For the first time in a long time, the Denver Broncos appear to have a front seven on defense that is big and formidable. Even when the Broncos have had good defenses in the past, it always seemed like they were doing it with smoke and mirrors up front. No one will know for sure until they start playing games in September, but the Broncos have the talent to be dominant in the front seven.
Let’s start with the run defense as the best way to stop any running game is by clogging up the middle with big defensive tackles. The Broncos were good versus the run last season, but not good enough when it mattered so they set out to get better and that meant getting bigger.
The first step was the free agent signing of defensive tackle, Terrance Knighton. Knighton is 330 pounds and is considered a run stuffer. He played his best football under defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Broncos then used their first round pick in last week’s draft to select Sylvester Williams. Williams was rated a top 15 talent by many and brings another wide body to the middle of the defensive line. He checks in at 313 pounds, but despite his size, Williams is very agile and was one of the fastest defensive tackles in the draft.
Throw in Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein who are both over 300 pounds and the Broncos have four defensive tackles that they can rotate in and out. The early guess is that Knighton and Vickerson will start, but all four will play a lot. We’ve talked about four defensive tackles and haven’t brought up the name Derek Wolfe yet.
Wolfe is listed as a tackle but played both defensive end and tackle during his rookie season. Wolfe will probably continue to play both positions based on need and situations. He will play end on run downs and move inside on passing downs. If everything goes the way the Broncos want, Williams and Wolfe will line up next to one another on passing downs. The Broncos are looking for a pass rush up the middle, and these two together should be able to do just that.
The outside pass rush got a huge boost on the third-day of the draft, and it wasn’t a pick. It was the free agent signing of Shaun Phillips who can play both linebacker and defensive end and will be used all over the front seven based on down and distance. He may not be listed in the starting lineup, but make no mistake he will be on the field most of the time.
The biggest thing Phillips brings to the Broncos is a complement to linebacker Von Miller. Those two players will line up opposite of each other and give the Broncos a pass rush threat from both sides. Phillips may not be Elvis Dumervil, but he’s not far off. In fact they had roughly the same number of sacks in 2012. Dumervil is a better pass rusher than Phillips, but Phillips is a better all-around player.
The player that is always forgotten is defensive end Robert Ayers. Ayers doesn’t do anything great, but he does a lot of things well. He stops the run and will come up with five to seven sacks over the course of a season. Ayers is also very good at setting the edge and not letting running backs get to the outside. Malik Jackson enters his second season coming off of a solid rookie campaign. Like Ayers, Jackson is a good rotational player who will make all the plays he is suppose to make.
The wildcard at defensive end is rookie Quanterus Smith, the fifth round pick. Smith was a great pass rusher in college, and if that translates immediately to the NFL then the Broncos’ pass rush is even more dangerous. The good news for the Broncos is that they can afford to be patient with Smith. If he contributes right away, then great. If he needs a season to further recover from an ACL injury and to adjust to the league, then that’s okay too.
In order to be a truly great defense, it has to start with the front seven. The Broncos have all the components to be one of the best units in the league.
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