Listen to the pundits, and this position is the ONLY position on the defense (and quite nearly the team sans Cutler) that has any significance.
And Denver COMPLETELY ignored it.
Of course, many of you are here reading this report because those same pundits have confused, mocked and irritated you, and in the process have even unleashed magnificent contradictions onto their readers regarding what matters, what doesn't, and on a very basic level, what is actually going on.
But, folks, there is perception and there is reality.
And the job of the first has been and always will be to grasp the second, not to create it. In that vein, let's provide the antidote to the type of evasion that the media at large (minus a few isolated examples of rationality) engages in, even as they accuse the Broncos of similar evasion. Let's look at Existence and Identity.
As in, let's look at the existence of certain DT/NTs on our roster, and their identity, that which separates one from the other.
#79 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Sep 23, 1985
2009: $460,000, 2010: $550,000, 2011: Free Agent
Draft #4 (121st overall), 2007
If you haven't seen Marcus Thomas maturing before your eyes, you haven't been watching Broncos football. With sub-par coaching he has still managed to get steadily better, following a familiar progression for even elite DTs. Going into his third year, the big question is whether this slowly-accelerating talent is for real, or if we are just seeing things.
Where are the stats that show him getting better? The sacks and pressures? An uptick in tackles? They just aren't there. In fact, he has yet to record his first sack in the NFL, quite a drought for a player touted as one of the top rookie interior pass-rushers in 2007.
But Thomas has made significant progress as a Bronco despite the setbacks of the defense around him. To begin with, he was always a one trick pony as a pass rusher. He didn't really have a lot of moves, and he really only rushed at one speed. The secret to his college success was his elite burst and explosive ability out of his stance. Slightly leaner than a typical "heavy" on the inside, 3-technique really seemed to be his ceiling. His off-field persona had issues as well, including a series of terrible decisions, starting with a positive test for marijuana, that ended with his dismissal from the Gators as his team was making a run at a championship.
Fast forward to his rookie season, and he seemed to take an even farther step back. Altitude coupled with being out of football shape robbed him of his explosive ability, making him play like the equivalent of roster fodder. On top of that he had an incident 'back home' in Jacksonville involving cocaine possession which seriously threatened to ruin his career before it even started. Things weren't looking good, but two lights could be seen by the concerned observer; the first was Thomas' on-field ethic. While his play lacked, his effort did not, and it was only after the season did he acknowledge to anyone just how much of an effect conditioning had had on him. With that acknowledgment came a simple promise to come into the next season in better shape. The second light was his apparent understanding of just how close he had come to losing his future with the cocaine incident. Another simple promise: he was done with that old life, his old haunts, his old problems. The only currency backing up either promise was the specter of his ethic and effort as he struggled silently throughout the long 2007 season.
Look ahead to 2009, and the light is getting brighter with Thomas. Nary an incident has cropped up since his promise to end the off-field issues, and he was even awarded the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 'Director's Award,' given to someone who provides excellent service and support to the law enforcement community. His conditioning has been excellent, and he logged his first 16-start season in 2008. What I liked to see most as an evaluator was how he was no longer out of the play if his initial burst was met with a sound block. Early in his career the play would have been over for him at that point., but now he has developed a number of moves, and more importantly speeds, with which he can counter and compensate. He also moved well between lining up at the 3-technique position and the 1-technique. Both positions will be premiums in a "gap-shooting" style of D-Line play, so Thomas' familiarity with both will make him an asset on pass-rushing downs as either a NT or DE. That type of versatility meshes well with the defensive philosophy that is being talked about by the new staff, and with new D-Line coach Wayne Nunnely keeping a careful watch there is a tremendous expectation for Thomas.
The new staff talks about tailoring a defense to fit the skills of its players. To Thomas, this matters more than to almost anyone else. His trending indicates that he is ripe for a breakout, if there can be consistency and coaching around him.
