The Denver Broncos have one of the most well-rounded rosters in the entire NFL. It's hard to find many holes on this team, but after diligently watching and analyzing the first three games of the year, one of the major weaknesses seems to be the inconsistent levels of play on the defensive line.
Derek Wolfe is the stalwart of the Broncos' defensive trench unit. His tenacity and relentless motor are a pleasure to watch and the way he carries himself on the field rubs off on those alongside him. In a short amount of time, Wolfe has blossomed into a team leader and fearsome player who is capable as both a run defender and pass rusher. Besides Wolfe, the team doesn't have many players to write home about on the defensive line.
The team used a second-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft on Georgia Tech defensive end Adam Gotsis. There is no denying his physical abilities and his overall upside as a player, but he is still extraordinarily raw, plays with poor technique and leverage and has been dominated consistently at the point of attack. I have been less than impressed with his play to date, yet remain hopeful that in due time he will be able to become a solid player for the Broncos.
The other two ends on Denver's roster are Jared Crick and Billy Winn who were acquired as free agents this off-season. Crick signed a two-year deal, while Winn's deal is only one year. It's safe to say that neither of these players, though serviceable, are not solutions at a position which needs a long-term answer.
The 2017 NFL Draft has a great slate of defensive prospects in the trenches who could be immediate contributors to the Broncos' defense next season. Here is a look at a few players who I believe would be good fits here in Denver.
DeMarcus Walker, DE — Florida State
The expectations have always been high for DeMarcus Walker. Touted as a consensus Top 75 player in the entire nation, the young defensive lineman out of Jacksonville, Florida committed to Florida State early on as part of their 2013 recruiting class. It was a huge get for the Jimbo Fisher led Seminoles, who ended up also reeling in Jalen Ramsey and several other high-profile prospects in the same class.
At the age of 18, Walker was already a behemoth of a human being. There aren't too many 6'3, 280 pound teenagers roaming this vast planet, but he was one of them. His was highly sought after by dozens upon dozens of collegiate football's best programs. He was rough around the edges, but coaches across the nation knew that it was only a matter of time before they could smooth those edges out enough to turn him into one of the game's best young players.
It took a few years with the Seminoles for this to be accomplished, but in his junior season, Walker took the college football landscape by storm. In thirteen starts, he terrorized opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks relentlessly. Walker finished his third year with 56 tackles, 14 of them for loss along with 9 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and one interception.
His performance as a junior earned him second team All-ACC honors from the media and catapulted him to candidacy as a 2016 All-American, as well as being named to the Bendarik, Hendricks, Lombardi and Narguski Trophi watch lists.
With the success endured a year ago, the expectations for Walker as a senior were higher than ever and in his opening game against the highly-ranked Ole Miss Rebels, he certainly didn't disappoint..
Walker lived up to the hype and continued his gridiron dominance and vanquished the Rebels' offensive line for 4.5 sacks in his first game of the season. It was undoubtedly the biggest impact game for a defensive lineman in the country and easily one of the most impressive displays of talent I've witnessed in well over a decade of watching college football intricately.
Since that game, Walker's play has cooled off a bit, but he still ranks 9th in the ACC with 6 tackles for loss, 2nd in the entire NCAA with 6 sacks and 9th in the NCAA with 2 forced fumbles.
Not only is he a strong run defender, he has great pursuit skills to get after quarterbacks. He maintains his ground at the point of attack and does so with good technique and leverage. The Seminoles have a variety of defensive formations and defensive line coach Brad Lawing takes advantage of Walker's versatility and utilizes him in a myriad of ways.
You often see Walker inside as an interior rusher in their 3-4 packages and lines up at defensive end in their four man fronts. He even has the ability to kick back to an outside linebacker and generate a pass rush from that position as well. Despite all his positives, Walker isn't the most polished product, but has wide variety of pass rushing moves and a high football intelligence that make up for his deficiencies.
In order to cement himself as a top-tier prospect, Walker will have to improve his overall strength and quickness off the snap. There are also some concerns about his motor and overall playing consistency, but under the right circumstances, a coaching staff like the Broncos have with Wade Phillips and Bill Kollar defensively could get the most out of him.
As a two-time team captain and leader of the Seminoles' defense, Walker is a sure-fire to impress in the pre-draft process and will have defensive coaches across the league banging on the table for him to be acquired by their respective teams. He may not have elite measurables, but he has the heart, desire and passion to make up for it and has spent a lot of time in the film room studying some of the best lineman to play the game, in particular Reggie White in order to learn everything he can to become the best player he can be.
