Happy Friday, friends. We’re now a couple days into the free agency and trading period, and the Broncos haven’t done too much yet, except sign their own draft picks, trade Jabar Gaffney, and haggle with the Dolphins about the price for Kyle Orton. I’ve observed some angst about the pace of things in our comment threads and on Twitter, and I wanted to address that today.
I think most of us would agree that Defensive Tackle is the primary need area for the Broncos, and the good news is that not very much has happened there yet. It seems that the market for that position group is waiting for a big deal to pave the way for others to come, but the only two major agreements among the “big defensive linemen” group were with Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen - both going to Washington - and neither was an outlandishly-priced contract for their production. It’s interesting with so many Eric Weddle Specials flying around, how none have hit this cohort.
To start out, I want to talk about “big defensive linemen” briefly, and what I mean by that. Simply, I mean that there are certain players who can play DT in an even front and DE in an odd front (especially one-gap versions) interchangeably. These tend to be guys who are in the 6-2 or 6-3, and 285-300 pound size range. Taller guys tend to specialize as DEs in 2-gap odd fronts, and stouter ones tend to strictly be Nose Tackles.
Both Bowen and Cofield were signed to play DE for the Redskins in their 3-4 primarily one-gap scheme, and while Bowen has played that role for the Cowboys, Cofield has been a 4-3 DT throughout his career. My point is that there’s very little difference in the roles between one-gap even and odd fronts. The players do the same things, they just align differently.
This is a little tangential, and I’ve mentioned it before, but in honor of all the new readers who are finding us lately, next time you hear somebody talk about 5-techniques, picture yourself hitting them. Five-technique is an alignment concept, simply meaning that the defender aligns on the outside shoulder of the Offensive Tackle. Various schemes have players align in that manner, and it’s a stupid oversimplification when these media guys make the term synonomous with “3-4 DE.” Watch Seattle sometime; they run an even front, and they almost always align their strongside DE as a 5-technique, and their weakside guy as a 7-technique, or wide-9.
Anyway, the Broncos are going to run a penetrating 4-3 scheme that I expect will feature a lot of interesting blitzes and a mix of coverage techniques, assuming that Dennis Allen is setting the scheme. I expect that they’ll want to typically play one run-focused DT and one pass-focused DT together most of the time. I expect that the more run-focused guy will be used as a NT pretty frequently, as the Saints do that.
I liked the acquisition of Jeremy Jarmon for Jabar Gaffney the other day. He fits the mold of a pass-focused DT, and the fact that he can also play LDE makes him an ideal swing player, so that you can feel good about playing on game day with 9 defensive linemen. Jarmon is a projection guy, but he’s young and he has talent, and Gaffney was an older player at a strong position, and the trade yielded some cap savings for the Broncos.
The only other quality NFL player that’s currently on the roster at DT is Kevin Vickerson, who is a solid rotation guy. Beyond that are practice-squad types, and an undrafted free agent, who, while those signings seemed exciting a couple days ago, rarely make a short-term impact. That means that the Broncos need to land three new players at the DT position. Some rumors have had the Dolphins sending somebody at that position back in a Kyle Orton deal (which I still think will happen sooner rather than later).
The following is my list of the top 10 scheme fits available at the DT position, and some commentary on them. (Remember how much some of you loved my last top 10 list?) Take this as me telling you that the market still is far from dry, and in fact, the large number of guys available tends to depress the pricing on the mid-level guys, which is good for the Broncos.
10. Anthony Adams NT Chicago 6-0 310 lbs
Adams is pretty strictly an even-front NT, but he’s a solid player to have in your base personnel grouping. The Bears don’t seem to be falling over themselves to re-sign him, and I expect his price to be reasonable. He’s a high-energy player with a strong base, and he tends to hold up well in the running game. Adams played about 38 snaps a game in 2010, which is about average for a starter.
9. Clifton Ryan DT St. Louis 6-3 324 lbs
I’ve always kind of liked this guy, and thought he was promising going back to his Michigan State days, but he got hurt in Week 1 last season, and missed the rest of the season. He played in all 16 games in 2009, and held his own on a bad defense over 41 snaps per game, which is the kind of durability and energy that you like to see.
