The Broncos' pursuit of Asante Samuel is more than an admission they want to upgrade their secondary.
It might be the very clue we needed to put this whole question of their defensive scheme (and perhaps their draft strategy) together.
How so? It starts with the overlooked fact that Asante Samuel's skillset is not tight, man-to-man coverage. It's playing off man in a Cover 2. In fact, Samuel is world class at this style of cornerback play. Coincidentally (not so much), it's also Champ Bailey's strength, although Bailey is certainly adept at playing tight man coverage when the situation calls for it. But Bailey's preference is off man, where he can play five to seven yards off the line of scrimmage, aligned straight legged, and heads up or slightly outside of the receiver, peering into the backfield at the quarterback.
You'll recall that when Bailey finished runner-up to Jason Taylor as Defensive POY in 2006, he played a majority of his coverages out of this scheme. It allowed him to utilize his experience with offensive play and route recognition, along with his catlike reflexes.
Samuel, although not in Bailey's league when it comes to man-to-man coverage, has a similar ability to react to the quarterback and read routes out of off-man coverage. Of course, this is exactly why the Broncos wanted to trade for him. Their intention was for their base defense to feature off-man coverage from the corners. It's no coincidence the Broncos have also signed Tracy Porter, another cornerback, who, although younger than Samuel, also has a preference for off-man coverage.
This point is key in understanding Jack Del Rio's scheme (and John Fox's too) heading into the 2012 season. The basic scheme that makes the most sense for off-man coverage is the Cover-2 Shell, in which one can run man or zone coverage. Typically, you'll see the cornerbacks just stay with their man or play their middles zones, but they will also be expected to be ready for the underneath routes. The safeties, for their part, are also playing their traditional roles, each taking a deep half of the field. However, more often than not, the coverage will shift near the snap of the ball to allow for the free safety to take the deep third, while the strong safety moves into the box for run support (while also covering the underneath routes in either man or zone, and especially the flat). Since this sounds a little confusing, a visual will help. Here is Samuel playing a similar coverage from Week 1 of last year:
Again, this coverage can easily start out as a Cover-2, off-man shell and morph into a Cover 1, off man. This allows for the strong safety to serve as a virtual linebacker. Typically, there is not a lot of blitzing until third down, and the defense generally plays a one-gap system up front. As we know, coverages and fronts are always linked, and in this particular coverage, running a two-gap system would burden the SAM LB with more tight-end responsibility than Von Miller either wants or needs (unlike a 4-3, one-gap Under).
If these assumptions are all true, it's even more likely the Broncos are employing a one-gap 4-3 in the coming year. As we've noted, the Broncos don't really have the personnel to run a two-gap system with their current defensive tackles, but more to the point, you simply aren't going to see off-man corners like Samuel (again, assuming they tried to trade for him), Porter, and Bailey (to a much lesser extent) playing off man in blitz-heavy schemes. Thus, in order to get pressure on running downs, Del Rio will likely use a lot of slanting, gapping, twists, and stunts to generate pressure--something a two-gap system doesn't do as well naturally as a read-and-react scheme (if at all). Not everyone is lucky enough to have Vince Wilfork to try both schemes at the same time.
Now that we've solved the mystery of what Jack Del Rio wants to do (although you shouldn't fool yourself, Del Rio will run multiple looks and schemes as the situation arises), let's turn our attention to the draft.
Again, let's assume the one gap is where the Broncos are headed. It drives their potential draft picks at #25. It would explain why the Broncos have visited with only two defensive tackles that we know of: Jerel Worthy and Kendall Reyes. Both are one-gap penetrators, and simply would not fit a Del Rio two-gap system. I'm not a fan of either player, but quickly, let's look at tape of each so we can see why Del Rio and the Broncos have brought them in:
Notice, both players are one-gap defensive tackles. Additionally, both players flash some ability, but not on a consistent basis; further, both guys seem to get washed out during a lot of plays. But, along with Devon Still from Penn State, these are the likely candidates at pick #25. Unfortunately, Fletcher Cox and Michael Brockers will likely be gone by the time the Broncos pick in the first round.
This begs the question: if neither Reyes nor Worthy are immediate impact players (and I don't believe they are, although you can judge for yourself from the tape), would the Broncos be better off going in a different direction at #25?
I think the answer is a resounding Yes, and here's why: one of these players (including Still and Brandon Thompson) should be available at pick #57 in this DT-heavy draft. More importantly, the Broncos could draft an impact running back like Doug Martin, David Wilson, or Lamar Miller at pick #25, but not at pick #57. In other words, you create more of an immediate impact by drafting the bad-ass running back with the first pick and filling in at defensive tackle in the second. But you can't get the bad-ass running back if you wait until the second round. Martin and Wilson, who fit the Broncos the best, will be gone at that point.
Of course, if a player like Brockers or Cox or Dre Kirkpatrick fall to pick #25, the Broncos will pull the trigger, but it's not likely to happen, and therefore, the Broncos will be faced with the situation we've described. If you're Peyton Manning, would you prefer the Broncos to give you Martin or Wilson, or wait around for Chris Polk (Lamar Miller will be gone by pick #57, too) or Robert Turbin, who the Broncos have also visited?
As much as I'd prefer that the Broncos load up on defensive tackles with their first two picks and take Turbin in Round 3, the reality, one that has come to me in the last week, is that if the Broncos can't wait until pick #57 to get the kind of running back that they believe will have an immediate impact, they've got to take a running back with their first pick--perhaps a running back like this:
With that in mind, here is what I believe the Broncos will do with their first three picks:
- Pick #25: Doug Martin, RB - Boise State
- Pick #57: Kendall Reyes, DT - UConn
- Pick # 87: Brock Osweiler, QB - Arizona State
There's a chance some team has fallen in love with Reyes and his showing at the Senior Bowl (as the Broncos did with Robert Ayers in 2009), but I doubt it. He should be there for the Broncos in the second round. Also, you hate to see the Broncos waste a pick on a developmental quarterback so early (Why not pick up Nick Foles, Russell Wilson, or even B.J. Coleman later?), but it seems the Broncos are smitten with the idea of grooming giants.