Scouting the 2012 Broncos: Defensive ends

Jack Del Rio believes in the importance of a front seven that attacks the offense constantly. He believes in it for defending the pass and the run and he has no illusions about it. He recently commented:

Everywhere I’ve been, if you go back to Baltimore and Carolina and Jacksonville, it starts up front on defense. We’ve been fortunate to acquire and develop good players and put together a good front. I feel confident we’ll be able to do that here. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re busy doing that now in terms of developing guys we have. We’ve added a couple guys obviously in the draft and a free agent here or there. We’re going to make it competitive. We’re going to push that group. We’re going to expect the front to really help us play great defense.

Last week, we covered the Broncos' options at DT, while today we'll look at the defensive ends on Denver's roster.

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School
91 Ayers, Robert 6-3 274 26 4 Tennessee
93 Beal, Jeremy 6-3 276 24 1 Oklahoma
77 Blatnick, Jamie 6-3 265 22 R Oklahoma State
92 Dumervil, Elvis 5-11 260 28 7 Louisville
90 Hunter, Jason 6-4 271 28 7 Appalachian State
70 Jackson, Malik 6-6 290 22 R Tennessee
54 Obiozor, Cyril 6-4 249 25 4 Texas A&M

Malik Jackson was a value pick in the fifth round, a bigger DE at 6-6 and 290 lb who had a solid number of sacks in college. He can rotate with Robert Ayers, who is, with Jason Hunter, one of the two best run-defending DEs we currently have. I’d also expect Jackson to push Ayers, especially with regard to pass rushing. The key DEs I see right are now Ayers, Elvis Dumervil, Hunter and Jackson - that's a solid group, especially with Von Miller on the Sam, working much as a left DE in pass rush situations. The rest of the them will have their work cut out for them to make this squad.

Jackson will have to increase his strength, and he's in the right place to do so if he has the drive. JDR said,

Malik Jackson, a defensive end, will put pressure on Robert Ayers to perform at a high level. That creates competition. I feel really good about the guys we were able to select in the draft and they’re going to be able to help our football team.

Ayers is a solid LDE who can slide to off tackle whenever needed. When I talked about Derek Wolfe, I noted that he got as ready as a college guy can get to be a contributing part of the Broncos defensive line, and now he needs pro level training to maximize his potential. You can’t ignore that aspect with Malik Jackson, either. When we’ve talked about player development, this is the kind of thing that I had in mind - finding good players who still need to be developed and making sure they get the training they need.

Malik’s got a skill at getting around the edge and pressuring the QB, though, and Denver knew what they needed: more pass pressure, which he potentially gives them. For a fifth-round guy, he made a lot of sense and they had a hole in the rotation where Derrick Harvey never really was.

Jackson may need to be handled carefully. He did earn a one-game offseason suspension for an assault and battery charge that stemmed from an Aug 1, 2011 incident, and that didn’t help his draft position. It may have helped Denver obtain him, though. Now they need to make sure that he gets help to keep from making another foolish young mistake.

My concern with him is very simple: I want to make sure that there is a stable, mature veteran player in his life when he comes to Denver. In fact, I’m big on the belief that each young player should have a quality mentor assigned to him by the team, a veteran player with some experience and no history of troubles while in the NFL from whom he can learn the proper ways to behave as a professional on and off the field, in the weight and film rooms, and in their daily lives. Young guys with a lot of money are more than happy to show even younger guys how to waste it, and to behave as if there isn’t a guy from the press behind every tree. Mentoring is one way to slow that kind of problem.

I'm talking about a guy who is older and wiser than Robert Ayers, which is in no sense a knock on a guy who I consider to be a hard-working and professional young gentleman. I just think that having a veteran someone who can handle having a pair of young, former school buddies around (my old school friends could twist my arm in ways that I cringe at now) and still impress into the younger one the seriousness of being a professional, as well as being there for the simple things that are difficult when you start out - where to live, what to eat and so forth - that would be good for the players.

Secondarily, I want that veteran player plus Ayers and Jackson (just as an example) to start living in the film room and the weight room together, as well as being there for the young guy when the garage door needs fixing or the furniture doesn’t arrive. Mentoring has been effective in a number of organizational structures, and losing players to foolish, young-man errors isn’t totally preventable, but could be reduced. The Perrish Cox incident clarified why a mentor program is potentially a good way to go.

