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Broncos free agency: No more room for leftovers

A dissertation on why letting former defensive tackle Terrance Knighton leave in free agency was the right move for the Broncos now and moving forward.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Terrance Knighton signed a one-year, $4 million contract to join the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

It is a team-friendly friendly deal, with earnings potential based on Pot Roast keeping his weight in check over the course of the season. Despite being considered a team leader and quality locker room figure respected by his teammates, those in charge decided there was no more room for leftovers in Denver.

Four million dollars on an incentive-based contract is small price to pay for one of the better defensive tackles on the market but something Denver wasn't willing to shell out, despite Knighton's statements over the past month stating he would stay in Denver at a reduced rate, even mentioning on the Brandon Spano Network radio show a five-year, $25 million contract.

Oakland and Chicago, headed by former Broncos coaches John Fox and Jack Del Rio, also passed on Knighton, which is a strong indictment against him and demonstrated the concerns teams (including Denver) had with his dedication to keeping in shape to participate in a higher amount of snap counts for the forthcoming season.

The Broncos allowing Knighton to serve up his dinner plate elsewhere is a decision many fans are beginning to question, but is a good gamble moving forward.

In a one-gap scheme employed by Wade Phillips, quickness off the snap, coupled with fantastic technique and athleticism to disrupt the offensive line is an integral part of success.

The spotlight of my argument comes from taking a look at the history of Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense and whether Knighton would have fit into that picture.  Foremost, Phillip's 3-4 defense isn’t the traditional two-gap "read and react" system that is proliferated among the ranks of the NFL. A two-gap scheme will require nose tackles to take up blockers, allowing for greater play-making mobility from its linebackers.

In a one-gap scheme employed by Phillips (which has many of the same gap responsibilities as the 4-3 over defense we ran in 2014), quickness off the snap, coupled with fantastic technique and athleticism in order to disrupt the offensive line is an integral part of ensuring the scheme succeeds.

Embedded below is a YouTube video of Coach Phillips discussing his defensive philosophy.  It's a little over 11 minutes long but is an excellent introduction for those of you who may have questions about it.

The video offers a trip down memory lane, with Phillips discussing in detail the variety of players at each position who have been extraordinarily effective in his scheme.   J.J. Watt and Bruce Smith at defensive end, along with Ted Washington and Jamal Williams at nose tackle - some of the best to ever play the game at each of their positions.

After watching the video you'll likely think, "Hey! Washington and Williams were huge players like Knighton, and Wade made them into All-Pro's -- why wouldn't he have done that with Pot Roast?"

A fair question to ask and as Phillips explains in the video, he doesn't like fitting square pegs into round holes. He believes in fluidity of his defense and allows for adjustments in order to fit the strengths of the players within it, which is why he has been such an quality coordinator over the better part of two decades.

Taking a further look back in football history you will come across another player who played nose tackle for Phillips whose strengths differ greatly from Washington or Williams. That man was former Dallas Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff.  Ratliff was a special player for Phillips, who utilized him effectively to get the most out of his abilities. Though not large in size, he was exceptional off the snap and played violently as a gap shooter to wreak havoc against offensive lineman.

We still like Sylvester; we think there's a lot of potential there. If there's any guy that can get it out of our players, it's our new defensive line coach Bill Kollar.   -John Elway in February.

With all that said, it is reasonable to assume that Phillips and others involved in player personnel decisions lacked faith in regards to Knighton having the qualities necessary to be effective in this defense, subsequently leading to his farewell from the Broncos.  At this point in time, the Tar Heel duo of Sylvester Williams and Marvin Austin are first in line to get a shot at being the next players in a long line of diverse defensive tackles in Son of Bum's defense.

"We still like Sylvester, we think there’s still a lot of potential there, and we are not sure that he’s scratched it yet. If there’s any guy that can get it out of our players it’s our new defensive line coach Bill Kollar," stated VP of Football Operations John Elway back in February. "So Sylvester is going to get tested, and will get pushed. And I think it will be a good thing for Sylvester."

It's a risky proposition and how this experiment will turn out is yet to be determined, but it is clear that Elway is banking on the development of his younger players to fulfill the void at defensive tackle with Knighton's farewell from Denver.  The front office and coaching staff are taking a big leap of faith, but the historical success of nose tackles in Wade's system that allows for flexibility is a beacon of hope for fans who have reasonable concerns over the issue.

While I don't expect the Broncos to pursue another nose tackle in the rest of free agency, drafting one as an insurance policy in case the tandem of Williams and Marvin Austin fail to live up to expectations is quite likely.

Players in the draft who may be considered include:

Eddie Goldman, FSU
Malcom Brown, Texas
Michael Bennett, Ohio State
Carl Davis, Iowa
Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
Xavier Cooper, Washington State
Grady Jarrett, Clemson
Xavier Williams, Northern Iowa

Enjoy the rest of free agency. Here is to hoping the Broncos moves so far and those forthcoming can lead us to a third Super Bowl victory.