2010 Denver Broncos Positional Preview -- Defensive Line

"Yeah, who's the man, now? You like that beef up front?"

Those were the words "Wink" Martindale had for his linebackers after the Broncos nabbed Bannan, Green and Williams during 2010 free agency, and it is what you have to love about Wink, outside of his aggressive attitude and the swagger he is instilling in his guys.

You see, Wink gets it.

Defense is in the Denver DNA. History will look back at the defensive decay of the late 2000's as one of the worst aberrations in Broncos history.  32nd ranked defense in the league?  31st? Say it ain't so. Dead Broncos rolled over in their graves.  Living Broncos would have preferred death to that unholy apparition.  Offensive glory was a sorry substitute for the principles of sound defense that had first dragged the Broncos out of mediocrity. A return to those principles was no longer a luxury.  It was a necessity.

2009 did a great job of putting the brains and attitude back into the defense, but the timing wasn't right to overhaul the trenches, and so only a few key moves were executed, out of need.  But in 2010 they really turned the heat up on the defensive line, delivering DL coach Wayne Nunnelly a big batch of help.

Yeah, Wink, you're the man.

We love that beef.


Justin Bannan

#99 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-3

310

Apr 08, 1979

Colorado

Contract: 2010: $755,000; 2011: $3.5 million; 2012: $4 million; 2013: $3.5 million; 2014: $3.5 million; 2015: Free Agent

Acquired: Free Agency 2010


9th year in the league, 113 games played, 27 starts, including 2 starts in 5 post season appearances.

Bannan has spent most of his career trying to find his own way around big guys on the DL, specifically the ones who always seemed to be ahead of him on the roster.  In Buffalo he backed up Sam Adams and leapt at the chance to go to the Baltimore defense, where he found himself backing up pro-bowler Haloti Ngata. But that puts him in an interesting position now that he has come back home to Denver, as he has a lot of experience, but relatively low miles, which could be a great combination.

Injuries marked his early, inconsistent years with Buffalo, including a wrist injury that bothered him for some time, and it wasn't until 2005, 3 years into his career, that he was healthy enough to play all season, and it marked his first season playing in all 16 games. Soon after joining the Ravens he was hurting again, and he would eventually go to IR with a toe injury.  He returned in force, playing in 15 contests with one start in 2007, and replacing an injured Gregg Kelly in 2008 to log a career high 15 starts. Last year he returned to his rotational role with Ngata, subbing infrequently for injuries and logging 2 starts in 16 games.

His versatility allows him to line up at RDE, LDE, NG, NT, DT, and even OG (where Buffalo used him on occasion in goalline and short yardage situations), but by far his greatest impact comes on 1st and 2nd downs as a LDE, though he often split time evenly on the ends.  He has good timing getting off the line, and was one of the quicker Ravens players to engage, but it is mostly due to his veteran savvy, as his burst is average. He adds push and anchor vs. the runs, and was part of the Ravens DL that held opponents to 2.8ypc in 2007, and he holds up well when he needs to get upfield against the pass.  He can handle double teams well enough, which allowed him to anchor the line as a NG/NT, and his hand technique is effective even against good guards and tackles like our own Kuper and Harris.  He excels at onfield recognition, being patient with developing plays and pursuit and always seems to be in position during the play, with great hustle to stay involved.  He does seem to wear down even as a rotational player, but as recently as 2008 he started almost every game, so there is reason to be optimistic.  He doesn't play in 3rd down nickel or 2-minute packages.

 


Ronald Fields

#91 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-2

314

Sep 13, 1981

Mississippi State

Contract: 2010: year 2 of a $5mil 2-year contract; 2011: Free Agent

Acquired: Free Agency 2009


6th year in the league, 65 games played with 25 starts

Fields is a talented and powerful big body who came on quickly as a young player, starting 9 games in his sophomore season only to go to IR with a broken arm.  On his return an on again off again relationship with a 4-3 defense shuttled Fields mercilessly (and quietly) between a 0- and 5-technique, where he struggled to string together consistent play.  Most everyone agreed that NT/NG suited him the best, however, and when he came to Denver he was lined up almost exclusively as a NT/NG, in the starting defensive line.

