Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts gets rid of a pass as he is hit by defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson #99 and linebacker Robert Ayers #56 of the Denver Broncos. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
A new Head Coach for the Broncos has brought the seeds of change once again in Denver. Along with the annual ritual of revolving Defensive Coordinators comes a philosophical return to the 4-3 defensive scheme that helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls. So once again a search for the right pieces to implement and complete the change is required. The Broncos are situated to draft a pair of Defensive Linemen in the upcoming NFL Draft next month and that could go a long way in their attempt to improve on last seasons 32nd ranked Defense. Yesterday the team released Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan in a cost-cutting move. Williams was destined to depart because of age, salary and schematic fit, but other than salary cost, Bannan looked like a sure bet to return. That said, he could certainly return on a restructured contract. The 2010 season ids officially over now and there won't be any further contract signings until the CBA mess is completely resolved, so who's left to toe the line? Read on my friends
The Broncos will be moving Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil back to start at Defensive End. The current back ups are Jason Hunter and Ryan McBean, leaving this position rather thin for the next season.
Robert Ayers had 39 Tackles, 1.5 Sacks and 1 Forced Fumble in 11 games last season. Those aren't bad numbers for a Defensive End, but the problem was, Robert played at Linebacker the entire year. The 2011 season will see him return to the End spot where in his rookie campaign he totaled 18 Tackles, 2 pass break ups and 1 Fumble recovery after a partial holdout in Training Camp. Ayers has yet to show the production results from the position he was drafted.
Elvis Dumervil, the first Bronco in team history to lead the league in sacks with a club-record 17 in 2009, was forced to sit out the 2010 foray because of a Torn Pectoral muscle. The Bronco pass rush suffered devastatingly as a result. To top it off, Elvis had just agreed to a hefty multi-year contract. The Broncos defense will benefit with his return this season.
Jason Hunter, for those of who aren't familiar with, is a 6' 4", 271 lb., 27 year old, 5th year player. He has played in 56 career games with Detroit and Green Bay before joining the Broncos as a free agent on August 19, 2010. Jason played in all 16 games at Linebacker in 2010, starting 12. He finished with 61 Tackles, 3 Sacks, 1 Interception and 1 Forced Fumble. Hunter also recovered 2 Fumbles, returning one 75-yards for his first career Touchdown (K.C. 11/14/10). One of four Broncos to register at least one Sack and one Interception this season, Jason also tied for 2nd on the team with 10 tackles for a loss. A bit on the large size for a 4-3 Linebacker, Hunter projects as a Defensive End in the new regime.
Ryan McBean is another interesting piece of the puzzle. A young 26 years old, he has 3 seasons under his belt for the Broncos. The 6' 5", 297 lb. became a full-time starter for the first time in his career in 2009, starting 14 games and registering 25 tackles. In 2010, McBean appeared in all 16 games and started 4 of them. He made 19 stops and recovered his first career fumble at Tennessee (10/13). However, few will forget the consecutive Face Mask Penalties in Week 1 in Jacksonville that upset the momentum in that game and gave Denver fans an OMG face palm.
At Defensive Tackle, the Broncos have Marcus Thomas and recently re-signed Kevin "Big Vick" Vickerson penciled in as the current starters. They also have 4th year players Ronald Fields and Louis Leonard, as well as rookie Mitch Unrein for depth at the current time.
Big Vick just signed a 2-year contract yesterday. One of the bright spots on the Defensive Line in 2010, Kevin tallied 42 Tackles, 2 Sacks, Forced a Fumble and nabbed an Interception. He appeared in 15 games, starting 12. The highlight game of the year for Vickerson was at Tennessee in Week 4, where he had 6 Tackles and helped hold 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson to 53 yards. He joined the Broncos as a free agent in September of last year after posting career highs in 2009 with 28 tackles and three pass breakups in 13 games (2 starts) for the Titans.
Marcus Thomas, 25, is one of two interior defensive linemen in Broncos history to play every game during his first three professional seasons (Rubin Carter,1975-77). He appeared in all 16 games for Denver in 2009 and had 15 tackles along with the first blocked extra point by a Bronco in five seasons (vs. San Diego, 11/22/09). In 2008, he had a career-high 57 tackles, which led the defensive line, and had one Interception. Selected by the Broncos in the 4th round with the 121st overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, Marcus Thomas collected 35 Tackles and 1 Sack in 2010.
Ronald Fields made 22 Tackles in 16 appearances last season after starting all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2009. He registered 37 tackles, ranking 2nd among the Broncos’ defensive linemen that year. Ronald spent his first 4 seasons with San Francisco from 2005-08 and saw time in all 16 games during each of his final two years with the club. He came over to join the Broncos as an Unrestricted Free Agent on March 3, 2009, following Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan.
Louis Leonard is 6' 4", 325 lbs and 26 years old. He has played 25 career games including 5 starts for New England, Carolina and the Cleveland Browns, totaling 46 Tackles and one Sack. He entered the NFL in 2007 as a college free agent with San Diego after attending Fresno State University. Leonard recorded 68 Tackles, 11.5 Tackles For a Loss and 6.5 Sacks in 43 games (23 starts) for the Bulldogs.
Mitch Unrein (pronounced UN-rhine) is a 6' 4", 300 lb, 23 year old Rookie Defensive Lineman for the Broncos. He spent the 2010 preseason with Houston after being signed by the Texans as a college Free Agent from the University of Wyoming. There is not much to tell about Unrein. He was a 3-time All-Mountain West selection at Wyoming, where he started every game during his final two seasons for the Cowboys and he is a native of Eaton Colorado.
Judging by the numbers, the Broncos will need to address the Defensive End position. Of course a pair of Linemen with the first two or three draft picks next month would take care of any immediate depth concerns, but they will have the opportunity to solidify and upgrade both Tackle and End positions in a draft deep with D-Line Talent. J.J. Watt and Marcell Dareus anyone?