Rebuilding the Broncos: Offseason outlook, Part 2

With free agency coming soon to a city near you, the Broncos have a couple of major areas to fill, along with some optional areas that they might work on. It’s no shock to anyone that defensive tackle and running back are their top priorities, with OL depth (and a possible starter/backup at RT as a realistic option). It’s also fair to say that the top players are very likely going to move quickly. The players are going to want to see who will give them the best offers, and Denver will have to step up to the financial plate on Day 1 if they want to upgrade the DL, which has to be Job 1A with running back as Job 1B.

Denver may choose to bring on a tackle, in case Orlando Franklin takes some time to get used to NFL play and to guard against potential injuries - I think Franklin will do fine, but he’s got little time to prepare for the season; it would just be good sense to have a second option. Most rookie linemen, with the exception of the rare Ryan Clady’s out there, take a year or so to merge well into the line. A veteran knows a lot of the things that a rookie, even if he’s more talented, will have to figure out and/or be coached in. Denver also wants to add depth on the OL.

One thing that interested me was Clark Judge’s comment (which he attributed to an anonymous ‘top agent’) that a lot of teams will be going the route of adding multiple middle-level players - role players and backups. Judge wrote,

His idea is that the lockout might provoke a change in team philosophy. Where clubs once built around a core of star players, sinking a substantial portion of free-agent money in big names, he thinks that maybe, just maybe, they now sink it in a group of experienced veterans who can serve as backups or role players.

Back at the beginning of the last decade, Bill Belichick created a different way to deal with the salary cap - obtaining players at lower cost from other teams who fit the Pats better than the teams they came from and coaching them up to a new role. Belichick also developed the approach of cutting or trading star players (ie. Lawyer Milloy, Drew Bledsoe, Richard Seymour) before their values dropped, thus reducing the veteran costs involved. He hasn’t been obsessive about it with every player (some are obviously worth keeping even at older ages and with higher contracts), but overall it’s a system that has worked. What this agent is suggesting is essentially taking that idea a step further. I don’t know about that - I believe that a lot is dependent on coaching and scouting, but elite players are a consistent presence on winning teams, and changing that would be tough. Building depth, however, is a necessity. In writing this article, I’ve tried to look at both impact and role players, as best I could.

With his hiring in January, Dennis Allen became the team's sixth defensive coordinator in as many years, so I’m going to give him precedence and start with DL players - almost all DTs. I’d also like to note that we still have limited understanding of exactly how Allen intends to approach  the position, so I left in a few players who are scheme-specific but may not fit Denver's. We’ll have a short amount of lead time when the moment for free agency comes along to work out who’s going to be available as a UFA, but Denver’s done its groundwork. Here’s what I’ve been able to find:

Defensive Tackles

Remi Ayodele DT, New Orleans
Height: 6-2   Weight: 318   Age: 28
Born: 4/22/1983 Grand Prarie , TX
College: Oklahoma
Experience: 5th season

Remi bounced between New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Atlanta over his first two years in the league, but landing in New Orleans was a great boon to his career. He’s started 29 of the 31 games he played for them, and over the past two years he hasn’t rung up big numbers, but he’s been a solid contributor for them. At 6’2 and 318, he’s your basic nose tackle - bigger on stopping the run, not much of a pass rusher - and might be enticed to Denver. I’m likely to say this a lot, but he’s going to have a chance to sign with his own team, NO, before the FA market opens, and may or may not be available. It’s also fair to say that how well he’d fit the currently hidden scheme details on defense is impossible to know right now.

Justin Bannan DT, Denver
Height: 6-3   Weight: 310   Age: 32
Born: 4/18/1979 Sacramento , CA
College: Colorado
Experience: 10th season

After four years each with the Bills and Ravens, Bannan came to Denver last year and played well. I’ve read the stats that suggested that he wasn’t as effective as you’d want, but on film and within a poor front seven, I kept seeing Bannan playing to the whistle, maintaining backside pursuit and attacking the QB. He’s also scheme-versatile. I was surprised by Denver's decision to let him go, but he’s 32 years old, the Broncos are stating that they’re on a youth movement, and Bannan had a $500K roster bonus coming to him. The NFL is fairly cutthroat, and it mostly looked like a cost-saving move, especially since Denver has since said that they’d like him back. The questions will be, will they pay enough and would someone else like what they saw more?

