Scouting the 2012 Broncos: Defensive tackles

Although John Elway said prior to the draft that Denver's roster had more strength at defensive tackle than people were aware, the team still used its first draft pick (early in the second round) to take Derek Wolfe, a penetrating, one-gap defensive under tackle. As usual, actions speak louder than words, and the Broncos weren’t quite in the shape at DT they wanted other people to believe them to be. That’s especially normal in the leadup to the draft - you never show your hand. As with most politicians, you can tell if the front office is lying by whether or not their lips are moving.

But the issues facing the Broncos defense go far beyond just the line. Within the draft, the Broncos addressed both defensive end (via the addition of Malik Jackson) and off tackle, via Wolfe. They also added a potential weakside linebacker who has a history of getting to the quarterback in tackling monster Danny Trevathan. With veteran linebacker D.J. Williams facing a six-game suspension for allegedly violating the league's PED policy (plus a DUI trial), there will be a competition to see who can obtain the downs that Williams will be missing. Adding another linebacker with penetrating skills should improve the overall quality of the front seven, and that’s who Denver chose with their last pick, in Trevathan. As a sixth-round pick he will have to show that he can handle the rigors of the NFL, but he has a history of getting to the QB, too.

To cover the front seven properly, I’m going to break the group down by position - defensive tackles (under tackle and nose tackle), then defensive ends and finally linebackers. I’ll also talk about them as a group later on, but let’s start by looking at the pieces before we decide how they could fit together. First up on the list has to be the defensive coordinator.

Defensive Coordinator

I always see the Defensive Coordinator as the first player on defense - that’s where it all tends to start. New DC Jack Del Rio has a background as a linebacker that goes all the way back to his successful days at the University of Southern California and continued through his professional career in the NFL, including a visit to the Pro Bowl. Del Rio carries a reputation as a very aggressive, go-at-them, attack-oriented kind of defensive coordinator, which I like in a DC. Some people will look down on him because he couldn't sustain success as a head coach in Jacksonville. I don’t see things that way.

I think that John Fox, for example, is a natural head coach. Players are naturally attracted to him and yet he gets along equally well with his bosses, employees, and those around him in the offices. JDR, to me,  is a natural DC who may not be a great HC, but that doesn’t diminish him in my eyes either way - Dick LeBeau isn’t a natural head coach either, but I think he’s one of the better defensive minds in football. Think of it as coaching depth.

Del Rio hasn’t shown much of his hand as far as the defensive strategy so far (he shouldn’t, either) and my crystal ball is at the shop, but there are a few things that stand out going into training camp. I thought it might be a good time to look at the options for the front seven and see how much the Broncos have to work with - and what direction they might go in using them. Let’s start with the interior of the defensive line and work from there.

The DTs:

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School
97 Bannan, Justin 6-3 312 33 11 Colorado
63 Garland, Ben 6-5 275 24 R Air Force
98 Siliga, Sealver 6-2 307 22 1 Utah
96 Unrein, Mitch 6-4 291 25 1 Wyoming
99 Vickerson, Kevin 6-5 290 29 6 Michigan State
94 Warren, Ty 6-5 300 31 9 Texas A&M
95 Wolfe, Derek 6-5 295 22 R Cincinnati

Marcus Thomas’s old jersey number was given to defensive end Jeremy Beal (who gave it back and took Jeremy Jarmon’s 93 when Jarmon was cut) so Thomas is clearly gone, but he didn’t step up last year in a good opportunity, so that’s not a shock. He had every chance to succeed in multiple fronts and responsibilities but was one of those players who you frequently see the potential in, but don’t get the outcomes they should bring. I hoped for the flashes that I saw to become common experience, and it didn’t happen. that’s life. All the best to him.

Let’s start by taking a walk through the defensive tackle candidates. First, you have Justin Bannan, who is returning to Denver after a year spent playing for the St. Louis Rams. Bannan played left defensive end in an odd front formation for Denver back in 2010 but played nose tackle in an even front for the Baltimore Ravens (pre-Denver) and for the Rams last year. He is very much like Brodrick Bunkley was for the Broncos - mostly a two-down, run-stopping defensive tackle. He does push towards the quarterback better than Bunkley did, but with 6.5 sacks in 10 years, he’s hardly a natural under tackle, as one writer described him recently. I like Bannan and I think he’ll be a quality addition to the rotation.

Next up is Ben Garland, the Air Force officer whom Broncos fans have waited two years to see. In that time, he’s reportedly gotten his weight up from 275 pounds to over 300 but maintained a high level of muscular strength. At this point, we really don’t have a clear concept of where he’s going to fit along the line. Even so, what Garland brings to the table is the kind of focus, discipline, and ability to keep his head on straight that so many young players just don't have.

He spent his college years in a tightly structured environment where the opportunity to play football, even at a very high level, was a chance to relax compared to the brutal workload that the Air Force Academy cadets maintain. I can't wait to see how he does in training camp. He is the kind of guy you want in your locker room, and I will love to see how he does on the field. It’s been said that his chances of making the team aren’t good, but he’ll have a lot of folks rooting for him.

