This past offseason, the Denver Broncos opened up the check book for their defense in free agency and are taking a major gamble in the process. While the players they have added have proven track records, the large dollar figures are by no means guarantees for on-field results. Luckily, Denver also has some emerging young players from their last few drafts. After taking major heat from the media, the defense suddenly has high expectations. How exactly does the Denver Broncos defense look heading into 2014, and were the offseason moves the right ones to address their needs?
CB: Like many positions on defense, cornerback feature some new talent. Elway attempted to resign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the offer was not lucrative enough. In a matter of hours, the GM turned around and surprising to many, gave Aqib Talib a 6-year, $57M contract. The final three years of his contract are not guaranteed, as he is owed $11M, $11M, and $8M. In reality, this is a 3 year, $27M contract, and $9M is a very workable price for a shutdown corner. Talib has had his off-field incidents, but since being traded to New England has produced great on-field results with minimal distractions. Injuries are the biggest cause for concern here and the Broncos are certainly gambling big, however, not everyone can hold Jimmy Graham to 0 catches. While his coverage is excellent, it is Talib’s ability to tackle that separates him from previous starter Rodgers-Cromartie.
Bradley Roby will have the chance to start opposite Talib. Once considered a top 10 pick, a frustrating 2013 lowered scouts’ view on him. Still, he possesses the man to man skills to excel in the Broncos’ system. The success of the defense could very well hinge on the health of Chris Harris Jr., a premier slot cornerback. He tore his ACL against San Diego in the playoffs and the entire defense had to be reworked. Harris Jr. is a focal point of this defense and can cover outside or inside. His tackling skills are quite nice as well, likely acquired playing safety in college at Kansas.
Denver hopes 2013 draft pick Kayvon Webster continues to develop with more reps. He looked comfortable in some situations, but also got badly picked apart by Philip Rivers. He has potential. A guy who has switched between cornerback and safety is Omar Bolden. After suffering a leg injury in college, Bolden fell down draft boards. He has really yet to impress in Denver and hasn’t looked extremely confident. Tony Carter rounds out this group and provides good depth, but not much in the way of tackling. He’s quick in coverage, but nothing special. While the Broncos did a great job of improving this position, its success is highly dependent on health.
S: After nearly losing his leg and life last season from a rare leg condition, Rahim Moore will assume his starting spot at free safety. Amidst a breakout season, Moore went down in week 11 with compartment syndrome and only an emergency trip to the ER at midnight saved him from further complications. He has recovered now and will look to produce his best season yet. Despite his playoff bungles, Moore has proved to be a solid safety capable of providing decent coverage and run support.
The addition of T.J. Ward is monumental for this team, as it provides a whole new mentality – and for only $22.5M over 4 years. The first two years pay him guaranteed $7M and $6M, but then decreases to $4.5M unguaranteed each of the last two years. While many players are candidates for release after their guaranteed money is out of the way, $4.5M for Ward will be a bargain if he stays productive. A heavy hitter, he provides a mean and bossy attitude, something largely missing from this group last season. He will strike fear into receivers running across the middle, something this defense has lacked since Brian Dawkins retired.
A quality back-up, Duke Ihenacho is a pretty physical defensive back who gained quite a bit of experience last season. Quinton Carter returns this season after two unhealthy seasons in which he sat on the sidelines. He flashed elite potential in the Tebow-era (2 INTs in 2 playoff games) and should find playing time this year if he can stay on the field. Mike Adams left for Indianapolis, but there really is no room for him anyway. David Bruton is a special teams ace but has never been effective on the defensive side of the ball. John Boyett probably won’t stick, but has some talent and an interesting story. The front office gave this unit exactly what it needed, and at a great price.
DL: There may be no position on the Broncos with more untapped potential than the defensive line. The interior features a quality four player rotation. Kevin Vickerson may start the season on the PUP list after another injury-filled season, but will look to return before week 1. Terrance Knighton had a breakout campaign, constantly crashing through the line and filling his gaps superbly. His plays down the stretch of the playoffs were crucial in getting Denver as far as they did. Sylvester Williams played well in the season’s final 3 games and will be heading into the crucial second year for defensive tackles. He has a good burst and will likely be given the chance to start. Mitch Unrein provides solid play from the defensive tackle position and gives the starters much needed rest, though he’ll be trying to hold off Marvin Austin in training camp.
