Doc’s Musings: Finally, an under tackle

Within minutes of the Denver Broncos' choice of second-round under tackle Derek Wolfe, It became clear that this was not your average NFL prospect. He was already on the radio and said that he had just come in from working on his farm.  He was elated to be a Denver Bronco and was whooping and hollering. He wanted to get to Denver and he wanted to get to Denver right away.

And I laughed. No, I don’t mind the pick. I was mildly surprised at first, but there’s a sensibility to it that a lot of media types are going to miss. Denver didn’t.

I had Wolfe as being available a little later, and he probably would have been unless another team was seeing the same need that Denver has. When I wrote up penetrating under tackles, he was among my top few. As we were waiting for the pick to come, I asked Ted about Wolfe. Ted's responded, “I like Wolfe better than Worthy, but I think he's a situational inside pass rusher early. I like inside pass rushers, and think they're hard to find.”

I think that he’s right. Wolfe has some issues to work through, but he’s a player who is very good at getting into the backfield. You can find a lot of guys to fill space and hold the point of the run attack, but getting to the QB becomes schematically more essential every year. Denver has chosen to attack by adding pressure at another point along the line. They are changing their scheme - and Fox had already announced this long enough ago that it wasn’t in the ‘nonsense period’. They aren’t comfortable with where they are in terms of the pass rush. Now they have a player who’s specific to that role, and I’m glad of it..

If you look at it as demanding a ‘next year or bust’ player, he might not be your first choice. That’s going to come up about 10,000 times this next year, so let’s get it out of the way - I don’t care about that. Really. It’s not big to me. He was a second-round pick and he was one of the top off-tackles on the board. It’s an area of big need. It’s hard to find good ones. How hard? For the past three years - this would have made four - I’ve pined for an under tackle. I’ve pleaded for one. I think that Wolfe needs one thing more than anything else - coaching. And for the folks who say that they want a player who contributes immediately, I’d point out that he’s going to. He’s improved each year. Will he be better at rushing the passer in three years than, say, Jerel Worthy? I’d say yes, although it could go either way. Why make this choice now?

It’s because one of the toughest things to find is a high quality penetrating under tackle, and it’s taken Denver four drafts to find a good one. Half the fans don’t know the difference between an under tackle and a nose guard, but you guys do - it’s not a small issue with Denver’s scheme. If you want to take the approach that the best way to improve the secondary is to plant a lot of defensive players in the offense’s backfield, Wolfe suddenly becomes a very good choice. Fletcher Cox, who went twelfth overall to Philly, was probably a better player in this mold than Wolfe, but Derek is probably second among the DTs in this draft in this role. It’s a heck of an important role and it’s hard to get a guy who can play it well.

Let’s break it down. The Broncos have got a chance to add Marcus Thomas back, a player who I like but who hasn’t produced a regular pass rush in multiple fronts and positions. We’ve got Ty Warren under contract, who hasn’t played in two years. We’ve got Kevin Vickerson, who I liked as an athletic 325 nose, but not as an understrength 295 lb under tackle. TJ went back and watched every down to get clear on the need aspect. I’d already suffered through them once - I didn’t have the heart to do it again. It wasn’t going to get better.

If you don’t get one, this insanity goes on for a year longer. There aren’t a lot of penetrating, one-gap under tackles. That’s why they’re at a premium and it’s why Denver didn’t have one. They’re hard to find, and some of those that could, move to odd-front teams as DEs. Now, Denver has theirs. Lots of people had him going to New England to be scheme-specific there. He would have done well there, and he’s badly needed in Denver. Brandon Thompson, whom a lot of fans wanted, was sitting on the board for a long time. The front offices get better info than we do.

No one flinched at Kendall Reyes for the Chargers at pick 17 of the same round, and I’m not at all convinced that he’s any better than Wolfe in the role that Denver needs Derek to fill. I think that Wolfe will be a situational pass rusher early on and then, and fairly quickly, a very tough player to handle with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on the same line. Justin Bannan’s fine to start at nose then he’ll need to be replaced. That won’t be as hard as finding another penetrating offtackle. That’s the harsh reality of it. In that specific role, I think that Wolfe’s better than Reyes. I expect some folks to disagree.

We might not know how good this pick was for a couple of years. That’s the chance you take, and I know that people will say that this means that you go with a higher rated player. I don’t buy that. You identify the guy you think has the best chance of filling a role you see as essential. You have to take the scheme into account, and the Broncos did. And you also need to be realistic - the draft is a three-day game of craps. Wolfe is as good as Denver could do in this draft to fill that role, and that’s not meant to belittle his game. I think he’s a very good player. .

What moves this in the direction that pushed Denver to make the choice was that Wolfe has two big upsides. He’s not a one-year wonder, as is often erroneously said - he improved nicely when he got better coaching, and he continued to improve every year. He’s got a 5.01-second 40.  He had 21.5 tackles for loss last season and 9.5 of them were sacks. Those are even-front DE numbers. That’s very much what Denver wants him to do - to overload the pass blockers every time they’re in a passing down, which is most of the time, for most modern teams. Having a nose tackle, Wolfe, Doom, and Miller attacking every passing down is where the team wants to head, and it makes all the sense in the world.

It’s not a draft pick that’s going to make a lot of people happy early on, and that doesn’t concern me. Wolfe is a chance at something very effective that will start being effective early on and just get better. He had the sense to return to the Bearcats for his senior season, and it showed people just how far he’s come. Wolfe himself had the final say on that.

''I wouldn't say my senior year was beyond my expectations, I would say it's just a payoff,'' Wolfe said. ''I've worked so hard for so many years.''

He’s got even harder work ahead of him. I don’t see any reason to doubt that he’s going to do it well.

Brock Osweiler? It didn’t thrill me, but I understand the logic, and it’s sound. They saw nothing on the FA market that they thought was worthwhile, and they know they can’t let the #2 slot stay empty - if Manning only stays for one year, Brock’s as good as they could do and still have a shot at playing behind Manning for the next three years. It’s the kind of move that takes a lot of guts. The Broncos obviously like him very well. When John Elway, John Fox, Brian Xanders, Mike McCoy, and Adam Gase all like a QB, I’m pretty comfortable letting them show me why.

Much like Wolfe, what’s your other option? Sure, lots of fans have their opinions about one QB or another, but the reality is that they did what they did with Wolfe - they looked at the best option according to their scouting, and they took it. Wolfe is the #2 DT for the specific role they need him for. Osweiler is someone they believe they can train to play his own role as time goes on. It’s been a pattern through free agency and into the draft - being willing to push the envelope and have a shot at winning big, while filling holes with players they believe in.

That’s the approach that I want the team to have.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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