The defensive line is one of the 2017 NFL Draft's strengths and current draft projections have Walker going anywhere from early day two to a third day selection. Despite his limitations, I feel that Walker would hold up well as defensive end in the Broncos' scheme playing outside on early downs, but using his abilities as a pass rusher to kick inside in certain packages and situations. If there is any coach in the league who can find a way to maximize the skills of his players it is Wade Phillips.
Other Players of Note
Jonathan Allen, DE — Alabama
The cream of the crop at 3-4 defensive end in this years' draft class is Jonathan Allen out of Alabama. As a junior in 2015, Allen was one of the best defensive lineman in college football and posted 36 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 12 sacks and two forced fumbles. In four games this season, Allen has 14 tackles, three sacks and an interception return for a touchdown. There is no doubt that his future is bright, but just how good can he be?
Allen is a versatile prospect who could play a variety of positions in the NFL and will be a highly-coveted player once the NFL Draft has officially begun. His quickness and first-step explosiveness off the snap are hist best qualities. Those abilities allow him to consistently win his match-ups and plow through gaps and cause issues for opposing teams week in and week out.
He's a great scheme fit for the Broncos and the aforementioned would allow him to realize his potential in Phillips' one-gap attack defense. Allen should easily be taken in the draft's first 20 selections, so it is more than likely that Denver would have to trade p in the first-round in order to secure his services. With an estimated 11 picks in next years' draft, the Broncos have more than enough ammunition to make that a reality.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE — Villanova
It isn't often that Villanova produces top-tier talent in the NFL Draft, but defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon may be the exception to that trend this year. The 6'7, 290 pound redshirt senior has been an absolute force to be reckoned with and oozes untapped potential and one of the highest ceilings of any defensive prospect in this years' draft.
In 2015, Kpassagnon was a first team All-CAA selection and tallied 11 starts and amassed 33 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and an interception. In four games this season, the senior Wildcat defensive end has 10 tackles, 8.5 for loss, four sacks, as well as two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
Not only is he a team captain and leader on the field for their defensive unit, Kpassagnon is a quality special teams contribute who has blocked three kicks in his time at Villanova. Level of He still has room for a lot of improvement and growth, but his athleticism and size cannot be taught. He is a man amongst boys most every weekend he is on the gridiron and there are times on the field where he is just physically impossible to block.
If he continues to play at a very high level, he will certainly get invitations to play in either the East-West Shrine or Senior Bowl and a chance to prove he has what it takes to go up against the best prospects in the nation. If he performs well after the season and through the combine, Kpassagnon could see himself drafted as high as the second round. He is definitely a prospect to remember.
Don't Forget About. . .
- Two well-known prospects who are recovering from knee injuries suffered last season are Jarron Jones, DL of Notre Dame and Eddie Vanderdoes of UCLA. Both have the ability to play in a variety of schemes, but are still struggling to get up to speed after their season ending injuries.
Concerns regarding their injuries will likely drop them to the third day of the draft, but if you have a chance to watch either of them play, give it a shot. They aren't big-time pass rushers who can collapse the pocket, but fundamentally sound football players who can set their edge and be strong defenders in the run game.
- If the Broncos are interested in getting a gap-shooting defender with plus penetration skills, Florida Gator defensive tackle Caleb Brantley might be worth looking into if he opts to declare early and enter the 2017 NFL Draft. While his overall stats aren't that impressive, Brantley's impact for the Gators' defensive unit goes far beyond the stat sheet and believes he is the best defensive lineman in the country.
- Clemson's Carlos Watkins road to success was one filled with tragedy, but the redshirt senior defensive tackle is one of the best nose tackles in the upcoming draft. He is on pace to surpass his efforts' in 2015 and has the ability to fortify the defensive interior for any 3-4 team in the NFL. His stoutness at the point of attack causes immense problems for teams attempting to establish the run game and he is often double-teamed, which opens up possibilities for the Tigers' defensive ends.
- If the Broncos opt to not re-sign Sylvester Williams at the end of the season, don't be surprised if one of their first selections is on a high-profile defensive tackle with long-term potential. Watkins fits that bill and could be on Denver's radar.
Feel free to sound off in the comments section and discuss the prospects above or any other defensive lineman in college football that you'd love to see the Broncos add in the 2017 NFL Draft.