Mailbag: Possible breakout defensive players for 2013

Happy Friday, friends.  I got derailed from writing for yesterday, and while I may be a day late, you won’t catch me a dollar short.  In continuation of Wednesday’s topic, today I want to talk about some young Broncos defenders who may be primed for a big leap in 2013.

The most obvious one is probably Derek Wolfe, who had a very nice rookie season, and who I think is only scratching the surface of his potential.  The first thing you have to understand about Wolfe is that he’s not used as a traditional 4-3 DE; he’s really more of a 3-4 type of player, and the Broncos defense is actually mostly a 3-4 in disguise.  If Elvis Dumervil lined up in a two-point stance, the disguise would be gone.

Wolfe was the primary difference between 2011, when the Broncos usually had to use eight men in the box against the run, and 2012, when they usually managed pretty well with seven.  It’s a major deal for the soundness of a defense when it can afford to keep two deep safeties, and the play of Wolfe, Justin Bannan, and Kevin Vickerson was what allowed it.

Wolfe is going into his first offseason program, and I’m looking for a lot of improvement from him, particularly in terms of pass rush technique.  I always get a little irritated when I read PFF’s commentary on Wolfe’s existing pass rush ability, because there’s something important that they aren’t taking into account.

On neutral down and distance (1st and 10, 2nd and 5, etc.), when the game is within seven points, the Broncos tend to play for the run.  Within their scheme, that means that Wolfe, Vickerson, and Bannan are engaging offensive linemen and reading the action of the play – doing what’s called two-gapping.  For example, Wolfe is going to hit the offensive tackle, and try to stand him up, and he’s going to react to where a run play is going.

He’s responsible for both the B and C gaps, and he’s playing for a good initial shove, and then to be able to disengage to make a tackle a yard to his left, and a yard to his right.  When you hear football people talking about playing in a phone booth, that’s what they mean.  Two-gapping is all about power and quickness within a short area, which is why good linemen are really hard to find for odd fronts.

Now, what happens if the play is a pass?  The answer is that the defensive linemen have no chance to change their tactics, and try to penetrate.  They’ve engaged with an offensive lineman, which suits those guys just fine.  All they can really do is try to keep driving the offensive lineman backwards, and to maintain coverage on escape lanes that the QB could take.  The implication of this is that a lot of what PFF is judging as pass rush failures are actually times where the defensive lineman is doing his job within the scheme, and playing run-to-pass.

Back to Wolfe personally, he can improve his strength, quickness, and recognition skills, and also his technique during this offseason.  As I wrote before last year’s draft – I think Wolfe has 10-sack ability.  I suspect that 2013 is when he starts playing fully to that ability.  Little stuff is going to get him there, like recognizing that an OT is leaning backward on 1st-and-10 like he wants to pass protect, and Wolfe using that recognition to try to have the confidence to penetrate, rather than trying to stack and shed for a run play.

I like Malik Jackson too, particularly as an inside pass rusher in sub packages.  My only concern for him is that it will be hard for him to get on the field, since he plays the same position as Wolfe, and Wolfe plays a ton of snaps.  Jackson has a lot of talent, though, and I expect he’ll force his way onto the field somehow.

I expect that Joe Mays and D.J. Williams will be gone, and that Keith Brooking may or may not return.  Whatever the case may be, I’m looking for the emergence of one or both of Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan.  I really liked the way that both players looked in the preseason last year, and Trevathan did a very nice job playing 243 snaps on defense as a rookie.  Irving played a lot on special teams, and as a third-year player, he should be ready to compete for a starting job.

At worst, I think you can start Irving at MLB, and sub in Trevathan for him on sub package downs.  If Brooking is still there to play some, and to help teach the two young guys the nuances of NFL linebacker play, that’s a bonus for everybody.

The Broncos defense plays outside-in, because it has outside guys like Von Miller, Wolfe, and Dumervil who can whip the dude in front of them, and set the edge.  The Broncos don’t need a superstar Mike, just a guy who can play B gap-to-B gap, and who can hold up in coverage downfield.  It’s even fine if it’s two guys, like Irving and Trevathan.

In the secondary, I’m watching out for both Omar Bolden and Quinton Carter.  Bolden did a lot of good stuff on special teams as a rookie, but didn’t play a whole lot on defense.  He has a lot to show the team in the early spring, because if he looks good, it may convince them that they don’t need to spend high-cost resources on the cornerback position.

I fully expect Tony Carter to be gone in a year, because he’ll cost too much to keep, and Bolden’s mission should be competing with Carter now for snaps, and being able to replace him fully in a year.  He has the athleticism to do it, and with good coaching, and a lot of effort, I think we have a good chance of seeing it on the field in 2013.

Quinton Carter had a pretty solid rookie year in 2011, and then missed almost all of 2012 with a knee injury.  Those injuries tend to see 100% recoveries, so don’t sleep on Carter returning and competing to play meaningful snaps.  The Broncos play three safeties in dime packages, and Jim Leonhard may or may not return.

On that note, a sleeper for the Broncos is safety Blake Gideon.  He was a playmaker in college at Texas, and while I don’t necessarily see him as a starting player, I think he has a chance to be a good contributor in sub packages, and on special teams.  He’s never played an NFL snap, and I expect that he’ll be an enthusiastic participant in the offseason program, to help him get onto the 53-man roster.

That’s all I have for today, friends.  Who am I missing?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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