Over the past three years Fields has been durable and dependable, and it shouldn't be lost on anyone that 2010 will be a contract year for him.  He has played in every game for the past 3 years, starting all 16 for Denver last year, and even with the increased depth, should see plenty of playing time this year to keep the trend going.  His impact comes on 1st and 2nd down, and he shows the anchor and upfield push necessary for stout run defense.

However, his greatest trait may be his athletic power, true DL explosiveness and speed that make him a tough customer for offensive lines.  When San Francisco coaches measured line speed off the snap, in hopes of rearranging the line to address some of their defensive woes, they found that Fields was consistently the quickest player off the ball.  His 2 year contract is of interest in that a young player entering his prime is generally locked up long term.  If he plays as well as he did in 2009 he will be a target in free agency, and perhaps difficult to retain.  If Denver manages to keep him, it will be at a higher price tag than his 2.5 mil approximately that he will have made here.  Add in his recent off season problem where he was accused of "waving a gun at a nightclub" (and summarily having the gun found in his car...) and demand may be low.

 


Jamal Williams

#76 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-3

348

Apr 28, 1976

Oklahoma State

Contract: 2010: $855,000; 2011: $4 million; 2012: $5 million; 2013: Free Agent

Acquired: Free Agency 2010



13th year in the league, 148 games played, 122 starts, including 7 starts in 7 postseason appearances

A classic big body, weighing in between 335-350 lbs in any given season, though he is expected to be in the lighter end of the spectrum in his first year with the Broncos, after sitting out the entire 2009 season with a triceps injury.

Probably the biggest concern for many is William's age, but his 2010 teammates are dismissing the idea with a shrug.  Mario Haggan said, "With a guy like Jamal (Williams), people say he's old, but I don't look at that. I look at what he can do for me on the field. I don't look at age." And, at least for 2010, he may have a point. A full year of rest may have helped Williams more than most realize, and he was still playing at a probowl level in 2008, helping San Diego post a top ten ranking vs the run, and that was while battling a (different) triceps injury.  Acclimating to and training in the Denver altitude, playing lighter, and coming off a year of rest (not to mention being dismissed by his former team) all spell "invigorating," even if it isn't a long term solution.

Another concern when talking about Williams has been his injury history, though it doesn't seem quite as bad when considered in the whole body of a 13 year career.  Outside of a dislocated ankle that sent him to IR in 2002, the major flags were repeated knee injuries and problems, including going to IR in 2001, battling the knee in 2003 and 2004, and missing the end of the 2007 season.

One of the greatest defensive players San Diego has ever fielded, and an instant upgrade at NT for Denver, Williams will likely need to see limited snaps, which  may mean that he will line up with the rotational DL crew, rather than the starting crew.  That particular logistic will be interesting to see develop under Nunnelly and Wink, since under Nolan, typically the rotations stuck together as a unit, barring injuries.

 


Jarvis Green

#93 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-3

285

Jan 12, 1979

L-S-U

Contract: 2010: $800,000; 2011: $3 million; 2012: $2.5 million; 2013: $3.5 million; 2014: Free Agent

Acquired: Free Agency 2010


9th year in the league, 121 games played, 25 started, including 4 starts in 15 postseason appearances

A durable, elite specialist, with a profound ability to impact the game with limited opportunity perhaps describes Green the best.  New England saw clearly just what kind of player Green was best suited to be, and utilized him perfectly in that role, playing him in almost every game, and starting him situationally anywhere from 3-5 times a season.  The result is a defensive end who has played in more games over the last eight years than any other DE in the league.

His specialty, not coincidentally, happens to be third down pressure and sacks, an area where Denver saw limited impact, primarily from one player (DOOM).  Targeting Jarvis Green was 'all about the thirds.' Throughout his career, especially in big games, and against tough competition, he has been able to bring it when it counts.  He is primarily a RDE, but can move between the ends fluently, and as needed.

