Notes on Denver’s OTAs and Derek Wolfe

With OTAs behind them, the Broncos are off until the two-a-days of training camp start on July 25. Plenty of what emerged from OTAs is worth noting:

Peyton Manning isn’t at full strength yet, which is somewhat terrifying if you’re on the defense. He certainly didn’t have much trouble finding his rhythm or accuracy. Second-round pick Brock Osweiler got high marks from onlookers such as Cecil Lammey in terms of his improvement since the winter, and quarterbacks coach Adam Gase commented on his innate leadership, grasp of the playbook, and even-minded approach to the situation.

Sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan scored some immediate points by absorbing the playbook like a human sponge - the coaches looked at that coupled with his ability to move, and quickly put him with the first team nickel package at Will linebacker. With D.J. Williams’s still challenging his six-game suspension for ‘non-human urine’ in his urinalysis, plus a DUI trial yet to be dealt with, Danny will be fighting against Nate Irving and Wesley Woodyard for game reps at weakside linebacker.

Everyone got a good look at how a first-ballot Hall of Fame player like Manning prepares himself and his team for the season, and they scurried to keep up. Jack Del Rio was described by Elvis Dumervil as ‘fiery’, a genteel bit of understatement on Doom’s part. Del Rio was dubbed the ‘12th man’ because when the ball was snapped he was still on the field, teaching. Omar Bolden showed that he hadn’t lost his speed following his recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament surgery in the spring of 2011, and Philip Blake was appropriately started out at the bottom, behind C.J. Davis and J.D. Walton at center. He’s expected to fight for a starting role at center or guard.

Perhaps the most interesting player who wasn’t there (until June 9) was second-round pick Derek Wolfe, who had to wait until his senior class graduated to participate. With his graduation from Cincinnati out of the way, Wolfe was itching to get onto the field. Once he did, he was quickly force-fed the Broncos system, taking reps with both the base and nickel units. He seemed to be quickly picking up his responsibilities at both the defensive end position, which he played with the base offense, and from the defensive off-tackle slot, which he was asked to handle in the nickel package.

A few things that have surfaced on Wolfe since the draft have been worth taking note of. The first is that it was actually JDR who spotted him for Denver in the first place. Del Rio had seen Derek while scouting at the Senior Bowl, where Wolfe had a chance to compete against the top athletes of this graduating class. Del Rio was unemployed at the time, but in his own fiercely determined way, he was keeping up with everything he could. He saw Wolfe consistently earning high marks, practice after practice against the top senior competition, and JDR made a note of it. One of the facts of the Senior Bowl is that most pundits are gone by the actual game - it’s the practices that the coaches and writers get their viewpoints from, and where Del Rio watched Derek. He came away very impressed - enough so to go back and look at film of him.

When Del Rio arrived to fill the defensive coordinator position vacated by new Oakland coach Dennis Allen, he hadn’t forgotten Wolfe’s performance. He did have some time to pick up on the other things that Wolfe brought to the table, though. Those things started back during Wolfe’s junior and senior years in high school, when he qualified for the state tournament as a powerlifter both years. He maintained that intense weight room presence throughout his college experience and was named the All-American Strength and Conditioning Athlete of the Year by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) in April of 2011.

Back in April 2007, a young Derek Wolfe had taken part in the Elite Skills Camp at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where he blew people away. Out of over 470 participants, Wolfe had the third-best overall agility performance. He was timed at 4.94 seconds in the 40-yard dash, produced a 475-pound squat, and logged a 4.64-second long shuttle. He drew considerable interest from Northwestern, Iowa, Georgia Tech, Army, Purdue, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Ohio State, but made up his mind to attend Cincinnati.

These were not the Bearcats of Sid Gillman (1949-1954), which brought in three conference titles and a pair of Bowl Game appearances over six seasons. Cincinnati didn’t have much of a defensive line when Derek arrived, ranking only 61st in the nation against the run with 143.77 yards allowed per game. While their team wasn’t that good in 2011 (finishing with only four wins), the line’s run defense, anchored by Wolfe, was ranked sixth in the nation, permitting only 96.23 yards per game in that category. The four victories does explain part of why he didn’t get as much national attention in the weeks before the draft, though. To take advantage of his talent, his coaches moved Wolfe everywhere along the defensive line during the season, even placing him as the nose tackle on third downs.

