Of training camp performance evaluations, Denver's new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said,
Really...right now you can't put too much stock in the depth chart.
Offense or defense, he’s right. You can’t write a camp update without talking about how the players are doing, but in the first week of camp, it’s good to remember that many of the updates are describing what will not be permanent moves.
There’s a long way to go, and the team is going to try plenty of different looks; several won’t mean much over time. Some guys are getting looked at for positions that they will take over as the preseason unwinds, but many of the changes are just ways of exploring options. What’s more important right now is watching to see what the players have as their strengths and weaknesses when going up against each other, to decide who fits where. Next Thursday, the players will get to show how far they’ve come in Chicago against the Bears, who have improved their team since the 2011 season.
Picking up from where we left off on Monday, let's take a closer look at the play of Eric Decker.
I found a good article by Matt Waldman about Decker from last July, in which he compares the wideout's skill set with that of teammate and fellow 2009 draftee Demaryius Thomas, along with a highlight film breakdown of the strengths of Decker’s game. I liked it, even though it's from a year ago, when people still had some understandable concerns about Thomas’s Achilles injury and his overall health.
I don’t see much value in comparing the two to each other, beyond the sheer fun of perhaps passing an afternoon at a sunny table in the bar area of your friendly local brewpub, while sampling the offerings of the season. Much like those beers themselves, Decker and Thomas each have strengths and weaknesses. Broncos fans have yet to see both of them healthy and receiving passes from a top NFL quarterback.
Like most of us, I’m looking forward to the experience.
From CBS writer Pat Kirwan:
No team in 2012 had a more radical makeover on offense than the Denver Broncos. Gone is the Tebow wildcat offense and in is the pure NFL no-huddle passing attack led by Peyton Manning. As John Fox said to me, "We are eager to learn from Peyton." The Broncos haven't had a winning record in five years and they are on their third head coach in that same period. Now Peyton is the coach on the field and young wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are about to explode. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two guys who caught 76 passes between them last year combine for 150 receptions this year.”
After a recent reader comment, I was drawn to looking at the drop rates of Denver receivers. Eric Decker, for example, had nine drops over the course of the regular season, and one in the WC game against Pittsburgh. It struck me that this was a high number for him. I didn’t know the background of Demaryius Thomas in terms of this stat, but I knew Decker had a very low drop rate in college. Since Peyton Manning doesn’t suffer mistakes kindly, drop rates would be one area that would matter over the 2012 season. Manning has also been consistent about his criteria over the years - if you get open, you get the ball. If you drop it, you might not be as open as you thought next time around. I decided to look.
Going into training camp, the safety group is probably going to be somewhat less of a battle than the cornerback slot, but there are still five men competing, potentially, for four slots. I’m working off the assumption that the Broncos will keep 10 defensive backs, right now. The possibility of a fifth safety is competing against the option of retaining a sixth cornerback, in terms of the potential value of each, as well as against the other safeties. I expect that they’ll keep five corners, and six wouldn’t surprise me. Accordingly, they could have four or five slots for safeties.
Denver brought in a veteran safety in Mike Adams who’s openly daring the younger players to try and knock him out of the starting role while teaching them how to do so. How can you not like that in a guy? They also have three players returning from last year and one very tough college free agent who’s worth more than a brief glance.
Losing Brian Dawkins is a blow to any locker room. I appreciate that the decision to part ways was made early, and also that Denver immediately brought in a quality veteran with nine years of experience and a reputation as a high quality locker room guy. I will always enjoy my memories of each side of Brian Dawkins - as a player, an inspiration on and off the field, as a family man and as a leader of his community. The fact that the new Broncos player will also wear #20 is indicative of how much the coaches are counting on him to keep the ship on course. It’s also a testament to Dawkins himself - Denver’s new starting free safety originally put on #20 as an NFL rookie, in homage to Brian Dawkins. That’s somehow fitting: a karmic balance, of sorts.
Nearly everything is different. A lot of it still looks the same. What’s true about Denver’s cornerback-intensive offseason?
The Broncos set out this offseason to substantially change a few things about its cornerback corps. One was to replace right corner Andre’ Goodman, who despite an otherwise solid year, let in too many touchdowns - nine altogether, including three in the season-ending playoff loss at New England.
There was also a huge gap between the youth of the undrafted and late-round corners of last year to the candidates for this year. 2010 UDFA Cassius Vaughn is now with Indianapolis after being dealt for fullback Chris Gronkowski; 2010 seventh-rounder Syd’Quan Thompson went on IR after tearing his Achilles tendon and is hoping to return to the game this season. Of course, last year's undrafted gem, Chris Harris, is at nickelback. Goodman and Champ Bailey will both turn 34 this summer, although the latter is as talented as ever. Denver decided to replace Goodman, they needed an additional cover corner, and they needed at least one player who was under 30 and over 24. They also wanted to create more pressure with the front seven.