But just because the guy is money on 3rd down, doesn't mean we should discount his role as a starting DE on the Broncos.  In 2006, filling in for an injured Richard Seymour, he would set a career high with 7.5 sacks.  When Seymour struggled again in 2007 with injury, Green once again stepped up, recording 6.5 sacks and a career high 39 tackles.  However, he struggled to maintain that momentum into 2008, fighting an ankle injury, (but still recording 2 sacks in limited action), and in 2009 suffered a knee injury in week four, struggling through it for four weeks before having surgery during the bye, missing 3 games and returning at the end of the season as a rotational walking wounded.

The Broncos may be able to get starting reps out of the speedy pass rushing end.  Of course, even if they don't, his 3rd down reps are worth the price of admission.

 


Ryan McBean

#98 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-5

297

Apr 23, 1984

Oklahoma State

Contract: Unknown

Acquired:  2008 off waivers from Pittsburgh


3rd year in the league, 15 games played, 14 games started

McBean came into the league as an exceptionally raw talent, with only 2 years of college work to prepare him for the NFL.  He got a year of solid tutelage in Pittsburgh on their practice squad, but no game action, and then spent a year on Denver's practice squad (thankfully he never got moved to the roster...).  He became one of the few defensive players that survived the purge when McX began to rebuild the team and managed to start in 14 games in 2009.

His primary position was as a DT/DE alongside Fields in the starting rotation, and his effectiveness is probably best described as "developing".  While he held his own well enough, and made an impact as a special teams contributor, he could often be taken out of passing plays.  His run stopping ability was adequate, and getting better as the season progressed.  His style of play is still instinctual, but he is smart and can absorb and execute complicated schemes and assignments.  He should be able to learn a lot behind the likes of Green and Bannan.

He is a strong player, but part of his development needs to be increasing his lower body staying power.  His interior work is laudable, and he sniffs out the ball carrier well, staying on the move and keeping his legs generally clean, though he goes right to the ground when cut.  But his struggles to disengage in 2009 can only be addressed by sound technique, something he is still struggling with.  His awareness was also an issue in 2009, and with experience, that too should get better.

All in all he is still quite raw, but determined, with good athletic potential who should make strides in a deep DE rotation, and can start in an emergency.

 


Le Kevin Smith

#97 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-3

308

Jul 21, 1982

Nebraska

Contract: 2010: $630,000; 2011: Free Agent

Acquired: Originally acquired via trade: Denver 2009 5th round pick to New England


5th year in the league, 44 games played, 2 games started, 2 post season appearances

Smith is a natural athlete, a powerful, big guy, with a great attitude towards the game and an impressive intellect.  His ability to fit the McDaniel's scheme on defense is a perfect fit, and his versatility and ability to absorb and execute complicated schemes are his greatest traits.

He came to the Broncos in  a trade after backing up Ty Warren in New England, but according to Bronco sources he struggled along quietly with a knee injury that moved him to IR eventually, something he has had a problem with dating all the way back to his college days at Nebraska.  The Broncos had acquired him in the final year of his contract, and to retain him re-signed him again to a one year contract.  He is currently recovering from offseason knee surgery, and the expectation is that he will be a candidate for the PUP, almost certainly in the preseason, if not later.

Though still young, his experience and knowledge working with the system are great assets to have in the DL rotation.  However, training camp participation will be very important for him this year, to get over the hurdle of missed time.  And that is just considering his own development.  When the team is looked at as a whole, his contribution in camp is even more important, in terms of providing the well rounded competition needed to bolster the DL.

 


Marcus Thomas

#79 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-3

316

Sep 23, 1985

Florida

Contract: 2010: $550,000; 2011: Free Agent

Acquired:  2007 Draft, 4th Round


4th year player, 48 games played, 2 games started

Thomas is another contract year player, and he is starting off his 2010 campaign in enigmatic fashion. A former penetrating DT, early reports this offseason were that he was going to slim down a little and try to move out to DE in the 3-4, a place where a lot of his natural abilities would be capitalized on, most believed. Then, inexplicably he told reporter Josina Anderson on her show that he wanted to keep adding bulk to be able to better make an impact at NT/NG, where he had spent the previous season.  To date, no one really knows which it is going to be.  His agent was confirmed as saying he was working with a personal trainer to drop weight, but it should be noted he had gained a lot of 'bad' weight (he ballooned to 340) while rehabbing a shoulder injury sustained last November.