As I’ve mentioned, Ayers is a top-notch run-stopper who also contributed three regular season sacks and two more in the postseason. He’s taken a lot of guff because he was chosen 18th overall in 2009, but he’s also been exactly what Denver needed - a run-stopping presence who defends the left defensive end position, sets the edge well, collapses the pocket, and drives the QBs into the arms of Doom and Von Miller. The fact that Derek Wolfe will be there for the same purpose as Doom and Miller doesn’t make me unhappy either. I think that Ayers is as solid as they come - Jackson plays the same slot, so whether the coaches want pass rushing or run stopping, they’re now covered.

Jamie Blatnick was voted to the All Big-12 Conference team in 2011. The Sports Xchange listed Blatnick and cornerback Brodrick Brown as among the best on the team at creating trouble for opposing offenses - Blatnick off the edge, Brown in the middle of the defensive backfield. Blatnick didn’t get a lot of press while he was in school, but he was the Week 7 Big 12 Conference Player of the Week: he had a career-high nine tackles with two and four tackles for loss in No. 6/7 Oklahoma State's 38-26 win over No. 22/21 Texas. He also broke up a pass that day. Gil Brandt wrote about Blatnick,

Blatnick can be a very good pass rusher. Surprising he wasn't drafted, because he showed a penchant for disrupting action in the backfield, recording 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a senior. He's gifted with quickness and overall athleticism and seemed to play his best against the best competition (including nine tackles and two sacks at Texas last October).

Intriguing. You can see that the Broncos continued their work on increasing speed and disrupting backfields when they moved on to college free agents. It’s a commonality to this offseason, and I like seeing it - Denver has needed to improve up front since about when Moses sailed in a papyrus (thanks, Ivan) basket down the Nile.

Jeremy Beal received Marcus Thomas’s old number 79, essentially ending any speculation that Thomas would be brought back. Beal then turned it back in to get #93 when Jeremy Jarmon was let go. Beal spent most of last season on the practice squad.  He’s not fleet of foot, but he was a highly productive player at Oklahoma University - when he left, he ranked second in the school’s history with 59 sacks. He was a second-team All-American in 2010 as well as being the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year that season. Although not fast, he’s someone who never gives up on a play. He had 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks his senior year, the first player in Oklahoma history to accumulate at least 7.5 sacks in three different seasons. Denver likes him well enough to have given him a year of PS time and to give him an old player’s number, so perhaps he’ll be able to step up enough to win a slot. Competition, as it should be, will be hard in training camp - very hard. And that’s a very good thing.

Elvis Dumervil commented,

Last year I was coming back from injury, you kind of hesitate, you don't know, you're nervous it's going to happen again. Now it's a clear mind. Just work hard, get better. Now I'm with teammates getting that camaraderie. That's what it's about, guys trusting in one another, making sure every guy does the job and everybody's pulling their weight. As long as we can do that, everybody does their job, it'll be a great year.

I think that we, as fans, sometimes forget that recovering from a serious injury is a process that rarely ends when the player returns to the field. Psychologically, most humans will protect areas of the body that gave out on them before and that they don’t yet trust. Doom’s gone back down to 250 lb and this year he’s not going to be unconsciously protecting his chest and shoulder, so I’d expect even more production from him. Denver was tied for 10th in the league with 41 sacks, and the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles tied atop the league with 50, so the Broncos may not be far behind this coming year. Adding the presence of Wolfe and Jackson (if he makes the team) won’t hurt. There are a lot of reasons to believe that Denver’s pass rush is going to improve substantially.

Jason Hunter was brought back because he’s a solid force against the run on the edges and because he’s a solid guy to have in the locker room. He’s a rotational player, but he’s tough and moves well both laterally and downhill - he won’t be easy to beat out. He can play either defensive end position.

Cyril Obiozor is a 6-4, 249 lb DE out of Texas A&M who’s on his fourth team in four years, trying to hold onto a roster slot. It won’t be easy in Denver, either. He’s spent time previously with Green Bay, San Diego and Arizona. I wish the best of luck to him, but it’s going to be an uphill fight for the man. His courage in not giving up and continuing to compete for a chance in the NFL is laudable, regardless of the outcome. His situation also models why the statement that NFL players have an ‘average’ career of 3.8 to 4 years can be misleading - lots of guys fight for a roster position for three years and never quite stick, which is one factor of many that skews the data.

