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.
There has always been a push within the game of football to find ever more rare and unknown players. The 1940s brought an effort to permit black players into the league; as bizarre as that seems now, it wasn't that long ago in real terms, and teams like the LA Rams led the way. The AFL All-Star game was moved in January, 1965 because the original city's hotels (New Orleans) wouldn't allow black players to stay or eat at the players' hotel there. Modern experience tells us that scouting traditionally black schools changed the game. By the 1950s there were teams like the Cleveland Browns who were also scouting the smaller schools and bring in big name players from them.
Now, the NFL is increasingly looking at players from Canada. Danny Watkins moved from British Columbia to Oroville, California, to take part in the firefighter's academy at Butte College, planning a career in that brave profession. Now Watkins is a former 2011 first-round pick out of Baylor who's starting and playing well for the Philadelphia Eagles. Philip Blake, a guard/center for the Denver Broncos, was one of four players from Canada selected in last month's draft. Boise State's Tyrone Crawford (Dallas Cowboys) is a defensive tackle (6-4, 275), as is the 318 lb Akiem Hicks (New Orleans Saints); both went in the third round. The 6-5, 290 lb DE Christo Bilukidi (Georgia State) went to Oakland in the sixth round.
Bill Walsh pretty much had it covered, even over 20 years ago. He said this about cornerbacks:
Ideal size: 6-2, 195, but good ones come in all sizes
You would prefer a good-sized cornerback, but fortunately they have come in all sizes. Some of the best coverage men have been extremely small and dwarfed by their wide receivers and still were able to cover because of quickness, explosion and anticipation.
But the great cornerbacks have been able to play a physical game with receivers. They can bump the receiver on the release, but more important go up for a ball and not be overwhelmed or knocked off the pass by the receiver.
Of course, you need quickness and explosion. Full-sprint speed is important, but there have been cornerbacks who have overcome a lack of sprinters' speed and played many years and become Pro Bowl participants. You'd like to think of the cornerback being able to run 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds.
He must be able to do the kinds of things receivers do when they go up for a ball.
My emphasis added. Now, let’s walk through some game film and start seeing who Denver has this year, starting with new CB Tracy Porter.
With the tension of the Manning issue burning up Broncos Country, and feelings of frustration rising over Denver having added no players yet, it’s easy to miss who’s still available. In addition, new players, many of whom are quality guys who believe that the market will pay more than they are currently being offered, come into free agency daily as they fail to reach accords with their teams. That’s exactly as we will see happen in Denver. We often get ‘stuck’ at the beginning of the FA period in our thinking about the big targets, but a lot of upgrades are out there. Let's check in on a few players who are still available, although they may go quickly: