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Breaking down the Broncos’ defensive line room

One unsung key to a Broncos’ defensive resurgence.

NFL: JAN 03 Raiders at Broncos
Dre’Mont Jones is ready to rock and roll.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard to talk about the Broncos’ defensive line without accounting for all the injuries that worked their way through the group in 2020. A starting lineup of Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, and Jurrell Casey in week 1 became Deshawn Williams, Dre’Mont Jones, DeMarcus Walker by season’s end, with each of the veterans landing on Injured Reserve.

Given all the injuries up front, you’d expect the Broncos run D to collapse. It did.

Through the first five games, the Broncos run D was one of the best in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat, finishing with a -19 or better four times, a figure that would have been good for a top 11 mark across the NFL if it held up all year.

Instead, the run D finished as the 25th best in the league because of some ugly performances down the stretch, including the first Kansas City and Raider games as well as non-divisional matchups against the Panthers and Bills.

Following the season, the Broncos parted ways with Jurrell Casey, DeMarcus Walker, Sylvester Williams, Joel Heath, Kyle Peko. While the move didn’t work out in the Broncos’ favor, I still liked Elway’s low-risk gamble trading for Casey. Walker signed with Houston after never emerging as more than a rotational piece in Denver. Williams joined the Broncos in October after injuries began eating away at the defensive line. He’s currently a free agent. Both Heath and Peko opted out of the 2020 season.

What will the starting lineup look like?

It’s a bit of a misnomer at this point to call the Broncos’ 3-4 their “starting” lineup because nickel is base in the modern NFL. During the 2020 season, Fangio utilized 5+ defensive backs on 75% of the Broncos plays and more often than not, when five or more defensive backs are on the field there is only two defensive linemen. Sometimes there’s only one.

With that in mind, I expect Dre’Mont Jones and Shelby Harris to land atop the depth chart in Fangio’s 4-2-5 looks with Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, and others working as part of a rotation. In this personnel package one defensive lineman tends to play a 1 technique while the other plays a 3 technique. When the Broncos utilize their 3-4 personnel we’ll see Purcell land at the nose tackle spot while Jones and Harris play 4i or 5 techniques.

Thanks to a 3-year, $27 million contract we know Harris should be in orange and blue for at least the next two seasons. The knee injury that pushed him to Injured Reserve for week 17 did not appear to linger into OTAs, so I expect him to be in peak form come camp. Welcome news, because in addition to the woes defending the run, injuries to Casey and Harris put a serious dent in the Broncos’ interior pass rush a season ago.

Harris may never find himself discussed amongst the Aaron Donalds and Chris Jones of the league, but he’s a good gap shooter who has the wiggle, hands, and play strength to cause havoc for protections. He began his career in orange and blue as a backup nose tackle, so there’s little question he’s capable of playing up and down the line. He’s also got a real knack for batting down passes, with 16 across the last two seasons and 23 since he joined the Broncos in 2017.

Mike Purcell looks like he will be full go for training camp after a season ending foot injury knocked him out of the lineup in October. Since joining the Broncos after a stint with the Salt Lake Stallions of the now defunct AAF, he’s been a dependable role player. He’s quick enough to disrupt zone blocking by crossing an opponent’s face to muck up combo blocks and stout enough at the point of attack to stalemate most doubles. While he doesn’t add much to the pass rush, he’s a key piece of the Broncos’ base 3-4 personnel and an asset in short yardage.

All signs point to Dre’Mont Jones as the Broncos’ other starter. A 2019 3rd round pick from Ohio State, Jones’ quietly been a very promising pass rusher since coming into the NFL. He’s played 844 snaps on defense over the last two seasons, notching 10 sacks to go with 34 pressures by Sports Info Solutions’ charting.

What stands out to me as really promising is how Jones used different moves to notch each of his sacks a season ago. He’s good at transitioning from a bull into another move to keep a blocker off balance, such as when he used a push-pull against Atlanta’s James Carpenter. He’s also able to generate pressure from multiple alignments, which points to a versatility most don’t seem to recognize yet.

