As the 2011 NFL Draft concluded, I was left intrigued by the thought of whether a defensive lineman holds more value or has more impact than a linebacker. However, when trying to weigh the value of a DT or DE against an ILB or OLB, I found it somewhat difficult to give an honest and accurate description of both groups of defenders.
The controversy this year appears to be whether Denver made the best decision in going with OLB Von Miller over DT Marcell Dareus. Both of these players were the top rated prospects at their respective positions and would instantly fill a huge need for the Broncos' rather poor front-seven.
As hard as it might seem, Denver once fielded a pretty stout defense in many statistical categories. I went back and looked at the statistics of each year since 2000 and then compared them with Denver's roster of defensive linemen and linebackers to see if anything stood out.The areas of study were Rush Yards Allowed per game, Rush Yards Per Carry per game, Passing Yards Allowed per game, Passing Yards per play, Turnovers, Sacks, Third Down Percentage and Points Allowed per game. While some of these stats are skewed a little to inaccurate methodology (a special teams touchdown or a turnover resulting in a touchdown negatively effect "Defensive Scoring" even when it was not against the defense) these stats do tell an interesting story. More after the chart.
|Year||YPG||YPR||YPG||YPP||TO||Sacks||3rd Dn %||PPGA|
Purple indicates a top-5 ranking, green a top-10 ranking and red a bottom-5 ranking.
First (a quick summary), Denver fielded a solid defense from 2001-2005. During these years, they ranked in the top-5 in at least one category each year, and including the 2000 regular season, Denver ranked in the top-10 in at least three categories.
Denver was particular consistent in run defense, yards per pass thrown and "scoring defense". Then, something dreadful occurred in the middle of 2006. Even though the stats were not too awful that year, nothing was great. Since then, Denver has been horrible at just about everything. So the questions I want to raise are simple.
Question 1: Did Denver have a defense as good as the numbers indicate from 2001-2005?
Question 2: How did Denver go from a top-10 defense consistently into a horrible defense in 1 year?
The answer to question one answers question two. Here is the chart of Denver's roster at defensive line and linebacker for years 2000-2010. What do you see? (The ones listed are the starters or the ones that had significant playing time)
|2000||Keith Traylor, Maa Tanuvasa, Trevor Pryce, Kavika Pittman||Al Wilson, Bill Romanowski, John Mobley, Ian Gold|
|Montae Reagor||Keith Burns|
|2001||Trevor Pryce, Reggie Hayward, Bertrand Berry, Chester McGlockton||Al Wilson, Bill Romanowski, John Mobley, Ian Gold|
|Montae Reagor, Kavika Pittman||Keith Burns|
|2002||Trevor Pryce, Reggie Hayward, Bertrand Berry, Chester McGlockton||Al Wilson, John Mobley, Ian Gold, Keith Burns, Donnie Spragan|
|Montae Reagor, Kavika Pittman|
|2003||Trevor Pryce, Reggie Hayward, Bertrand Berry, Darius Holland||Al Wilson, John Mobley, Ian Gold, Keith Burns, Donnie Spragan|
|2004||Marco Coleman, Mario Fatafehi, Reggie Hayward, Monsanto Pope||Al Wilson, DJ Williams, Donnie Spragan, Terry Pierce, Jason Sykes|
|2005||Trevor Pryce, Gerard Warren, Michael Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban||Al Wilson, DJ Williams, Ian Gold, Keith Burns|
|2006||Ebenezer Ekuban, Kenard Lang, Michael Myers, Gerard Warren, Elvis Dumervil
||Al Wilson, DJ Williams, Ian Gold, Nate Webster|
|2007||Sam Adams, Elvis Dumervil, John Engelberger, Alvin McKinley||DJ Williams, Ian Gold, Nate Webster, Jamie Winborn|
|2008||Ebenezer Ekuban, Elvis Dumervil, Dewayne Robertson||Nate Webster, DJ Williams, Jamie Winborn, Boss Bailey|
|Marcus Thomas, Kenny Peterson||Wesley Woodyard|
|2009||Ronald Fields, Ryan McBean, Kenny Peterson, Vonnie Holiday||Elvis Dumervil, DJ Williams, Mario Haggan, Andre Davis, Robert Ayers|
|Le Kevin Smith, Marcus Thomas||Wesley Woodyard|
|2010||Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickrson, Jamal Williams, Marcus Thomas||Elvis Dumervil**, DJ Williams, Mario Haggan, Robert Ayers|
|Le Kevin Smith, Ryan McBean||Jason Hunter, Joe Mays, Wesley Woodyard|
**Indicates player was on the team but did not play during the year. Dumervil was on IR.
Denver had a great system executed by great leadership. There were solid starters across the board for both the defensive line and the linebackers in 2001. Lots of names change as the years progress. When looking at these units, there are a few standouts on the defensive line and the group of linebackers is quite impressive. Over all, I would give Denver's defensive line a grade of 7.5-8.5 from 2000-2006 and the linebackers a grade of a 9.0-9.5 from 2000-2006.
In 2007, four players stand out because two of them left and two filled their roles. Trevor Pryce left the team and Al Wilson was injured and forced to retire. Elvis Dumervil needed to replace the production from Pryce and DJ Williams moved to MLB to replace Wilson.
In 2006, Denver started out playing at a high level as they had in previous years. Dumervil was a rookie and ended up with 8.5 sacks in a 4-3 base defense despite being undersized. He came in and quickly bolstered a defensive line that lost Pryce. However, Al Wilson was lost in the middle of the year and Denver's season quickly spiraled downhill. The loss of Pryce and other talented defensive lineman prior to the 2006 regular season was masked by Al Wilson's incredible leadership, great depth at linebacker and the drafting of Dumervil.
The truth seems quite simple when you look at the rosters and performance of the defense. Denver did not have an elite defensive front-four, but they had a couple impact players each year that performed well. However, what made Denver's defense tough was the group of linebackers. Al Wilson was the constant piece that made Denver a playoff team each year. When Wilson was lost, Denver's poor front-seven was exposed as lacking talent and with starters out of position.
I do not know if Fox-Elway-Xanders (FEX I guess) saw this and put more value in a great linebacker over a great defensive tackle, but I believe they arrived at the same conclusion. Linebackers have a greater effect on defense than defensive lineman. Not only that, but Dumervil can play well as an DE - he had 26 sacks in his first 3 years. While there are still "ifs" about defensive tackles, FEX felt that Denver had absolutely no one worth keeping as a linebacker except DJ Williams, who has been playing the wrong position.
As bad as the defensive line was last year, the linebackers were less talented and more ineffective. Not only that, FEX felt Von Miller would have a greater impact as a OLB-DE player that can play several positions on the field than Dareus at DT. I am not here to say which player will be better because none of know how Von Miller and Marcell Dareus will perform as professionals.
However, I do believe they picked the best player at the MORE IMPORTANT position. Yes Denver has struggled against the run, but one of the biggest reasons for Denver's failures in the playoffs from 2001-2005 was their pass defense, turnovers and sacks. Denver was great against the run and yet never threatened Indianapolis in consecutive playoff games. I believe it takes a great front-seven to win games and Denver took the right step in bolstering the most important group on defense. Right now, Denver has 4 of the 7 players necessary with Dumvervil, Von Miller, DJ Williams and Nate Irving.
If Von Miller can have the effect Al Wilson had on defense, even though he is at a different position, the outcome will be a huge positive. The biggest need for this year in no longer related to player acquisition. It is now up to Fox and his defensive coaches to put each player in a position where they can succeed and coach them into the best players they can be.