This is the second in a two to three part series featuring extremely early projections for next season’s starting line-up. Take into account that we’ve yet to see how these players perform in camp and have no idea if or when injuries will take place. Have some fun with it…
It’s never too early to get excited for the NFL regular season. With the draft completed and mini camps only days away, now is as good a time as any to start the gears turning. Let’s start thinking about who’s going to start next season. Where will the new rookies fit in? What about the free agents we delayed talking about during the draft?
Denver knew it had to fix the linebacker position. The Broncos have been known for quick and fierce linebackers in the past, last season not included. The loss of the vocal Al Wilson left a large void on the defense. On some teams, the linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, but it wasn’t so for the Broncos last season. With the tides turning and the age flowing in, it’s time for this team to develop young leadership.
Denver brought in two free agents that hope to change the face of the linebacking corps and help it reach familiar heights. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two new guys will be starting next season. Boss Bailey has speed, and despite a drop off from the 88 tackles he put up during his rookie campaign in 2003, Boss had 3.5 sacks last year. He’ll get to play on the strong side, and he’ll get to play well in the Broncos’ system.
Niko Koutouvides His production too has dropped off since his rookie year. Wait a second now, he hasn’t had much of a chance to play since that year. Some league personnel have speculated that Niko could have started if he hadn’t been behind Lofa Tatupu in Seattle. Do you have faith Broncos fans? Niko’s pumped about getting a starting opportunity and I think his play will show it. You don’t necessariloy have to be mind-blowing to be a good middle linebacker; you just have to occupy space and take on linemen. Plus, maybe the recent release and subsequent high ratings of a certain video game featuring a title character of his namesake could be good for the mojo.
The best part about these deals? D.J. gets to move back to weak side linebacker, where he’s apparently more comfortable, and where speed will reign supreme.
Just like the quarterback position on offense, the cornerback position on defense seems the most secure. Thankfully, Foxworth is back and will play a big role as the third cornerback, but you can’t argue against Bailey and Bly starting next season. Dre Bly, his two pro bowls, a 2003 Galloping Gobbler award, and his one Super Bowl ring were brought in to play number two CB on this team. Although there have been questions concerning Bly’s tackling ability of late, the former Lion hauled in 5 INTS last season. Sure, teams have finally figured out what it means to "not throw in the direction of Champ Bailey." It works when Bly gets burned (like he did by Greg Jennings in the loss to the Pack last season). Still, Bailey and Bly start next season. Enough said.
Now we get to the part where Broncos fans start to tear up. John Lynch is about to leave us, but before he leaves, Denver will award him with one more season at starting free safety. No one on the roster has more experience or better instincts than the veteran Lynch at his position. Lynch came back to play for one more year, to share his knowledge, and to compete for an AFC West crown. Marlon McCree is a recent back-up at best, but he and newly acquired Marquand Manuel (who hasn’t played as well as McCree) will provide depth if the two guys I have starting go down, which means…
It’s time for Hamza Abdullah to step up and show us the young safety he can be! Hamza showed a little potential last season, and the jury is still out on whether or not he will be successful. Most tend to feel he will be, and you can include me in that "most" group. Hamza’s ten siblings should brace for some good news from their brother. I know McCree could start here, but I’m willing to give the former practice squader a chance. Maybe I’m just down on Marlon because he was a Charger. We need to develop a future safety, and I’ll be watching to see how Abdullah does in pre-season action.
How can you not like Elvis Dumervil? The guy’s just about as tall as me, and still amassed 12.5 sacks in 2007. The real question Denver faces this off-season is: who should start opposite "Doom?"
Can Ebenezer Ekuban return from his torn ACL he suffered last season? Well, the guy averaged 6.3 sacks from 2004-2006, and Broncos fans know Double E can play football. Rotations aren’t just for running backs anymore, as we’ll continue to see them along the defensive line. Ekuban and Engelberger are the "right ones" left over from the old Cleveland Brono line. Engelberger can make some nice plays in the backfield, but I see this as Ekuban’s job. If Ebenezer isn't able to go, stick Engleberger in there due to the experience. Moss and Crowder haven’t yet shown anything that makes me what to hand the job over just yet. If Ekuban can get back to form, I say put in the veteran. I still think Crowder and/or Moss (if he can avoid injury) could help Denver get to the passer more often, but the jury’s still out on that.
The truth is, it won’t matter too much who the "official" starters are at this position, because fans could see a rotation next season. With the additions of Crowder and Moss in last season’s draft, there are too many bodies on the bench to let sit. I go back to the Steelers’ game last season when advocating this kind of a rotation.
Ask Carlton Powell how happy he is to join the Broncos. They needed DTs to stop the run, and they LOVE to rotate players. While Powell won’t get the start in 2008, the Broncos have secured a player in the draft who can come in and compete. Scouting reports cite Powell as a player who is solid against the run. The other off-season addition at this position, DeWayne Robertson, has many people wondering. I spoke to a Jets fan recently and he assured me Robertson would do well in Denver, despite his knee condition. DeWayne was considered "too small" to play a true nose tackle position with the Jets, so now he’s a Bronco. An off-season addition like D-Rob coming to a team with depth issues? All roads lead to the starting line-up.
While competition for the spot opposite Robertson should prove fierce, the Broncos probably have a rotation in mind, preferably one where D-Rob plays 64.9 percent of the snaps. Now we get to one of the few current doubts on this defense, as far as the starting line-up goes. Who starts at the other DT position?
Denver doesn’t want to rank in the bottom five of the NFL against the run. If you’re in the company of the Raiders, you know things have got to be horrendous. Honestly, it’s a toss up. This is a position I can see many people disagreeing over, and one I have spent quite a while pondering myself. Yes, Marcus Thomas has issues with drugs, but he has talent. Many consider Alvin McKinley a "rotational" player at best. Does it really matter who I stick in the starting spot?
Alvin started last season opposite Sam Adams. However, this season I like Thomas filling a role at starting defensive tackle. The run defense was horrendous last season, and I think putting a second-year player in could bring some energy. Rotating the line would be the smart thing to do: it worked in Green Bay. Denver’s still searching for just the right combination of players, and although Thomas has had little experience, I’m all for him penciled in as "the starter" on paper (whatever weight that title may carry in a rotational system).
So how does it look?
I think the defense proved a little easier to breakdown and project, barring any unforeseen injuries. I hope I did a little better here than I did with the offense, but I know there are certainly some positions anyone can find fault with. Do you want McCree at safety? More importantly, who starts at the "other" defensive end and defensive tackle positions? The linebackers should be decent and the play at corner won’t change, so it’s up to the line to turn Denver’s recent misfortunes into good fortune. As always, I love to year your informed opinions and thoughts.