#75 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Aug 14, 1985
2009: $385,000, 2010: $470,000, 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent
Draft #5b (148 overall), 2008
#91 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Sep 13, 1981
Signed a two-year, $5 million contract. 2011: Free Agent
Unrestricted Free Agent (San Francisco), 2009
At 315 lbs. (and rumored to be bulking back up to 322-330) we are starting to see a more typical version of a 3-4 NT build. But looking beyond just weight, there are a few things that stand out about Fields. The first that jumps out to me is the 34" wingspan, always an asset. I also like that he moved between the 5-, 3-, and 1-technique on the San Francisco line. His bulk is well-distributed with a very strong lower body, so anchoring is definitely within his toolbox.
His power has always been exceptional, and he may be the most powerful defensive lineman on the roster at this point. Unfortunately, that power doesn't always take shape on the field, and now we are starting to get into my concerns over this prospect. There is a reason he was on the fast track to a reserve role in San Francisco, and it wasn't coaching or scheme fit.
Since college, Fields has always been a player that needed that little bit of extra incentive, and who failed to consistently produce at the level he was capable of. But he was worth a chance because when he was 'fired up' it was amazing to watch. His power combined with what can only be described as exceptional quickness led to fits of masochistic destruction in the interior of the line. He plays like a man possessed, and mauls whoever stands in his way. But only sometimes. The rest of the time? Swallowed up in the chaos of defensive line obscurity.
He started to get on the right track when he entered the league, due to coaching changes at his alma mater, and his rise in college production showed how good he might be. But in the NFL, his strong start, even for a rookie, diminished quickly, and soon he was being fitted for a spot on the bench. A short stint where Nolan himself, as head coach, insisted that Fields be put on the field as a 5-technique DE, resulted in a series of good games, only to see him break his arm and miss out on that opportunity.
Fields is essentially without a pass rush move of any significance, and has been since college, but his strength in the running game is excellent, where he reestablishes the line of scrimmage and then holds his ground. He also has a bad record against double teams since entering the pros, though when he is playing well, he seems to perform much, much better in this department.
In the same vein as his ability to intensify and motivate his play, I worry about his ability to focus on the field and in the film room - just one of a number of little things that contributed to his play lacking consistency in San Francisco.
Fields is going to get scrutinized heavily by Broncos fans going forward, so it is important to understand where his lacking may be coming from. One thing that no one should let take them by surprise, is if Fields sees most of his action as a run-stopping, havoc-creating defensive end, part of a very deep rotation. Nolan saw something for Fields there before, a plan derailed by injury and Nolan's own battle to keep the Niners competitive. Now that Nolan can focus solely on the defense again, he may try to finish what he started with Fields, and there is no doubt that 3-4 end was part of that plan.
#69 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Jun 07, 1982
Free Agent, 2009
Parker is a space-eater who has spent 4 years drifting from Atlanta's and Baltimore's practice squads to Carolina's reserve, to Cleveland's reserve, to Dallas' reserve, and finally to Arizona's reserve. Arizona saw enough potential to protect Parker as a restricted free agent, but declined to actually tender an offer sheet when push came to shove.
He ran a 5.2 40-yard dash, recorded a 32-inch vertical and pressed 225 lbs 27 times, none of which stand out. For all intents and purposes it looks like we are talking about roster fodder here, with little chance of a surprise. He has trended from being picked up by one of the best defensive-line situations in the league (Baltimore) to being a no-name prospect for the team perceived to be the worst D-Line in the league. Not a good trend.
#99 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Jul 01, 1982
Free Agent, 2008
I liked everything about this player's career at Michigan State, and his upside was excellent going into the draft. A player with top potential. So what happened?
Let's start with what Askew can do right. He had excellent athleticism, and good size to man the traditional left-DT role, and had experience lining up as a 5-, 3- and 1-tech, just like many of our other prospects. While not exceptionally fast, he was phone-booth quick, and could rely on pure strength much of the time, though he went into the draft having impressed greatly with his accelerating knowledge of pass rushing. One thing to like in particular was how well he sniffed out the ball, both in play recognition and in stripping the ball-carrier. He frequently came away with a forced fumble or deflected pass if he got anywhere near the QB. Excellent closing speed and terrific handwork had him pegged for the fourth round, where he was selected by the Bengals.