Mike Klis of the Denver Post suggests Denver is very high on Sealver Siliga and sees him as a potential starting nose tackle, which is great. But as for Klis's explanation that Sealver's status as the heaviest player on the defensive line makes him the best candidate to play nose tackle? The logic escapes me.

There are two problems here. The first is that he’s not the heaviest player at defensive tackle - Justin Bannan is, at 312 lb, and I do expect Bannan to start at nose tackle. That is not because he’s the heaviest DT player, but because his skill set fits that position well and he has a history of playing it effectively. The second problem with Klis’s statement was that it’s not necessary for the nose tackle to be the heaviest player along the line. The Dallas Cowboys have done well with Jay Ratliff, who is usually listed under 300 pounds (and never over 306 to my knowledge) in an odd front, and yet he has been a participant in multiple Pro Bowls and a frequent thorn in the sides of many offensive coordinators.

Siliga, who was the college teammate of guard Zane Beadles at Utah, first signed as an undrafted rookie with San Francisco in 2011, then spent the second half of the season on Denver's practice squad. I’m glad to have him on the team - the above-mentioned Jay Ratliff was an undrafted free agent, so Siliga’s slow career start doesn’t matter much to me. I just hope that he does as well in the long run as it’s being reported that they expect him to do. Moving from the practices squad to the starting nose tackle would be quite a feat.

Next up would be Mitch Unrein, a blue collar player who grew up in Colorado and went to college at the University of Wyoming. Unrein only contributed eight tackles last year, so although I like him as a player and while I recall specifically enjoying watching him ragdoll a San Diego Charger offensive lineman, he’s going to be in a tough fight to stay in the rotation at all. Denver’s group at the DT position is improving, and competition is getting harder, just as it should be. FWIW, Joe Mays has had a lot of good things to say about Mitch, so he’s winning over the locker room.

As we’ve talked about in the past, both Kevin Vickerson and Ty Warren remain question marks at this point. Vickerson is rightfully taking a pay cut (missing a whole season often brings one), but Warren isn’t jumping at the idea.  I don’t know what weight Vickerson will come in at, and I don’t know if Warren can still play - or will at what he’s been offered. Vick claimed that his weight loss was just natural, that he felt healthier at a lower weight. Some of the weight/mortality stuff had just come out - that might have influenced him. The new theory is that NFL players are actually healthier since they exercise, but that flies in the face of all research to date, so I'm waiting for some backup before I'd believe it. Whatever it was, Vickerson went from a 325-pound athletic nose to a 295-pound unathletic UT. Maybe he lost too much, too fast. We'll see in TC.

I’ll look forward to seeing how and what both of them do - there’s no question that Denver is a stronger team if both of them are up to par. Whether they will be is a major question.

The last defensive tackle on the list is second-round pick Derek Wolfe, who looks to be a natural under tackle. He’s a very solid player and he has skills against the run as well as a unique ability to get into the backfield. It is very likely that he will be used situationally during his first season, but I expect him to start taking more and more of the first and second down plays as time passes. We will find out for sure when he hits the field, but I suspect that his run stopping has been underestimated coming out of college. I hope to find that I’m right. You can also play Wolfe off of the end on running downs - he’s only five pounds heavier than Malik Jackson, and I’m big on using more powerful DEs if they have the quickness. Wolfe does.

Why did the Broncos specifically target Wolfe? He was one of the best in the draft at penetration, and accordingly, his skills in run defense have been frequently  underestimated. Mike Mayock covered that, commenting,

This is one of the most solid players in this draft. He won't overwhelm you with measurables, but when you put his tape on there's rarely a mistake.

That’s something that you haven’t heard or read much of about Wolfe, isn’t it - his consistency? In college he was consistent as a pass rusher, as a backfield penetrator, and as a run stopper, He’s so often described as only ‘a penetrating guy’ that it’s easy to miss all the other things that are going on within his game. You’d swear that he was a lousy run stopper from some of the draft sites - but he’s not. He has been effective against the run and he has a lot of willingness to work and improve. He’s someone who stayed with it until he dominated as a DT at the college level and now is beginning an NFL career.

Below are some highlights from his 2011 Big East POY award-winning season. Notice how low he gets while going around the corner at 22 seconds into the video. That’s the kind of technique that makes Von Miller so hard to stop.

Despite the rumor mill claiming that Brian Xanders left due to arguments over the Broncos' first couple of picks in the draft, John Elway issued a public denial; Del Rio made clear that Derek Wolfe was the guy that Denver wanted:

Derek Wolfe is an inside pass-rush threat that really has been lacking here. Last year the defensive tackle position went without a sack.* Derek Wolfe was the top producer of sacks in the NCAA last year (at defensive tackle). He’s a guy that will need to work to build an anchor in terms of playing inside on the run downs, but in terms of generating pass rush and giving us a presence inside with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil coming outside, I think he’ll be a valuable addition, so we’re glad to have him. We were a little bit nervous, because we'd heard he had been No. 1 on Baltimore's draft board, too, and we didn't know if he was going to get to us. But Derek was our pick the whole time. He was our target.