Stephen Bowen DT, Dallas
Height: 6-5   Weight: 306   Age: 27
Born: 3/28/1984 Holly Ridge , NC
College: Hofstra
Experience: 6th season

Bowen has been playing in Wade Phillips' 3-4 system ever since Dallas picked him up as an undrafted college free agent back in 2006. He originally started out behind RDE Chris Canty and worked his way into starting two, and then nine games for Dallas during the last two seasons. He’s also produced a pedestrian 4.5 sacks over that time. He has the size and quickness to play a variety of roles and might make an excellent rotational player who might also start. I could see Denver taking him on. With the number of 3-4 and 4-3 teams about even, it’s more a question of the specific system and how well he’s going to fit into it.

Alan Branch DT, Arizona
Height: 6-6   Weight: 338   Age: 26
Born: 12/29/1984 Albuquerque , NM
College: Michigan
Experience: 5th season

Branch is entering his fifth season and is a traditional-sized ‘3-4’ (or whatever) NT at 6’6” and 335 lb. He only started three games last year, but added 35 tackles and two sacks over the season and did receive a tender before the CBA broke down. He’s essentially a road-grader, run-stopping NT. Arizona has used a variety of fronts so I don’t see him as specific to a 3-4 or 5-2 versus a 4-3 (as we’ve mentioned, there’s a lot to a scheme that goes far beyond the number of guys on the front), but what would concern me with Branch is that he’s behind both Dan Williams, who I think highly of, and Gabe Watson, who has consistently been a backup at NT. Branch is young and would provide a roadblock in the middle, but there’s little sign so far that Denver will be going in that direction. If their aggressive style of play extends to the DTs, he’s probably a bad fit. if they use their NT as a run-stopper, he might be a decent short-term option as a backup.

Note: Arizona has been developing their own in-house DTs, including Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett and NT Bryan Robinson, Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebema, and I’ve heard that both Branch and Gabe Watson could/will be on the move as UFAs. Watson has a chance to stick around as Dan Williams’ backup at NT, but that’s still uncertain - see below. Robinson apparently will also be moving.

Barry Cofield DT, Giants
Height: 6-4   Weight: 306   Age: 27
Born: 3/19/1984 Cleveland , OH
College: Northwestern
Experience: 6th season

Cofield has reached his sixth season and should be available. He’s one of the top DTs in this year’s FA period, which is saying a lot - so if Denver wants him, they’ll need to pounce. They’ll have plenty of competition. Cofield is seeking a big contract, will likely get one, and may very well be deserving. He’s a great interior lineman who’s best against the run but gives a decent pass rush, too.

Ronald Fields DT, Denver
Height: 6-2   Weight: 314   Age: 29
Born: 9/13/1981 Bogalusa , LA
College: Mississippi State
Experience: 7th season

Brought in by Josh McDaniels and Mike Nolan as a FA NT, he’s a FA again, but it’s unlikely that Denver will bring him back. He’s had a lot of potential over the years, but it never quite seemed to come together. He started 16 games in 2009 but none in 2010.

Gary Gibson DT, St. Louis
Height: 6-3   Weight: 300   Age: 29
Born: 5/5/1982 Plant City , FL
College: Rutgers
Experience: 6th season

Gibson is a part-time DT who has five seasons in the books.  He’s a last-ditch choice.

Jason Hatcher DT, Dallas
Height: 6-6   Weight: 311   Age: 29
Born: 7/13/1982 Alexandria , LA
College: Grambling State
Experience: 6th season

Hatcher has his five years in with the Dallas system. Like Bowen, he’s from a smaller school but unlike him, he’s been a perennial backup. He might be a backup choice at NT, but I don’t see the draw. I think Denver will pass on him.

Cullen Jenkins DT, Green Bay
Height: 6-2   Weight: 305   Age: 30
Born: 1/20/1981 Detroit , MI
College: Central Michigan
Experience: 8th season

Cullen Jenkins (younger brother of Kris) dominates the line of scrimmage when he's on the field. Unfortunately, Jenkins is often injured and has missed 17 games in the past three years. On his upside, he’s played well in multiple schemes and tends to get excellent penetration. For Denver, he’s probably too old, given that the factor of his age is compounded by his injury issues. However, he’s also a versatile player who’s 30, not 35. Denver might have some interest if their higher choices fall through. If they don’t, Jenkins will draw plenty of attention elsewhere.