DE is certainly where most of his experience in the NFL and college would put him, and for good reason.  His burst off the snap has always been elite, and his ability to push and bend the pocket would be an asset on the edge, freeing up Denver's pass rushers to make noise, and possibly letting him make a little noise of his own.

On the other hand, reviewing his performance from 2009 showed me something important:  he was good NG. His speed off the line is as much, if not more, of an asset inside as it is outside, and that extra time can buy a defensive lineman a whole lot of initiative in his battles. His quick reaction time is by far his best asset (he has nabbed himself 2 INTs, making him 2nd all time in Broncos history...for a DL) so continuing his development cycle as a NG/NT is certainly not bereft of opportunity.

And with so many questions around him, it is easy to imagine him as a bubble player, an unknown.  But we shouldn't lose sight of just how much he contributes on game day.  Beside the versatility to play inside and out, he also is a key member of the special teams unit, having blocked his first extra point in 2009, and anchoring one half of the recently foreshortened 'wedge' on kickoff returns, a task that few big men have the athleticism and speed to do as well as he does.


Chris Baker

#75 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-2

329

Oct 08, 1987

Hampton

Contract: 2010:  $395,000; 2011: $480,000; 2012: ERFA

Acquired: 2009 CFA



 2nd year in league, 1 game played

The second biggest guy on the team, he has an opportunity to become one of the biggest defensive impact players, but patience is a must.  With the acquisition of Williams ahead of him, he will at once get that goading prompt to perform, while possibly gaining even more time to develop without undue pressure.  If it sounds like an odd mix, that shouldn't be surprising, as development at NT may be one of the least forgiving developmental positions on the roster.

On the roster, outside of Williams, Baker by far is the 'truest' somatotype of the modern NT, which allows a team to run the 3-4 without compromise, to its fullest abilities.  But his development, while reportedly on track, has the stride of a snail, and like all NT projects, rushing it just isn't in the cards.

Not that he didn't try.

He managed to be the only member of the 2009 class of college free agents who made the Broncos active list, and by the regular season opener had grabbed the backup NT spot behind Fields, all while battling a 'bad boy' image unfairly foisted upon him by circumstance and his own misguided trust.  However, when it actually came to gameday, a backup NT who couldn't play on STs was a low priority, and except for the Pittsburgh game -- where he saw action on point-after units -- Marcus Thomas was activated ahead of him. Still, Coach Nunnely made a point of including Baker specifically when talking about his charges, and Baker had caught McDaniel's eye, who noted only that, "Chris has shown the ability to knock people back."

In the near term, Baker needs to push himself, and in the process, Fields, and perhaps even Thomas.  If he doesn't, the Broncos will address the issue with even more bodies, creating an asphyxiating environment for Baker.  Now is his chance to walk away with the backup NT position, and with it, a great shot at starter when Williams moves on.  He has the talent and the ability, as well as a handful of elite tools, most notably his incredible strength. The opportunity likely won't get any better than this.

 


Ben Garland

#90 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-5

275

Apr 06, 1981

Air Force

Contract: 2010: $320,000; 2011: $405,000; 2012: $490,000; 2013: Free Agent

Acquired: 2010 CFA



College Free Agent

Garland is eminently suited to the defense that Denver ran last year, having played NG in a  5-2 at Air Force, and the test will be if he can show enough versatility to enamor Denver of their future scheme plans, including being able to anchor the interior of a true 3-4.  In the NG role at Air Force he was a beast, leading the team in sacks and tackles for a loss, and helping the defense stand out nationally.

His role with Denver isn't as clear, but there is no doubting his determination.  After breaking his hand in 2009, he continued to play, and his performance never suffered.  "Nothing was going to take me off of that field," he would later acknowledge.  The Broncos know they would be lucky to land a teammate like that.

