While quarterback may be the position with the most noteworthy change for the Denver Broncos, it is on defense where the most alterations have occurred to the roster. The starting defense will feature as many as 9 new faces, with only Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams assured to remain atop the depth chart. Elvis Dumervil, Kenny Peterson and Marcus Thomas could join that short list, but that's far from a sure thing.
Of course, the vast roster turnover has several causes at root; the Broncos' defense was nothing less than atrocious over the past two years. Poor personnel decisions by Mike Shanahan and Co. left the defensive roster with plenty of holes, with injuries in 2008 forcing such luminaries as Calvin Lowry and Roderick Rogers into the starting lineup. The result? A paltry 25 sacks and 13 turnovers generated by the 2008 defense. The Broncos allowed 30 or more points 6 times in 2007, and 9 times in 2008. Over the past two seasons, Denver has given up a staggering 857 points; only Detroit and St. Louis fared worse. For even more perspective, Pittsburgh allowed 365 fewer points than Denver over that period.
Although this may come across as beating a dead horse, there is an important point; despite the protestations of football prognosticators, so-called experts, and even Mike Shanahan himself the other day, things were really bad with the Broncos' defense, and this was not isolated to 2008. It would not be so simple to fix the defense, and Shanny displayed no prior ability to do so himself. Unless you are either an elephant or a masochist, you probably cannot recall the names of all the failed free-agent signings and defensive coordinators gone by.
Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders have necessarily remade the roster, and promptly decided not to bring back veterans Ebenezer Ekuban (not re-signed) and John Engelberger (released). Darrell Reid was signed away from Indianapolis, while Kenny Peterson received a new three-year contract. Robert Ayers was drafted at #18, and Rulon Davis and Everette Pedescleaux were added as undrafted free agents.
Mike Nolan returns to Denver and hopes to revive the defense by switching over to a 3-4 hybrid scheme. This changeover in the base defense resulted in several players getting kicked back from DE to LB - holdovers Dumervil, Tim Crowder and Jarvis Moss. Ayers and Reid are expected to join the trio as a group of "hybrid" linebackers/ends.
Jets DE Marques Douglas, who played under Nolan in SF and Baltimore, had the following to say about Nolan's scheme in an interview with broncotalk.net:
"His defense is more of an attacking, penetration defense that utilizes speed and athleticism, not necessarily size. It is a style of defense that can bring about big plays and also extend the careers of players. It is different than a one-gap defense that you see in a 4-3. At its basic package, it is a two-gap defense. When it gets switched up, you will see a lot of slanting and movement in and out of the gaps...He knows how to game plan and he knows how and where to put players in order for them to succeed. He brings a sense of youth and enthusiasm to the field that not all coaches have."
Earlier this offseason, Hoosierteacher noted that "the defensive line must be more physical in a 3-4 than a 4-3...The number one most important trait, bar none, for a DE in a 3-4 is explosiveness...the ends pick up a skill set not seen as often in the 4-3; walling off an offensive lineman to allow the LB a lane for the blitz...the job of the DEs in the 3-4 is more often the occupation of offensive linemen and not the tackles and sacks of the 4-3 DEs, the 3-4 DEs get much less appreciation despite their vital role."
That last note is crucial; Richard Seymour is seen by many as the top 3-4 end in the NFL, yet he has totaled only 39 sacks over eight seasons. His linemate Ty Warren has but 19.5 sacks over six seasons. In other words, don't look to the following players for big sack numbers; the pass rush will come from the linebackers. The job of these men is to tie up blockers and keep the linebackers clean.
#56 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Sep 06, 1985
2009 Draft (1st Round, 18th Overall)
Ayers was the Broncos' second choice in the first round, taken 18th overall with one of the picks acquired for Jay Cutler. Robert's supposedly limited body of work has elicited reactions ranging from "one-year wonder" from some evaluators, to Mike Mayock calling him the "best defensive player" in the 2009 Draft. For what it's worth, Ayers' successes at Tennessee are not confined to his senior year, at least not statistically; in his junior year, Ayers racked up 34 tackles, 4 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss in 14 games despite not starting. As a senior, Robert tallied 49 tackles, 3 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, and one interception in 12 starts.
The Sporting News' War Room wrote, "Ayers showed his worth this year when he won several battles against Alabama's Andre Smith, one of the draft's top offensive tackle prospects. He has all the characteristics to be productive against the run and pass. While Ayers isn't likely to be drafted as high as he's rated here (even after his strong week at the Senior Bowl), in time he'll prove to be an impressive NFL starter at either defensive end or outside linebacker."
Robert is expected to play a versatile role in the Denver defense, playing at times with his hand on the ground as an end and at others as an OLB. Considering the state of Denver's 2008 defense, one has to think McDaniels and Xanders selected Ayers with the intention of starting him this year, if not from Week 1 then at some point during the season.
Consider Joe Flacco's rookie contract (five years, $11.9 million with $8.75 million guaranteed), add about 10% and you're looking at Ayers' likely deal if he gets a five-year agreement. Ayers is a lock to make the team. Robert has had his share of injuries, including a torn labrum and a broken hand; he turns 24 just before the season starts. To honor his fellow Volunteer, Ayers will be wearing Al Wilson's old #56.
#90 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Peterson enters his fourth year with the Broncos after spending the first three years of his career in Green Bay (drafted 2003 - 3rd round, 79th overall). Kenny notched 24 tackles and three sacks in 2008, playing in all 16 games including 1 start. However, all three of his sacks came within the first six games of the season, and he did not generate a tackle in 6 of the 16 games he played in.