Derek Landri DT, Carolina 
Height: 6-2   Weight: 290   Age: 27
Born: 9/21/1983 Huntington Beach , CA
College: Notre Dame
Experience: 5th season

Landri is someone that the Carolina Panthers will try to keep on board; he contributed 43 tackles and three sacks last season. He’s a smaller, lighter DT, and could do well at undertackle. Denver wants to keep Kevin Vickerson there, but having someone talented behind him would push Big Vick and take the snaps when he needs a breather. The questions may be: first, will he just sign with the Panthers, or if he does hit the market, would he get enough from Denver to draw him, even knowing that he might end up in a rotational spot?

Brandon Mebane DT, Seattle
Height: 6-1   Weight: 311   Age: 26
Born: 1/15/1985 Los Angeles , CA
College: California
Experience: 5th season

There’s little question for me that Mebane, along with Cofield of the Giants, will be highly sought after. Like Marcus Thomas, Mebane is entering his fifth season and will be one of the top players available at his position. He’s got a reputation for an excellent work ethic and has the feet to use his size to his own advantage, gaining leverage against OL players and using his small-area quickness to defeat them. He missed four games due to injury last season. He was used more against the run in the past, but improved his pass rushing last season and is now an every-down player. With the single exception of 2008, where he brought down 5.5 sacks, he’s been good for only one or two per year.

At only 6’1, yet weighing over 310 lb, Mebane has the natural leverage and quickness to give interior linemen fits and would be an effective nose tackle for Denver. He’s been consistently underrated until now, and when you look at his numbers it’s easy to see why he’s often snubbed when the discussion of the best defensive tackles comes up. Ignore that - he’s got a great work ethic and the technique and tools to be a dominant defensive tackle for the next decade. Although he only had one sack last season, he was more of a force in rushing the passer and required teams to game-plan for him. Mebane has been linked to both Chicago and Carolina as well as Denver. They are unlikely to be the only teams with interest.

Mike Patterson DT, Philadelphia
Height: 6-1   Weight: 300   Age: 27
Born: 9/1/1983 Sacramento, CA
College: USC
Experience: 7th season

Entering his seventh season after six with the Eagles, Mike Patterson doesn't provide much of a pass rush, but he's an excellent run defender. He's a probably 4-3 player only and a little light even for a UT, although that’s less important than his functional strength. Patterson is at the edge of what Denver wants from a DT acquisition - at 28, he’s still got some good years in the tank, but I suspect they’ll want a UT who can harass the passer more. Still, he’s a reasonable fall-back option and can handle NT work.

Marcus Thomas DT, Denver
Height: 6-3   Weight: 316   Age: 25
Born: 9/23/1985 Yokosuka Japan
College: Florida
Experience: 5th season

At 6’3” and 316 lb, Thomas will be entering his fifth season, and with Denver he's had to deal with changes in the defensive scheme and played in rotation at all three DL positions under Coach McDaniels. He’s played well, particularly last year, but he may be best in the 4-3 front. Denver would very much like to keep him, and he’d like very much to test the markets. He’s probably more of a 4-3 NT than a UT, but a lot depends on how he’s used: he’s shown flashes of pass rushing skills. He hasn’t split double teams very well, but does hold them up well at the line to obstruct running lanes. He’s also got some quicks and could do well for the new regime.

Gabe Watson NT, Arizona
Height: 6-4   Weight: 338   Age: 27
Born: 9/24/1983 Novi , MI
College: Michigan
Experience: 6th season

Arizona decided to let the 6’4 big guy move on to free agency, which isn’t a good thing for a guy who only played in seven games due to injury in 2010, and only produced seven tackles over that time: it was supposed to be a big contract year for him. He’s still young, at 27, but he’s also just a big body in the middle, who hasn’t shown the ability to move well in the hybrid defense that Arizona has run in the past. It’s worth noting that before his injury, Watson dropped a lot of weight and expected to play between 315 and 325 lb - he admitted that his diet was awful, and cleaned it up, in addition to studying jiu jutsu in the offseason to improve his leverage and hand usage. Dan Williams has shown AZ enough skill (38 tackles, two passes defended and no sacks) that they’re comfortable using him and their home-grown talent on the DL. They saw their DL issues coming, and brought in younger players to coach them up, as well as having Darnell Dockett and Williams in a hybrid front. We’ll get to see how well that worked this coming season. Watson is unlikely to fit the Broncos - his age is good, he’s got rare size, not enough in his history and that’s about it.

