackles and a ‘stop’ this season against the Vikings. Shane Ray had his first NFL sack against Teddy Bridgewater, and Shaquil Barrett continues to provide incredible effectiveness off the bench.

This train could continue to derail and I could go all the way to the secondary with how excited I am about the personnel possibilities for the Broncos, but I’ll leave it at that. Wade Phillips must be sleeping really well at night knowing he has all of these guys at his disposal.

More from Predominantly Orange