A few days now removed from our new defensive makeover, I thought this would be prime time to give an overly premature evaluation of the team’s current state, with an emphasis on what to expect from the new guys. We’ll talk solely about the defense today and if there’s any interest in it, I’ll do the same for offense on another day.
And with that, we’ll jump into jumping to some conclusions..
With veteran corners Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman combining with a plethora of youth in Perish Cox, Squid Thompson, Cassius Vaughn, Nate Jones and Chad Jackson, the Denver defense has a nice mixture of solid starters and youthful upside at cornerback.
The youth on that list will continue to get better, and the veterans will continue to be solid. The depth at cornerback is solid enough to withstand a Perish Cox suspension or an injury to any player, other than Champ Bailey.
The cornerback position wasn’t a need for the Broncos going into the draft, and it isn’t a need going into free agency. With a drastically improved pass rush, and with Champ, Goodman and Cox remaining as the one, two and three all year long, this positional group should rank around the top-five units in the league. That’s a big if, however, given Cox’s legal trouble and Goodman’s age and injury history. Still, this is a very solid group, and is certainly above average. Grade: B.
Starting at the safety position, the Broncos have Brian Dawkins who is a spectacular player, but one that can’t cover anymore, and Renaldo Hill, who is something of a solid player but simply isn’t spectacular at all. Behind the starters, Denver just added second-round pick, Rahim Moore and fourth-rounder Quinton Carter. These newbies are in addition to 2009 draftees Darcel McBath (2nd round) and David Bruton (4th round).
David Bruton makes his living on special teams to such a degree that even if the Broncos knew he’d never start at safety, he would still have a home. Darcel McBath is a very promising free safety who already possesses starting ability but has been slowed in his takeover of that position due to multiple injuries. These two men have job security for 2011 and aren’t going anywhere.
Rahim Moore, the highest ranked safety in this recent draft, was a true freshman starter at UCLA and started 37 consecutive games before leaving to the NFL as a junior. So he’s experienced and ready to fight it out with Darcel McBath over who gets to take Renaldo Hill’s job. Quinton Carter was actually my favorite safety prospect in the draft, and was a consensus top-three at the position. He doesn’t have as much in-game experience as Moore, but he did gain quite a bit of experience through his years at Oklahoma, and is also a year older. Quinton played free safety and strong safety, and will probably be at his best as a two-deep centerfielder in a cover-two scheme, like the one we’ll be using a lot of. I’ve always had him pegged as more of the strong safety, but most draft sites call him a free safety. Carter’s role is what he makes of it. Early on, I expect him to play in nickel and dime roles, and I hope to see the hard-hitting young leader following and learning from the great Brian Dawkins, hanging on his every word.
This could actually shake out in half a dozen different directions. Both veterans could go, both could stay. As it stands, this positional group gets high knocks for having ineffective and aged veterans, but it also gets high praise for having some rather high-profile youth learning and developing behind a guy like Brian Dawkins. I’m giving this group a C+. It’s an average group with slightly more potential than concern. Starting Renaldo Hill in September should be taken as a bad sign for our youngsters, while releasing both Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill before season’s open should be seen as a sign of security and draft booms. Regardless, it all comes with risk. Either you’re starting less than stellar defenders, or you’re using a rookie as your last line of defense. The future looks extremely bright for this group, of that I have little doubt. But expect some face-palm moments along the way.
Elvis Dumervil is elite in his pass rushing role, and Robert Ayers is what he was drafted to be... a run-stuffing LDE, not a pass-rush specialist. Ayers was probably overdrafted, but he’s also severely underappreciated in Denver. He’s strong enough to be used inside on passing downs, when newly drafted Von Miller takes over at end. It should be a lot of fun watching offenses try to stop these three on third-down.