I expect the team to keep four or five of the DEs (if they find that Garland, just as an example, can play the DE or off tackle, they might call him either one, but he’d be on the field in more than one role, just as Ayers has done), so competition for slots will be high. I think that it’s fair to say that heading into training camp, Robert Ayers is in the left DE spot as the starter and most likely, Jason Hunter and Malik Jackson (Hunter played both left and right DE last season, as Jackson did in college) would back him up. Doom will start on the right (and he also flips to the left at times). The potential competition between Jamie Blatnick and Cyril Obiozor will be for an opening anywhere.  Jeremy Beal played more from the right in college, but he, too, will go anywhere if they’ll give him a shot.

Who’s going to win a position? That’s why they have training camp - and why you keep extra players around. My expectation would be Ayers, Doom, Hunter and Jackson. They might keep one more - and might not. They will be likely to keep someone like Beal and/or Blatnick on the practice squad, in case of injury. In other words, DE is likely to look a lot like last year, but with the added penetration skills of Jackson for getting into the backfield instead of the disappearing Derrick Harvey. Given Jackson’s predilection for getting back where the ball is, that could be a nice upgrade from a former weakness. One more weak hole plugged by a 6-6, 290 lb DE speaks well for where the team is going. He will need some hard work to make the leap to the NFL, but his odds of getting there are good for a #137 pick. Now it’s up to him. 

There’s been talk of one other change in the potential use of the DE position from an even front, and Jackson could be part of it. I’ve heard of this possibility with regard to Derek Wolfe and even Ben Garland on the potential use of them as bigger DEs. That would mean situationally using Garland or Wolfe as DEs (as examples) to establish a large DL with bigger, but quicker DEs. This wouldn’t be that different from what Oakland does with Richard Seymour - at times, they’ve turned him into a rover who finds or is directed to mismatches, rather than playing one just slot.

The key to that approach is having the players who have the quickness and strength as well as the size. Jackson has the quickness - Wolfe has the quickness and more of the power, which he's still developing. Garland is still a relative unknown until they get him in pads, but his college work showed his potential to play this way. I expect Del Rio to stick close to his 2011 averages on base (44%), nickel (34%) and dime (12%) packages, perhaps playing more nickel as the game dictates. That doesn’t mean that he can’t run this kind of approach out of the base, nickel or dime formations just by varying the personnel - which is what the Broncos seem poised to do in any case.

I’m far from the only person talking about this approach. It’s being used at the college level as well. If you're interested, take a look at this piece from Football is Life.

Oakland isn’t the only team that’s had success with a big, fast line. Anyone recall how the New York Giants did last year? Not all of their players are all that big, and not all need to be. DE Jason Pierre-Paul is about 280 lb and fellow DE Justin Tuck is about 270 lb. Both men are, however, possessed of unusual functional strength even for their size. They also have man-mountains Shaun Rogers (350 lb) and young Linval Joseph (323 lb) at DT and Chris Canty, who’s 6-7 and 317 lb, but they have plenty of roughly-300 lb players and some lighter DEs, including the 6-5, 255 lb Osi Umenyiora, who has a talent for using his length well. 

The idea here isn’t that the Broncos should want the same line the Giants have. The Giants group is there to play the Giants defense, and Denver’s will be different. It’s more a matter of NY having the right group to execute what they need to accomplish on defense and Denver trying to do the same. The Broncos have improved their group for what we do know of what Denver wants to do - get even more aggressive and find the QB with every player possible while maintaining a solid run defense. Using bigger DEs, or using smaller DEs like Doom and players like Von Miller, who’s in a Joker type of situation that lets him rush the passer while maintaining Sam duties, are questions of scheme and player development.

Denver also brought in some linebacking help to compete in this year’s camp, both in the draft and via college free agency. We’ll look at them next, and will also touch on the coaching structure for those players. The last time Jack Del Rio and head coach John Fox got together, they engineered a total change-about of the Carolina Panthers defense, taking it from the worst in the league to its second-overall in a single year, back in 2002.

The Broncos had 41 regular season sacks and 47 in total last season, and they could easily improve on those numbers this year, while also increasing the hits and hurries delivered by their linemen and linebackers. We’ll look at the remaining aspect of the front seven next and will talk a little more about the coaches and the scheme - as far as we know things about it - that the Broncos are likely to follow. I’ll see you then.


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