Justin Bannan and life on the line

“I feel like I belong in Colorado,” said Justin Bannan recently. A lot of us feel the same way - and felt that last year as well.

Justin Bannan went to UC Boulder for college, played very well for the Broncos in the ugliness that was the 2010 season, and has been a consistently solid locker room presence wherever he goes. Now he’s back in Dove Valley, with a chance to play in the 4-3 front that he has said that he prefers.

“Home is the warrior, home to the hill, and the airman we shall soon see.”

Although badly misquoted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem, it does describe both the return of warrior Justin Bannan, who Denver let go to avoid paying him a roster bonus, as well as the upcoming first time that Broncos fans will get to see another possible defensive lineman in former Air Force Falcon Ben Garland.

Bannan was a 16-game starter with the Broncos in 2010. During that season, he made 35 tackles to go with one sack, four pass breakups, and one forced fumble. From all accounts, including film study, he was one of the best linemen on the Broncos. Then, looking at having to give him a $500K roster bonus and $3.5M salary for 2011, Denver shocked many of their fans and let him go.

Even in retrospect it wasn’t their best move, since Bannan was an absolute wall against the run in 2011. Granted, his salary may have been a little steep, so Denver was looking for better run stopping at a lower rate, and they did get precisely that from Brodrick Bunkley. But to avoid that roster bonus (and Brian Xanders added something about ‘getting younger’ on the DL, which is ironic with Bannan’s return now at age 33) they let Bannan go, and he migrated to St. Louis for a year. He continued to be the same player - steady, extremely talented against the run, a monster in the middle on the first two downs. In the locker room, he’s always been a rock. Sometimes I’d think of Bunk and Bannan, shoulder to shoulder on run downs and sigh. Running up the gut on Denver would have been difficult at best. Given Robert Ayers's strength and skill, the weakside would have often been the only chance.   

According to PFF, Bannan played 495 snaps (296 run, 197 pass rush, 2 pass coverage) for St. Louis in 2011, good for 47.6% of the Rams’ total regular season snaps. He finished the year with a plus-8.8 overall rating from PFF and had a plus-12.4 rating against the run, with a minus-2.2 rating in pass defense (he’s never been a big pass rusher, but has more potential in a 4-3 scheme). St. Louis had him at their right defensive tackle position throughout the season, and he started every game.

Justin’s said before that he’s most comfortable in a 4-3 front defense, and while Denver’s, like most, is some degree of a hybrid, their base does use an even front which should suit him well. Bannan may play NT, but he did have some potential as an under tackle at one point in his career. He’s got a nice first step, good-to-excellent hand use, and he anchors well. His problem has been getting upfield, and I doubt that he’ll suddenly set the world on fire there, but with Elvis Dumervil back (who was out with a pectoral tear in 2010), Von Miller on the corner, and probably Robert Ayers flanking him, he may even get a few sacks. Several hits and hurries are likely, though - he’s a bruising player.

My suspicion had been that he’d split time with Ryan McBean at the nose, but Denver is expected to release McBean today. Pending the addition of a rookie DT, I'd now expect Bannan to take the first two downs, and that continues to leave under tackle as an open competition. Kevin Vickerson and Ty Warren both spent last season injured, and are hopefuls for this year. I expect at least one DT from the draft. I’m not sure where Mitch Unrein is going to fit in, but I’ll admit that I’m rooting for him - he gave a lot of effort last year. And, hey - he’s TJ’s guy. Grown up in Colorado, went to college in Wyoming - he’s a homegrown, Front Range guy, an underdog in the NFL, one of the classic story lines in American sports. It’s hard not to cheer for a guy like him.

Bannan’s Background

The 6’3”, 305 lb Bannan was born in Orangevale, CA on April 18, 1979, so Happy Birthday to him Wednesday. He went to high school at Bella Vista High in Fair Oaks, CA and lettered in football, playing nine different positions and serving as team captain three times while he was there. He went to college at Colorado and majored in communications while playing for the Buffs. Always a very tough player, Bannan started all four years and didn’t miss a game in the final three. Appropriately for such a blue-collar kind of player, Bannan was awarded the Regiment Award, given by coaches to the player who made the greatest contribution with the least recognition, as a senior.

In 2002 he was drafted in the fifth round by Buffalo, where he played out his first contract starting for them. The Baltimore Ravens called next, and Bannan went to the playoffs three of four years with them, getting a taste of what winning is like. He played in 58 games over four years for a Baltimore defense that ranked first in the league in yards per carry, second in rushing yards, and second in total yards allowed over those seasons. He loved the Ravens and the kind of deep-seated belief that they had that they’d always find a way to win. He wanted to take that with him when he left.

Bannan and the Broncos had high hopes when he arrived. They weren’t fulfilled, though - the team won exactly four games in 2010, and the roof fell in, leading to a full change in the management structure and much of the roster. Justin was one of the best on the Broncos defensive line, but he was owed a total of $4M for 2011; the Broncos took a deep breath and decided that it was too much. Ironically, although four years younger, Bunkley since went to the Saints for $5M per year. That $4M Bannan would have gotten suddenly doesn’t look outrageous by comparison.