Despite that, he was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, a First-Team All-Big East selection at defensive tackle, and he was also named to five All-America teams. He was a Second-Team All-America selection at DT by the Associated Press and Scout.com, and earned a Third-Team All-America nod from Phil Steele Magazines - he was also a second-team honoree by SI.com and Yahoo! Sports. He tallied 70 total tackles, including 31 solo stops, along with six QB hurries, a pair of forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2011. He also had three double-digit tackle games, including a career-high 11 stops against Louisville. As far as durability, he started the last 38 games he played at Cincinnati without missing one.

But that wasn’t all. These are the measurables that he hit at Combine:

5.01 in the 40-yard dash, 1.61 10-yard dash, 2.73 20-yard dash, 4.44 20-yard shuttle, 7.26 three-cone drill, 33 1/2-inch vertical jump, 9’0” broad jump…Bench pressed 225 pounds 33 times.

Still, there's more: he’s also bench pressed 475 pounds six times and has a 605-pound squat with a 365-pound power clean. He has an 80.375-inch wingspan that ends in 10.75-inch hands, which he uses to his best advantage. The three keys for a pass rusher remain their leverage, their first step, and their hand-fighting skills. At 6-5, Wolfe will have to keep his pad level down, but his leverage, power and hand-fighting are excellent. The level of explosion on his first step is currently inconsistent, but he’s had easily enough explosive plays that this appears to be a coaching and practice concern, rather than a skills issue. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers (and the strength staff) will be responsible for bringing consistency to that side of his play.

Recently, Del Rio talked about what he’d seen from Wolfe in the OTAs:

A good, smart player who is going to play a long time. He cares. He's intelligent. He plays hard. I see this (Derek Wolfe) being that kind of guy. He's a worker. He's got rush ability. He's not a big tackle right now. So right now his body type is probably more of a base end that can slide inside (in the nickel). We'll play him at both spots. That's extra value. That's like a guy who can play center and guard. That's OK. You need guys who can do multiple things.

If we recognize that Del Rio's idea of big tackles is best reflected in Sealver Siliga's 330 pounds and Kevin Vickerson's 320-325, it helps maintain perspective on Wolfe. Justin Bannan is a little light to JDR at 312 pounds. Wolfe worked with Ty Warren on the second team (Warren is around 310 coming into camp), but JDR has said that he really wants size. It's true that Wolfe is currently 'only' 300 pounds. It's also true that I've advocated finding players who can handle playing DE at 300-310 while maintaining the ability to roll inside on specific downs and distances for well over a year now, which makes me slightly prejudiced regarding the option Derek provides. Players entering the league always need training, strength and coaching. In that, Wolfe is no different. Versatility is always helpful.

If you've also read JDR and Fox's other comments, they have both described the process they foresee of taking Derek as a rookie and having him handling some of both DE and DT snaps, depending on down and distance, all the while filling out his frame to the 310-315 range and then keeping him at under tackle most of the time. That's not exactly the same as just seeing him as a base DE, as some have thought from OTAs. It's a description of their intentions as to how to best use him in the short run while developing him over the next three years.

After all, Warren Sapp played UT in a different era at 295 pounds. Today’s players are bigger, and Wolfe will fill out as he matures. At the same time, even many experienced professional defensive tackles would find it challenging doing sets of a half dozen bench presses at 475 pounds, and squats at over 600. Wolfe is entering the league at that level of strength. He’ll have to learn more about using it, and about leverage and technique as he goes, but as far as having the underlying tools to move offensive guards, tackles and tight ends, he’s in good shape.

Just as dating is fantasy and marriage reality, anyone can look good in shorts and a helmet. Minicamp and training camp, in full pads and hitting? They’re a whole different kind of experience. Now we’re waiting to get to see what he can really do. Best of luck to him.

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

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