Scouts, Inc. says Peterson, "is a bit of a tweener because he lacks the explosive quickness off the edge and acceleration around the corner to be an effective pass-rusher. He is not real responsible because he will freelance at times and gives up big running lanes when he should be trying to stack things up at the point of attack. He does do a very good job of using his hands to shed blockers quickly and ends up being engulfed way too often. He is not real quick to read blocking schemes and is not real quick to locate the level of the ball."
A native of Canton, Ohio, Peterson went to the same high school (McKinley) as Coach McDaniels, and was a teammate of Broncos offensive assistant Ben McDaniels, who was McKinley's quarterback. Kenny has been released several times over his career, once by Green Bay and twice by the Broncos. He was suspended for 4 games in 2007 for violating the NFL's policy banning anabolic steroids and related substances.
As the only veteran in this group, Peterson is a virtual lock to make the roster; Denver's decision to give him a new three-year deal certainly matches that thinking. Kenny turns 31 the day before Denver's Week 11 game versus the Chargers.
#98 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Apr 23, 1984
Signed to Practice Squad on 9/1/08
12/29/08: Signed to a future contract
Ryan McBean was born in Kingston, Jamaica and started 23 of 24 games for Oklahoma State after spending two years at Hinds Community College. Originally drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round (132nd overall) of the 2007 Draft, McBean spent all of 2008 on Denver's practice squad.
Scouts, Inc. wrote of McBean, "He is a powerful tackler and flashes a mean streak in his play. He will need to get stronger in both his upper and lower body to hold the point. Needs to work on his hand placement and fire out of his stance lower with more consistency. He can play too tall at times and also doesn't protect his legs real well."
Quite frankly, McBean is much an unknown quantity at the NFL level; he has only appeared in one game, dressing for the final game of the Steelers' 2007 season. Therefore, it is hard to predict whether he will make the Broncos' roster in 2009. Clearly, his contract will not be a factor; Ryan turned 25 just before the most recent draft.
#65 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Jan 16, 1983
Undrafted Free Agent 2009
Davis arrived in Denver as an undrafted free agent signed out of Cal, and his name alone immediately garnered positive feelings from Broncos fans everywhere. Despite being a Chargers fan, Rulon's father was so enamored with the play of Broncos legend Rulon Jones that he decided to name his son after the Denver sack man. Like Mike Anderson before him, Davis is an older rookie as a result of his time with the Marines (Davis spent six months in Iraq in 2004). Rulon appeared in 9 games (7 starts) at Cal during his senior year, totaling 19 tackles, 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.
Last winter, Scouts, Inc.'s Todd McShay wrote of Davis, "We fell in love with his potential while breaking down his pre-season tape last summer and he continued to flash special qualities early in 2008." Meanwhile, Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com wrote that Davis is a "powerful tackler" with a "non-stop motor" but possesses "below-average speed and quickness," summing him up as an "interesting prospect with the ability to be a left defensive end in a 4-3 defense or possibly even a five-technique in a 3-4 scheme."
Rulon missed five games as a senior due to a foot injury. Durability is a concern, as he only played 21 games over three years at Cal. Davis surely received a small signing bonus as a CFA, so money will not be a factor in his roster decision. Rulon turned 26 in June.
#64 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Jan 19, 1985
Undrafted Free Agent 2009
During his senior year at Northern Iowa, Denver's undrafted rookie signing notched 62 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Wes Bunting called Everette one of his Sleeper Prospects, writing "his skill set, size and length scream 3-4 DE. He is still raw and will need some time to develop his strength and overall technique. But the guy has one of the most intriguing skill sets of any defensive lineman in the draft, and I can’t imagine a team not taking a flier on him in the later rounds. He simply possesses too much upside and potential."
Be sure to check out broncobear's Tales from the Sunnyside on Pedescleaux. Everette doesn't sound like starting material, and it will be interesting to see whether Denver is able to hide him on the practice squad. If Pedescleaux does manage to make the roster, expect him to see limited action until he exhibits the discipline required to play a 5-technique end in the NFL.
Also a skilled hoopster, Everette was named Minnesota's "Mr. Basketball" in 2004; he will turn 24 after the regular season.
#93 / Defensive End / Denver Broncos
Feb 03, 1980
Free Agent 2007 (Atlanta)
2009: $460,000, 2010: Free Agent
Nic Clemons played in 10 games for Denver in 2008, totaling 13 tackles and 1 pass defensed. He had been signed by the Broncos on the final day of 2007 to a futures contract, following several stints with the Redskins and one with the Falcons. Prior to 2008, his only NFL action came during 8 games with Washington in 2005.
Nic's younger brother Chris plays DE for the Eagles, while his uncle Charlie played seven seasons for three different teams. Despite coming from a football family, Nic did not pick up the game until his time at Georgia Military College, later playing in seven games over two years at the University of Georgia. Clemons turned 29 in February.
Quite frankly, there are a lot of unknowns along the Broncos' defensive line. From any vantage point, this is a group with limited NFL experience and marginal results. But save Ayers and Davis, it is a group of 300-pound (or so) players who will be expected to occupy blockers and make the job of Denver's linebackers easier; it's not a group which will be asked to produce big numbers in the sacks column. Ayers and Peterson are the only locks to make the roster, and figure that two more out of McBean, Clemons, Pedescleaux and Davis will join them; the latter two are practice squad candidates. It will be interesting to see whether the Broncos make any late veteran additions along the lines of Vonnie Holliday.