On the outside, Derek Wolfe will look to bounce back from a season which featured some troubling seizures. Barely playing down the stretch, expect him to be hungry. His competition is Malik Jackson, a guy who can play end and tackle and is a huge breakout candidate. At 6’5 and 293 lbs., he has elite size for the type of foot speed he combines it with. Playing in only 52% of Denver’s defensive snaps last season, he managed 6 sacks. His 42 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 15 quarterback hurries led Broncos linemen. Quanterus Smith is a DE who sat out last season with a torn ACL, but was leading the NCAA in sacks with 12.5 in 11 games before he went down in his senior year. 3 sacks against Alabama rank as his crowning achievement. Only a fifth-round selection out of Western Kentucky, he provides upside at a minimal cost.
Robert Ayers was released after another standard, unspectacular year. He never was given a chance to live up to his lofty draft status after playing out of position in his first couple years as a stand-up linebacker, then living in Del Rio’s doghouse. He was replaced by perennial pro bowler DeMarcus Ware. This deal is guaranteed for two years at $13M and $7M, but not guaranteed at $10 in the last season. Basically a two year, $20M contract, this is a swing for the fences by Elway. Normally Ware might command upwards of $12M annually as a free agent, but he only managed 6 sacks in 13 games last season because of injuries. The ultimate professional, Ware will prepare his body the best he can at what will likely be his last shot at a Super Bowl. Does that mean he’ll be injury free? Nope, but don’t think Ware is playing strictly for money. He wants that championship. A suddenly promising group, the defensive line hopes to be healthier and hungrier than in 2013. The front office has put together a great mix of talent.
LB: This versatile group is highlighted by Von Miller. Plagued by off-field issues, he was suspended for the first six games. While Greg Hardy threatened to kill his girlfriend, Miller was found guilty of cheating drug tests. Later in the offseason he failed to show up for a court date for a traffic ticket. I saw him smoking a substance (probably marijuana) at a concert in Denver before his suspension. He was 24 and having a good time. His problems are manageable for a guy as young as him. While he certainly is on a shorter leash and needs to respect the NFL’s rules, he isn’t a malicious person from the public’s view. Maybe a bit of a head case, bet on his success in the future. The play on the field has never been a question, as the defense saw improvements in the 8 games he saw action in. Like Harris Jr., Miller will be returning from a torn ACL and hopes to be ready for week 1. Though his best asset is his pass rushing abilities, he is strong against the run as well. There is not another linebacker in the NFL with his combination of power and quickness.
Danny Trevathan posted an impressive 129 tackles last year and established himself as a budding talent. He is athletic enough to cover many tight ends and powerful enough to stick his nose in the running game. An outside linebacker, his strong suits of stopping the run mesh perfectly with Miller’s tendency to rush the passer. Trevathan plays a key role in the nickel, as well as the base formation. The MLB position will be Nate Irving’s to lose. The Broncos only play in their base 4-3 defense 33% of the time, so he isn’t a real key to this defense. A former third round pick, he is on his last breaths in Denver after some underwhelming seasons. A fifth round draft choice, Lamin Barrow out of LSU will look to solidify himself as the backup MLB.
The Broncos were forced to outbid other teams last offseason for UDFA Lerentee McCray, a pass rushing backer similar to Miller. He sat out last season with an injury sustained in college while playing at Florida, but is a dark-horse to earn some playing time this season if he can run with the starters in preseason while Miller is recovering from his ACL tear. Steven Johnson is an average backup who can fill in, but hopefully won’t play much outside of special teams. Wesley Woodyard was a key special teamer and emerging outside linebacker for this team, but was plugged in at MLB last year. His play suffered when he started out of position and Elway lost patience with him. A six-time captain in six seasons, his presence will be missed. The starters have been set here for the duration of the offseason and while a veteran signing may occur, the linebackers look solid going into week 1.
Look Ahead: Harris Jr., Miller, Vickerson, Wolfe, and Moore’s ability to return will be like adding another free agency class. The contracts handed out to newcomers are not as extravagant as the media portrays. Even if Ware or Talib prove injury-prone, both deals can be terminated in the next three years, right in line with Peyton Manning’s. The Broncos might be cash strapped for the next two seasons, but applaud Elway for going all in. The defense’s overall numbers may not be outstanding because of teams chasing the Broncos’ leads, but don't be fooled. Expect a much better showing in the playoffs against the elite opponents. Health permitting, this Denver Broncos defense could statistically finish top-5. They're already there in terms of talent.