But Denver went in a different direction, and Bannan went to St. Louis to play for the Rams. His luck wasn’t any better there - despite a playoff year the season before, the Rams had a terrible run and ended it 2-14. Bannan, however, was a bright spot on the Rams DL. Needless to say, when Bannan was called by the playoff contending Broncos, who had made an impressive run in 2011 before adding Peyton Manning and a bookend pair of TEs for him to throw to, it wasn’t a tough decision. Bannan came to visit and stayed to compete in 2012. Denver fans are glad to have him back. Bannan is glad to be here. Even at 33, Bannan was considered a catch for Denver. Bannan had something interesting to say about coming back:

I feel like I have a lot of unfinished business here. I never felt right about leaving. There's a business side of it, and unfortunately that side happened. But it's just nice not having to move again.

Also,

I feel great -- I feel just like I did when I came in the first time. I think for me, I definitely feel like I’m on a mission. I’m definitely hungry. I want to win. I want to be on a great team and I want to do my part. I’m more than motivated this year to prove to the new guys that are there what I’m all about.

You have to wonder if that unfinished business doesn’t includes making some noise in the playoffs. Denver has done a remarkable job of working to finish the rebuild that started back in 2009. It’s not fully done, but it’s getting visibly closer. A presumably healthy Peyton Manning solves the revolving QB issue for a while. Manning will teach the WRs how to be winning professionals, rather than just guys who made it to the NFL, and will demand a lot from the offensive line as well. They’ll have to adjust to his audibles at the line, and that will call for a lot of time with their noses in the playbook on the OL’s part. That didn’t escape Bannan’s notice:

Obviously we have a quarterback who, to me is the hardest guy in the NFL to play against. He's a human computer on the field. I'm proud to be back. I take a lot of pride in this town. I couldn't ask for anything more.

The improvement in the TE position is dramatic over last year’s group (much less 2010’s), and it’s expected that running back will be bolstered in the draft, both of which will also help.. Developmental TE Julius Thomas has been vindicated as to the ‘soft’ label that was placed on him after failing to return following his high ankle sprain. It was severe enough that he required surgery, but is expected back for training camp although not necessarily for OTAs, so it’s not a minor procedure. He’s expected to be more of a receiver than a blocker if he can develop for the Broncos.

At this point the defense remains to be improved, and Bannan could play a key role in that. The Broncos will be likely to put a good under tackle next to him and let the player develop, although Bannan lets them go in any direction they feel to be best in the first round. Bannan’s been to the playoffs, understands what it takes to get there and win, is still a beast against the run, and might have some pass pressure chops depending on who plays next to him. He played in a 4-3 base front in St. Louis, and was open about his feelings on it.

To be honest, I'm more comfortable in 4-3 than I am in 3-4. (2010) was the first year I ever played a true 3-4 and played that type of technique. 

If it comes down to playing more of a 4-3, more of an attacking-style defense, that's going to be more up my alley.

That’s what the Broncos are saying that they want to run, so it should fit his approach well, although Bannan will do anything you ask him to.

Although it’s likely that Denver will take one or two DTs in the draft to supplement their current crop, one thing that stands out when you look at the Denver roster is that they have three players on it right now - Robert Ayers, Jeremy Jarmon and Ben Garland - who can all potentially handle either the DE or slide to the under tackle positions, depending on the requirements of the scheme as well as the down and distance on a given play. It could give them a lot of flexibility - depending on which of them make the squad. Ayers rolled into that slot quite a bit last year. Jarmon, at 6’3” and 286 lb was the Broncos' payment for veteran WR Jabar Gaffney. A third-round selection in the 2009 Supplemental Draft by Washington, where he spent two years, he was cut in training camp last year by Denver and spent the season out of football. But he’s back to try one more time after the Broncos signed him to a future contract in January. He played 16 career games with one start in his first two seasons and is a former Kentucky Wildcat, as are LB Wesley Woodyard and new TE Jacob Tamme.

Garland just turned 24 and was a college free agent picked by Josh McDaniels who’s been fulfilling his Air Force commitment. He totaled 115 tackles (52 solo), 11.5 sacks (66 yds.), three forced fumbles, and two blocked kicks in his 39 career games (34 starts) for the Falcons and is known for being a particularly gritty player. He’s tall, at 6’5” and he’s been listed as weighing only 275 lb for the past two years. If he can stay low as he turns the corner, though, at his length he could turn out to be another pass rushing force for the Broncos. If he’s put on muscle, they need help inside. Considering his background, Denver fans will be out in force to cheer him on in training camp.

Ayers is the man who holds the starter's reins at left defensive end for now. He’s not likely the kind of guy who will give you a half dozen sacks, but he’s unequalled on the team for setting the left edge and stopping the run. His sometimes-ignored ability to collapse the pocket has also earned him thanks from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and John Fox, among others. He’s gained a lot of muscle in the last three years, and I look forward to seeing how he does in 2012. His ability to roll inside and let Miller come in off the edge has been beneficial to Denver. He even picked up three regular season sacks and two against the Steelers in the playoffs.

Since he’s going to be asked to play a lot of nose tackle in a 4-3 base, single-gap, penetrating, attacking defense John Fox had said he’d like to see tweaked to get more pressure on the QB (a belief that Jack Del Rio has made mention of since then), Bannan should feel right at home. It is the kind of defense in which he feels most comfortable.

And, in a very real sense he truly is home in Colorado. Welcome back, Justin. You’re going to look very good in orange.

Go Broncos!

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

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