8. Marcus Thomas DT Denver 6-3 316 lbs
I continue to be enamored of this guy’s athletic ability and potential, and I felt like his production improved a lot in 2010, while he was frankly played in a bad scheme-fit situation. Thomas is a natural penetrating DT, but he two-gapped pretty well, and I’d really like to see him in a good scheme for him, now that he’s become a solid pro and learned how to play in the NFL. He indicated on Twitter that the phone maybe wasn’t blowing up, which sounds like the same story as all the rest of these second-tier guys. I’d really like to see him back in Denver.
7. Derek Landri DT Carolina 6-2 290 lbs
Landri is coming from Carolina (and expected to visit Dove Valley today), and I think he’s the best bet on this list to be a Bronco, due to his familiarity with John Fox. He’s a bit of an overachieving Try-Hard White Guy, but so was Buffalo's Kyle Williams before he put it all together and became a great player. What I really like about Landri is that he plays a ton of snaps. His average of 50 in 2010 (on what you have to remember was a solid Panthers defense) is the second-most on this list.
6. Justin Bannan DT Denver 6-3 310 lbs
Bannan was smartly released prior to March 11 to get out from under a cap hit, but he was a good player for the Broncos in his first season in Denver. He’s your basic run-focused guy as a DT, but he can play a lot of quality snaps (49/game in 2010), and he’s stout at the point of attack. I like him better in an even front, because he has a bit less ground to cover laterally.
5. Pat Williams NT Minnesota 6-3 317 lbs
I know, I know, he’s old; he turns 39 in October. He played as well as ever in 2010, though, and he’s looking to finish his career elsewhere. He does have a likely suspension over the three-year-old StarCaps ordeal hanging over his head, but I’d gladly take 12 games of a guy who can clog up the running game like Pat Williams can. For the right price, I take the guy for a year or two, because I like winning football games.
4. Brandon Mebane DT Seattle 6-1 311 lbs
I like Mebane, but it seems the price is getting out of control for him. According to Arnie Stapleton, it’s gotten too rich for the Broncos. Mebane is a really solid run player, but he’s a middle 70% role player in the 20-70-10 Jack Welch formula, and he’s about to get paid like he’s a 20-percenter. I think that the stepping away from ridiculous Mebane pricing is another example of the sober decision-making that we’ve been seeing out of the Elway/Xanders/Fox regime.
3. Tony Brown DT Tennessee 6-3 285 lbs
I think Brown is an excellent player, but he tailed off a little in 2010 from his 2008-2009 Pro Bowl-caliber performance, seemingly due to some injuries. (He sure looked like a beast against the Broncos in Week 4, though.) He was released Thursday by the Titans, and even at 30 years old, he has fairly low mileage in his career, because he was an undrafted late bloomer. He plays 45 snaps a game and can disrupt offenses against both the run and the pass. I’d be trying to buy low on this guy.
2. Aubrayo Franklin NT San Francisco 6-1 317 lbs
I think that Franklin is going to cost a lot, but he’s an outstanding NT. He’s a little bit low-activity, playing only 36 snaps a game, but he’s very effective on the snaps he’s in the game for. Franklin is more run-focused than anything, but he is athletic enough to drop and cover some in zone-blitz looks, and he gets some pressure here and there, too.
1. Cullen Jenkins DT Green Bay 6-2 305 lbs
Jenkins has played well in both even and odd fronts, and on a per-snap basis, he’s the best all-around player on this list. What I really like about Jenkins is that he’s an excellent pass rusher, and he can attack either inside or outside. He’s also solid against the run, but I like him best in passing situations, helping to prevent the QB from being able to step up in the pocket. I’m really surprised that he hasn’t signed yet, but the reports are that Washington balked at his price tag and signed Bowen instead. Jenkins is an impact player when he’s going well, and to me, that’s worth some money.
As much as it’s fun to hit a home run in free agency, I’d settle for scoring 2 runs on 3 doubles here. I really do like what the Broncos have at DE, and I think that some competent inside players would go a long way toward making this a league-average defense right away, with room to improve as everybody gets acclimated, and the more complex things that Allen wants to do can be taught and perfected. What do you all think?