However, his greatest challenge might be the decision he now faces.  He has been recently invited to take an open spot at the pilot training program at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. If he takes it, his NFL career, for all intents and purposes, will be over before it begins.  Add in that the time spent in the program counts towards his commitment requirements (which he has to find some way of satisfying -- because it is doubtful he will try to obtain the commitment waiver) and it becomes even more attractive. But, he is still seriously considering the NFL, and finding other means of meeting his obligations.

If he does choose the Broncos, they will be getting a space eating attacker, with a nose for the ball and adequate technical polish.  His size is rare, and while listed at 275, he is closer to 300, and has played recently at 292. (another crimp in his plans is that 245 is a strictly observed weight parameter for the program.) His 60-day leave should see him through most of July, and by then the Broncos will probably have something to say that should help him with his decision.  He could end up being quite an asset if both parties can come to terms.

 

 


Jeff Stehle

#65 / Defensive Linesman / Denver Broncos

6-6

310

Apr 04, 1987

Wisconsin

Contract: Unknown

Acquired: 2010 CFA


College Free Agent

Stehle is huge and can get bigger, which is a scary thought.

What is also scary with him is how much more work he needs to do to be anything other than a practice squad consideration.  His playing time at Wisconsin was spotty, and only in his Senior year did he see any starts, though he did start the entire season.  Right now he is pretty much a hold the line type of player, though he sheds and can make the tackle at the line with his long arms.  He isn't a terror in the backfield or anything like that, but if he breaks through, he has good awareness and can bring down the ball carrier, just don't expect him to be blasting through any lines.

His size put him on the cusp of a draftable grade, but the long and short of it is that he lacks both quantity and quality:  his limited starting time on a poor Wisconsin DL that struggled to bottle up its opponents will have him on the outside looking in.

Developmentally, however, there is a lot to like.  He is a smart player, and that translates to awareness on the field (he was good at getting his arms up into throwing lanes, and he could be an asset on STs for blocking kicks).  It also translates to leaps and bounds in the classroom, and so one area where he could make an impact is in getting the playbook under his belt. But his enemy right now is the first roster cut-down in preseason.  Making it past that cut is going to take all he's got.

Outlook

After adding Fields, Baker and L.Smith last season, we watched attrition devastate the DL, until only McBean and Thomas survived from the past.  2010 brought with it an opportunity to really flesh out that group, and in fine fashion Denver managed to not only increase the competition and depth, but will likely have created an entirely new starting lineup.

Jamal Williams is the starting NT, hands down, but his reps will likely be kept in the 15-20 range, slightly less than half the reps in any given game.  This will leave an opening for Fields to make an impact rotating in with the first teamers on 1st and 2nd down, while anchoring the second team DL.  Bannan should be the first unit LDE, and Jarvis Green will end up as the starting RDE, which would mean an entirely new starting unit.  But something to watch for will be the managing of Green's reps to allow him to contribute on passing downs.  He would be perfect for the nickel package with McBean or Thomas at NT, Reid at LDE and Green at RDE, so expect that lineup.

McBean is the first of the bubble players, but has an excellent chance to be the backup RDE.  He will likely rotate in with the first unit to give Green more 3rd down opportunities, as well as competing to anchor the interior nickel package and playing RDE and LDE on the second unit.  Behind him, Thomas will be trying to push Bannan at LDE, and he should be able to secure that spot, especially if his STs contributions continue. He could also anchor the nickel package and serve as a 3rd NT on the depth chart.

L.Smith may start the season on PUP, but if he is available at the start of the season, Thomas will likely be his main competition.

Stehle, Garland and Baker will all be fighting for the right to keep developing on the active roster, with Baker being the most likely to be kept.  Garland could make an immediate impact on the roster if he manages to push the Thomas/Smith group, but Stehle should probably be projected no higher than the practice squad.

Depth Chart Projection

Ideally we won't have to carry more than 7 DL on the 53, but that #7 won't be an easy choice.  Baker is unlikely to win the #2 NT position outright, which makes him a candidate for the #7.  Thomas, McBean and Smith will all be competing for two DE positions, so the odd man out will also be in competition for the #7.  Garland is a dark horse candidate for the #7, while Stehle is a longshot for the #7...  Here is my best guess how it shakes out:


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