Behind the three monsters, you have David Veikune, who was drafted to be a rush linebacker for the Browns, then later signed with Denver to be the same. So, both teams saw David as a 3-4 OLB. Regardless, though, he was a productive sack artist in college and was drafted pretty highly, pretty recently (2nd round in 2009). Jeremy Beal is the final DE on the list. He was insanely productive in college, but slipped to the 7th round of the 2011 draft due to his lack of size and athleticism. Both Veikune and Beal are each undersized defensive ends that possess far more potential than proof. Each of them offer upside as a pass rushing end, but neither possess much promise as run thumpers.
So, look for the Broncos to add a run-stuffing DE through free agency - probably the typical 280lb – 6’4", strength & size over speed type of player. Jason Hunter has gone unmentioned here, but he could make the team as a DE, assuming everything relating to his recent stabbing works out.
Depth at DE is a little shaky and needs an addition on the left side. Still, this group has Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers starting, with Von Miller set to sub in on passing downs. This group gets an easy A.
The Denver Broncos have Kevin Vickerson at the defensive tackle position, and virtually nobody else. It’s really a waste of time to evaluate this positional group while knowing night-and-day changes are expected as soon as free agency opens. Look for the Broncos to add multiple players here, and for them to make it the highest spending priority. This positional group ranks as a very solid F. Without major upgrade and additions, the Broncos will again give opposing running backs career days in Denver. And I, for one, am tired of being laughed at.
Virtually overnight, Broncos brass seemingly clicked their heels three times to genie-blink immediate upgrade to a piss poor linebacker corps. The Broncos drafted their highest rated SLB and their highest rated MLB early in the 2011 draft. Each of them are expected to start, with DJ Williams filling the remaining WLB position. Behind the starters, Joe Mays is expected to be the backup MIKE, Wesley Woodyard will play as the backup WILL and Mike Mohammed will play as the backup SAM. This positional group fits like a glove - nicely and neatly, with a perfect fit for everybody. It’s odd how it worked out so perfectly after drafting three linebackers for BPA instead of for need. Hmmm.
Nothing note worthy is likely to be added at this positional group during free agency. Barring injury, 2010 Butkis Award winner (Nation’s best linebacker) Von Miller is a lock to start at SAM, while 2010 Butkis Award runner-up, Nate Irving, has about an 80% chance to start at MLB. Mike Mohammed will also get his playing time early and often by covering TEs out of the backfield from the SAM position on downs were Von Miller moves to DE.
Denver's new linebacker corps has an extremely bright future. DJ Williams and Von Miller are so fast and instinctual it’s retarded. Nate Irving has sky-high attributes; he’s fierce, hits hard and is the vocal leader we’ve been looking to add in the middle for a long time. Still, be careful what we wish for, because we're likely to get it sooner than later. Nate Irving is no stranger to directing traffic and being the quarterback of the defense, but asking him to do so at the NFL level - as a rookie – is bound to invite mistakes. So be ready for a mistake every now and again, and bear with him when it happens.
Defensive minded HC John Fox and Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen Vs. offensive minded HC Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I think that's probably pretty self explanatory.
Expect a bump from this defense, not only because we added two elite pass rushers from last years model, and not just because we added great speed and play making in the second and third levels, but also just because we have Foxy Bear... He's worth an uptick all by himself.
It’s too early to know if the next Clay Mathews is on our team, but it’s also too early to know that he’s not. Also, know that you are allowed to hope for, and even to expect, a few rookie starters. They won’t be perfect, but some of them will start, even if it's only due to lack of talent at the position they play. Don’t let anybody tell you to temper your expectations. The sky is the limit for some of these guys, and they’re in position to get the opportunity early. So, be excited for them. It’s allowed.
The 2011 Broncos should easily be one of the better pass-rushing teams in the league. Add that to the increased speed and ball-hawking ability at both the second and third levels, and the Broncos should really be in much better position to force negative plays and to create turnovers.
Obviously, the overall state of the 2011 Broncos defense largely hinges on the free agents soon to be brought in at defensive tackle, as well as the actual performance of the rookies that will be starting. Still, I'd be more surprised at a bottom 15 ranking than I would be a top-five ranking. The overall defensive grade today, however, is only a C+, given the colossal lack of talent at DT.