Defensive Ends

Ray Edwards DE, Minnesota
Height: 6-5   Weight: 268   Age: 26
Born: 1/1/1985 Cincinnati , OH
College: Purdue
Experience: 6th season

Edwards has already said that he doesn't see his future in Minnesota; he matched Jared Allen in terms of sack production last year (with 8.0), despite only getting 1.5 of them in the first seven games. The Vikings believe that they have solid potential defensive line prospects, including Brian Robison at DE, who is also a free agent. Returning to Minnesota will probably depend upon Edwards’ contract expectations. I don’t think that Denver will be looking for a DE, but at the right price....

Charles Johnson DE, Carolina
Height: 6-2   Weight: 275   Age: 25
Born: 7/10/1986
College: Georgia
Experience: 5th season

Johnson is the second of the three DEs that I put into this grouping - again, Denver may sit pat on who they have, but Johnson is someone that the Panthers desperately want to hold onto. He’s a quick, powerful DE who had 62 total tackles and 11.5 sacks last year. If the Panthers don’t convince him that they are serious about winning, he’ll draw major money somewhere else. Last year was the first season that he got his shot to start, and he took that chance and ran with it. It should pay off for him, wherever he lands.

Mathias Kiwanuka DE/DT, Giants
Height: 6-5   Weight: 265   Age: 28
Born: 3/8/1983 Indianapolis , IN
College: Boston College
Experience: 6th season

Kiwanuka is really more of a DE and has explosive skills as a pass rusher as he proved in 2008, but over the years has lost playing time amidst the talented Giants front seven. He played well last season (three games, one start, 11 tackles, four sacks) before a herniated disc in his neck sidelined him for most of the season. His best year was in '08, when he started every game and totaled 31 tackles with eight sacks. Although he’s best listed as a DE, he has the strength as well as the quicks to roll into multiple positions along the line on occasional plays, just as Robert Ayers can.  A big question will be the Giants’ level of interest - another will be the medical report on his neck. The Giants have said that they’d like him back but with playing time there in question, it will probably be up to Kiwanuka. If he hits the market, I’d expect there to be a lot of interest in him.

Ray McDonald DE/DT, San Francisco
Height: 6-3   Weight: 290   Age: 26
Born: 9/2/1984 Pahokee , FL
College: Florida
Experience: 5th season

Ray is something of a tweener, at 290 lb. He’s put in his four years with SF and plays in a backup role, averaging about 11 tackles and just over one sack per year. I doubt this one’s going to happen in Denver.

Daniel Muir DE, Indianapolis
Height: 6-2   Weight: 312   Age: 27
Born: 9/12/1983 Washington , DC
College: Kent State
Experience: 5th season

Muir is one of four players expected to be free agents on Indy’s DL. He started 45 of 46 career college games and left Kent State ranked third in school history in career sacks (14.5) and seventh in tackles for loss (35). His weight has been listed as anywhere from 311 to 298 and he’s played both under tackle and nose tackle as a starter for the Colts. Not known for rushing the passer as a pro (zero NFL sacks), he’s currently listed as one of their DT starters, with Ricardo Mathews and Drake Nevis behind him. He wouldn’t be a first option, but he’s a quality role player.

Conclusion

The Broncos have had conflicting articles regarding their finances recently. There’s some recent news suggesting that they may be tighter on cap space than previous estimates allowed, but I’m not convinced, nor am I a trained finances guy (I leave that up to Ted, while Doug and TJ also have training and knowledge there). If that’s true, look for players such as Brian Dawkins, D.J. Williams and other veterans to be asked to restructure their contracts - if it’s not, Denver is likely in the good shape others have suggested.

This is the Broncos' one serious chance to fill in the two positions - DT and RB - that they lack. While a lot of fans are comfortable with LenDale White, for example, it’s true that most full Achilles' tears affect a player the following season and White has had trouble sticking with a team. Lance Ball was a practice-squad player until McDaniels took a shine to him, and John Fox may or may not agree on his skill level. Correll Buckhalter is aging, and questions still exist on Knowshon Moreno; Fox has no attachment either way. Those are all ‘maybe’ situations, but DT is a very real problem - they have exactly one serious player in Kevin Vickerson, with Mitch Unrein (pronounced UN-rhine) out of Wyoming (6’4” 300 lb, no NFL games played, a CFA for Houston in the 2010 preseason) and Louis Leonard (6’4”, 325 lb, has been with five teams in four years, racking up 26 tackles over that time) also being on the roster.

Any way you look at it, Denver needs to bring in at least five players, and at least two need to be impact starters. It’s a big order to fill.

Go Broncos!

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

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