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State of the Broncos roster: Defensive line unit needs overhaul

The Denver Broncos took on the New England Patriots during week 16 of 2023 NFL season Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Our State of the Broncos series is winding down, but we still have a few positions on the defensive side of the ball to write about.

For today’s installment, we are taking at the defensive line. Let’s see how they performed last year and think about what the Denver Broncos should do this offseason to improve the unit.

Hint: It’s an area where they need significant changes and upgrades.

Zach Allen — Defensive End

Contract Status for 2024: Signed through 2025
Age: 26
2023 Statistics: 60 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 24 quarterback hits

The Denver Broncos made a big splash in last year’s free agent class by bringing Allen on a three-year deal worth $45.75 million dollars. The former Arizona Cardinal who played under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was the team’s most consistent player on the defensive line and was the direct replacement for Dre’Mont Jones who wound up signing with the Seattle Seahawks.

Yesterday’s article by Joe Mahoney looking at the Broncos’ edge rushing unit provided numbers for their defensive line as well. While Allen’s five sacks might seem low, he was great at generating hurries, hits, and pressures on the quarterback. He wound up with a 71 overall grade by Pro Football Focus.

Unfortunately, Denver didn’t have many other defensive linemen who were equally as effective as him against the run or pass. Due to this, their unit struggled as a whole during their 2023 campaign. He also played 81-percent of the team’s total defensive snaps, which was highest on the team and the most of his career by a wide margin.

Allen is clearly the best player the Broncos have up front. His 2024 salary cap number catapults from $6 million to $19 million. Looking down the road, he does have a void year (2026) tacked on to the back of his contract, but I expect he would have to play lights out next season in order for the Broncos to keep him for the 2025 season.

D.J. Jones — Nose Tackle

Contract Status for 2024: Final Year of Contract
Age: 28
2023 Statistics: 46 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, 3 forced fumbles

Playing 50-percent of the team’s defensive snaps, D.J. Jones had a decent year manning the middle of the Broncos’ defensive front but was by no means an impact player. When the team signed him to a three-year contract worth $30 million dollars two years ago, it was a solid deal based on his past performance. Now the question is whether or not they will keep him around for next season.

While the Broncos need to be adding more talent to their defensive front instead of getting rid of it, I have a hard time believing the Broncos will keep Jones for their 2024 campaign. His cap hit is nearly $13 million dollars and that is far too much for a player who is mostly one-dimensional and doesn’t offer much in terms of pass rushing ability. The team is $24 million over the cap for next season, so an outright cut makes sense, but the potential for him to come back at a restructured rate also makes sense.

Jonathan Harris — Defensive End

Contract Status for 2024: Restricted Free Agent
Age: 27
2023 Statistics: 43 tackles, 1 sack, 4 quarterback hits

Harris’ 2023 campaign was statistically the most productive of his career, but he wasn’t effective as a pass rusher and his run defense was average at best. He was third on the team in defensive snaps with nearly 46-percent despite not being a full-time starter for most of the season.

Given Denver’s cap space issues and overall concerns on the defensive line, bringing back Harris on his restricted free agent tender seems very likely. However, he is certainly replaceable long-term, and the Broncos would be wise to try and find some competition for him via the draft or with a second or third wave free agent signing.

Mike Purcell — Defensive Tackle

Contract Status for 2024: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 32
2023 Statistics: 25 tackles, 0 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 1 forced fumble

In his eighth season in the National Football League, Purcell was fourth on the team in snaps played (462, 44-percent) and relatively healthy for most of the year. Availability has been his biggest issue since coming into the league and has only played in 90 games since joining the league out of Wyoming in 2014.

He won’t ever light up the stat sheet in terms of production, but he was probably the Broncos’ most consistent interior defensive lineman against the run. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and it’s uncertain whether or not the Broncos have an interest in bringing him back. At 32 years of age, Purcell’s best football is behind him, and the franchise is in desperate need of an overhaul on their defensive front.

I could see them offering him a deal for the veteran minimum, but in my opinion they should look elsewhere.

Matt Henningsen — Defensive End

Contract Status for 2024: Signed through 2025
Age: 24
2023 Statistics: 19 tackles, 1 quarterback hit

The former sixth-round pick from the 2022 NFL Draft has been active for every game since being drafted out of Wisconsin. This year he played in all seventeen games and earned 20-percent of the team’s defensive snaps and 39-percent of Denver’s special teams snaps. Those numbers are virtually identical to his rookie seasons—so it does appear the Broncos have a role for him despite his late-round draft status.

I don’t have a big issue with Henningsen being the team’s fifth defensive lineman, but I wouldn’t call him necessarily a “safe bet” to make the roster in 2024. He is certainly upgradeable, but for now should be penciled in as a contributor for next season.

The Broncos also had Tyler Lancaster and Elijah Garcia as contributors on their defensive line this year, but neither of them registered over 5-percent of the team’s defensive snaps. The biggest disappointment was former fourth-round pick Eyioma Uwazurike who was suspended for the entire 2023 NFL season for violations of the league’s gambling policy. He will get a shot at competing for a job next year, but his second-year in the league was an absolute loss in terms of contribution and development due to the aforementioned.

Any way you look at it, defensive line is not a strength for the team and could arguably be their biggest concern. In my opinion, they need to invest two Top 125 selections in this year’s draft adding talent to their defensive front in addition to signing a starting caliber player in free agency.

Unfortunately, they are short on picks and lack a second rounder. If the Broncos don’t pick a quarterback at twelfth overall, I’d love to see them move down, acquire more picks, and consider double-dipping early on in the draft on the defensive line. It usually takes a few seasons for players at the position to hit their stride, so I’d like to see them be diligent with their drafting.

Truth be told, the Broncos are also facing a situation where by 2025—every single player listed on this positional review is no longer with the team. In order to maximize the players they have on the defensive back end and improve overall as a defensive unit, getting better up front is an absolute must. It’s time for the Broncos to get serious about drafting and developing players in the defensive trenches.