After an injury-plagued rookie season, he came along very slowly, but won the fourth DT spot in 2005 to stay on the roster. But, in the end, he failed to impress on the field. Then early in 2006 he was charged with resisting arrest in a typical Cincinnati drama that involved Askew being tasered by the police, and then suing the city for excessive force, and finally ended with Askew being found not guilty, and having all charges dropped. Through this drama he stayed out of football after being waived by the Bengals 'for being a malcontent,' and was picked up by the Redskins for their practice squad, but was waived before the start of the season. He finally ended up on Denver's practice squad last year at the end of the season, and now he waits for what will likely be his final chance in the NFL, in McDaniels' and Nolan's first Broncos training camp.
If Askew can find a way to tap into his raw athleticism, while listening and learning, then he may still have a chapter or two to write in his NFL story. But if he can't shake the mistakes and problems of his past, they will drag him out of camp in the first cut-down.
#75 / Defensive Tackle / Denver Broncos
Oct. 8, 1987
Rookie Free Agent, 2009
First, do yourself a favor and refresh your memory of BroncoBear's excellent Tales writeup on Chris Baker.
Back? Time to talk about what we have on our hands. I won't say that the character issue is erased, but I will say that we should all have enough data to feel comfortable with what we know, and how it will affect his chances at making the team, good or bad. What is more important at this point is to ask what positives he brings to the position battle.
Let's start with the versatility to man the 5-tech, 1-tech and 0-tech (true NT), the big body (has played at 330 lbs, but could slim down to 320-325 and still be plenty big), the long wingspan (34.5 inch arms), and impressive pro-day numbers (35.5 inch vertical? Are you kidding me?) Versatility has been a hallmark of the front-seven prospects whose services have been sought by McDaniels and Co., and Baker produced at both End and Tackle in a 3-4 alignment, though mostly against lesser competition. His body type is refreshingly typical of a true NT, and even if he slimmed down to help alleviate some playing weight concerns (fatigue mostly) he would still be the largest Tackle on the roster.
His pro-day numbers are quite impressive, and it is this freakish, raw athleticism that Denver is counting on in Baker.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that Baker needed more time to learn the ins and outs of his positons on the DL. The type of trench warfare he saw at Hampton leaves him ill-prepared for what awaits at the NFL level, despite his athleticism. I would expect him to practice and play like what he is: a very young player who is behind the curve both in terms of competition and coaching. It is doubtful that he becomes a major contributor this year, and may spend most of his time learning the basics, learning what it is like to go against NFL-caliber players, and prepping for a stint on the practice squad this season. There will be some who believe that he is our best D-Line prospect, and over the very long haul, that may be true. But in terms of 2009, and even 2010, Baker is very unlikely to be the cure for what ails the Broncos.
McDaniels and Co. have added only two experienced NT/DT mixes to the roster, in Baker and Fields, and appear to be intending to move forward with much of what was left to them by Shanahan and Goodman. With the group as a whole possessing the skill sets of a penetrating one-gap defense, we are definitely going to spend the majority of our time lining up that way, whether in a 3-4 or 4-3. Unfortunately, none of our guys are true "do it all" tackles yet, and they have only limited time to jell on top of that, so execution will be of the highest importance early on.
We can expect to lose at least two of the above players in the preseason numbers crunch, and may rely on a veritable 'skeleton roster' at the position, rather than hedging our bets too much and impacting the roster math negatively, so I am waiting to see just how intense the DT/NT competition gets. Many of these players are good bets to move out to DE regularly, and Nolan has always used his DTs as ends when calling a 3-4, but the NT/DT position may be their best chance to nail down a spot on the roster. Outside of this group there really aren't any legitimate challengers to the 1- or 0-technique slot, and even within this group itself there is no clear-cut player who is right for the position, let alone a significant amount of competition for the spot.
These line prospects limit our already limited options for running the 3-4, and clearly put us in 5-2 type of territory, covered here by SlowWhiteGuy. There is no doubt that the Broncos will continue to scout, search and scrape to try and bring some talent to their 3-4 scheme; but in the meantime, what they have appears to be a mix of risk and blue-collar ethic, all still quite young and all quite capable of making the kinds of strides needed to make our line a serviceable one in 2009.
And with a little luck, we may just find that we have a gem or two in the group.