The Broncos defense made great strides last season beyond their 2010 performance, improving in points allowed, from 32nd to 24th, and in yards against, from 32nd to 20th.
Better players, including the return from injury by Elvis Dumervil and the addition of second-overall pick and eventual DROY Von Miller, were significant factors. The coaching of John Fox and Dennis Allen also loomed large, but with Allen having departed for the darker pastures of Oakland, the defense is now in the hands of former Pro Bowl linebacker and ex-longtime Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio.
Like Del Rio, linebackers coach Richard Smith has been a successful coordinator in the past and also coached under Fox with the Panthers.
Jack Del Rio believes in the importance of a front seven that attacks the offense constantly. He believes in it for defending the pass and the run and he has no illusions about it. He recently commented:
Everywhere I’ve been, if you go back to Baltimore and Carolina and Jacksonville, it starts up front on defense. We’ve been fortunate to acquire and develop good players and put together a good front. I feel confident we’ll be able to do that here. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re busy doing that now in terms of developing guys we have. We’ve added a couple guys obviously in the draft and a free agent here or there. We’re going to make it competitive. We’re going to push that group. We’re going to expect the front to really help us play great defense.
Last week, we covered the Broncos' options at DT, while today we'll look at the defensive ends on Denver's roster.
Although John Elway said prior to the draft that Denver's roster had more strength at defensive tackle than people were aware, the team still used its first draft pick (early in the second round) to take Derek Wolfe, a penetrating, one-gap defensive under tackle. As usual, actions speak louder than words, and the Broncos weren’t quite in the shape at DT they wanted other people to believe them to be. That’s especially normal in the leadup to the draft - you never show your hand. As with most politicians, you can tell if the front office is lying by whether or not their lips are moving.
But the issues facing the Broncos defense go far beyond just the line. Within the draft, the Broncos addressed both defensive end (via the addition of Malik Jackson) and off tackle, via Wolfe. They also added a potential weakside linebacker who has a history of getting to the quarterback in tackling monster Danny Trevathan. With veteran linebacker D.J. Williams facing a six-game suspension for allegedly violating the league's PED policy (plus a DUI trial), there will be a competition to see who can obtain the downs that Williams will be missing. Adding another linebacker with penetrating skills should improve the overall quality of the front seven, and that’s who Denver chose with their last pick, in Trevathan. As a sixth-round pick he will have to show that he can handle the rigors of the NFL, but he has a history of getting to the QB, too.
Highlight film is notoriously useless for evaluating players since by its nature it’s focused on the best that the player can do and usually (although this seems to be changing, which I like) avoids their errors and weaknesses. Even with these limitations, there are things that stand out in the below video of new Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman. Taken with the fourth pick in the third round after a move up the board, the selection of Hillman confounded a lot of Denver fans. It hasn’t taken long to see the potential advantages that he brings to the Broncos.
For one, his shorter natural height is benefited by his tendency to run with a good pad level. He does run high from time to time, and if that doesn't change in the NFL, he’ll get to deal with the consequences. However - if you look at the number of tackles that he breaks, you get an immediate impression that for a somewhat smaller, lighter player, this is a kid (and at only 20, he is still a kid) who runs with surprising power and authority. He’s skilled at obtaining yards after the catch and it’s hard to argue with his production of 36 TDs and 3,243 yards in only two years of college. I don’t care what conference he was in - that’s serious production.
Duke Ihenacho has gotten plenty of pre-camp media attention, more than most college free agents that I can recall offhand. Rob Rang, Pat Kirwan and Doug Farrar all named the ex-San Jose State Spartan among their top undrafted rookies. The safety, who will wear
#38 #39 for the Broncos, played 47 games for SJSU and finished with 268 tackles (15 for loss), seven interceptions, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and three defensive scores.
Head coach John Fox and new DC Jack Del Rio both talk about aggression; they both prefer to dictate to the offense, rather than utilize a read-and-react style. I’m glad about that. Del Rio was well known for that quality as a linebacker, and he’s also sincere to the point of a religious belief about it as a coach - Elvis Dumervil describes him as having a “fiery side.” That’s a well-crafted understatement from Doom, who knows a thing or two about focused aggression. I expect, from the draft and from the form of the team right now, to see a lot of very aggressive, attacking play from their front 7. Ihenacho seems like the kind of player who might find a niche with Del Rio fairly quickly.
One reason is that while Duke’s not a man cover burner, he’s a player with a lot of different uses. He’s not the kind of guy you leave out by himself on an island, but he is the type who likes to blow up defenses and defenders, to cause and jump on fumbles, grab interceptions, and even blitz the quarterback. He’s fearless when hitting and tackling, is solid in run support, and with the Broncos’ emphasis on getting to the QB as part of protecting the defensive backfield, Ihenacho has the size, power, and aggressive nature that could become a successful part of that.