Jones’ logged time as a defensive end in base personnel, an interior rusher in the Broncos 4-2-5 nickel, and nose tackle in Fangio’s 3-3-5 personnel that comes out on obvious passing downs. His quickness off the ball, savvy hands, and diverse repertoire of moves suggest a the arrow is really pointing upwards if the Broncos’ other pass rushers can stay healthy and leave him with more isolated guards to exploit.

New Faces

Shamar Stephen

A collegiate team captain who was drafted in the 7th round of the 2014 draft, Stephen’s signed a 3-year $12.45 million deal to return to the Vikings in 2019 after one season with the Seattle Seahawks. He was cut after two seasons when Minnesota signed Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency. Stephen played 62% of the Vikings’ defensive snaps in 2020 to go with 80 special teams snaps. He’ll count for $1.97 million against the 2021 cap. If the Broncos elect to cut him during the preseason it will cost $750,000 in dead money.

Similar to Mike Purcell, Stephen offers little as a pass rusher, but should serve as better depth than guys like Slyvester Williams or DeMarcus Walker. He’s best served logging the majority of his snaps around the A-gaps, but has enough lateral mobility to be a functional contributor on stunts. He’s got the length to serve as a viable two gapper when necessary, the anchor to gum up the point of attack, and he’s quick enough to be a solid run defender against outside zone. He isn’t twitchy, but I like his motor and he does a nice job leveraging his gap.

Isaiah Mack

Undrafted out of Chattanooga in 2019, Mack signed with the Titans and made the final roster out of camp. He played 242 snaps as a rookie and finished with 1.5 sacks, eight tackles, and a fumble recovery. He returned to the Titans for a second season, but wound up waived in November. The New England Patriots picked him up and he spent the remainder of 2020 bouncing between their active roster and the practice squad.

Once the Patriots let him go, Mack signed with the Broncos shortly after the Bucs won their Super Bowl. In my limited exposure to his tape, he looks like an interior clogger who has just enough wiggle to catch a guard or two by surprise in one-on-ones. He’s not quite as nimble as Stephen and does have shorter arms, but I’m intrigued by his hands and his ability to stay tight to an opponent as he works across their face. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets home on a few games in the preseason as a looper.

Mack played more than 20 defensive snaps in a game once in 2020, and logged 107 all season. When he got a chance against the Bills’ Brian Winters and Cody Ford, he looked like he belonged. One thing working in his favor is he’s just 25 and the fact his cap number is just $850,000, less than half of Stephen’s.

Marquiss Spencer

Drafted with the pick Denver acquired in the Andy Janovich trade, Spencer was a multi-sport athlete in high school who won a state championship back in 2015. Already 24, Spencer took a medical redshirt in 2018 after tearing his ACL and missed two games last year after he was stretchered off the field. He was kicked out of the same game for targeting, and the precautions taken to ensure his safety suggest he suffered a spinal injury.

Spencer’s age and injury history surely played a role in him falling to the last round of the draft, but he’s a powerful player who shows a good burst and meat hooks for hands. A solid athlete who will need to balance improving his anchor with managing weight, he shows promising bend for a 300 lb. man.

How will the final depth chart look?

Fangio typically rosters six defensive lineman, but I could see the Broncos go as low as five or perhaps as many as seven. Ultimately, I suspect it will depend on how many spots are left after accounting for the offensive line, defensive backs, and receiving corps. as each group has long term questions and a slew of prospects.

It’s hard to imagine a healthy Jones, Harris, and Purcell aren’t starting, so I consider them locks. McTelvin Agim was an athletic developmental prospect Elway took in the third round of the 2020 draft. He played less than 150 snaps with all of the injuries happening around him, so I’m very curious to see how he’s progressed this preseason. Barring disastrous preseason, he’s a soft lock based on potential.

With four spots accounted for, I expect an open battle for the last two spots in the rotation. Shamar Stephen’s the priciest of the backups, but also a proven contribute and a recent addition via George Paton, so he’s probably a safe. Marquiss Spencer is another Paton acquisition that looks like a sure bet for the practice squad if nothing else.

I suspect Stephen and Spencer will battle Isaiah Mack, Deyon Sizer, and DeShawn Williams throughout the preseason. If Williams can build off his 2020 he’s my favorite for the last roster spot. He’s finished 2020 with 14 pressures in addition to his two sack performance against the Dolphins. He brings juice as a pass rusher while being a versatile role player.

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