*Actually, Ryan McBean had 4 and Robert Ayers had 3 from the offtackle slot during the regular season. But Denver got zero sacks from its starting tackles.

Wolfe isn’t the kind of guy who would be likely to embarrass your team on or off the field. His town essentially raised him, and he is dedicated to not letting them down. He’s ready for the next step. He has talent and he has character - it’s not an either/or situation with him, thankfully.

He stayed at Cincinnati an extra year to prove his abilities and to mature more as a person. He finished his degree (August 2011, Sociology) and then over the season, he improved his game substantially. He got as ready as a college guy can get to be a contributing part of the Broncos line and now he needs pro level training to maximize his potential. Is that what you’ve read? It ought to be. Now it is.

Who’s the NT?

The Broncos addressed one defensive tackle position in the draft with the selection of Wolfe at 36th overall. But Derek is described by many as a 3-technique defensive tackle/defensive end. The 3-technique means Wolfe plays in the gap between the offensive guard and tackle and aims directly at the guard's tackle-side shoulder. it’s a very loose term - the terms off-tackle or under tackle are more accurate, since the player doesn’t necessarily line up in the 3-technique position at all. He may move into any number of different slots.

The nose tackle in the Broncos’ 4-3 defense supposedly (according to various pundits) plays directly over, or just off, the center (a 0- or 1-technique). Realistically, he moves around quite a bit. The nose defensive tackle often carries more girth than the other defensive tackle, although that is not always true. You can look at the Cowboys, for example, who have used Jay Ratliff as their nose tackle for years even though he’s listed by Dallas as being under 300 pounds. The idea that a nose tackle is necessarily a bigger or stouter player is a common belief, but it’s not always accurate or important - as is so often true, this is a matter of player skill matched with the team’s scheme.

Equally, some pundits are suggesting that the absent Ty Warren would be the most appropriate nose tackle for the Broncos. It’s an interesting thought, but since Warren hasn’t been able to play in two years due to injury, and while he was 6-5 last time he was measured, he was also just 300 pounds. I would wait until I could see if he can produce before crowning him as the starting anything. There’s no question that he was an extremely talented player when he was capable of playing. As far as whether he’s capable of playing now or where, that remains to be seen.

I appreciate hearing something on Sealver Siliga, and I hope that he plays as well for the team as it’s being reported that they expect. As far as Justin Bannan is concerned, though, what's more important is that Bannan has the power to handle NT. He did it well in Baltimore and also is able to pressure the QB, despite the minimal number of sacks. That is a combination the Broncos need. In addition to Baltimore, Bannan played nose well in an even-front scheme in St. Louis last year, so I guess I don’t comprehend the merits of the argument, such as they may be.

However, I'd bet that nose tackle will soon (next offseason, if not sooner) become a priority for the Broncos. Since they run a one-gap penetrating DL approach - and admittedly, the only thing I really know about their scheme beyond that is that John Fox saw the film of last year and knew that pressure on the QB by the interior DL had to improve - putting Bannan at NT isn't much of a stretch that I can see. Since their biggest weakness was not getting enough pressure, why not have a 312 lb. player who can hold the line well (according to last year's run-stopping numbers by PFF, a very impressive +12.3 run-stop rating)? For a change, Denver has no shortage of pass-rushing players, most of them defensive ends.

By the way - I would have loved to have gotten Brodrick Bunkley back but the common story that somehow it was Denver’s - or specifically, John Elway’s - fault that he went elsewhere needs at least one piece of actual evidence before I accept it. Actually, I’m calling ‘foul’ on that one for now - sometimes a player just wants to play somewhere else. It can be money, family, climate, coaches, friends, and/or 20 other factors and none of us knows which ones it was with Bunkley, so let’s get over it and move on. It’s becoming a popular story if you want something to complain about with the front office, but it’s thin. Very thin. If someone has better evidence, I’m game to see it.  As John Maynard Keynes once commented, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Keep in mind that Bunkley was also a two-down player who will be getting $9.9M in guarantees from the Saints over the next two seasons, despite having contributed exactly zero sacks and few pressures last year. He was a beast against the run, and a placeholder against the pass, a classic two-down player. I believe in collapsing the pocket to let your sack guys get pressure, but you can also do that by putting in even more sack guys and letting the OL try to figure out which of them are coming in on each play. Denver’s apparently going with the second option for 2012.

Let’s also not suggest that Bannan, Wolfe, and the rest of the players won’t have any run-stopping skills. We already know it’s not true on Bannan, and the film says that it’s not true on Wolfe, either. Will he get better there? Sure. Is he a loss now? It’s not likely. Both Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller should have improved pass-rushing skills as well, which is something to smile over. Doom has admitted that he was still worried about his 2010 pectoral injury last season, and that it might have slowed him in degree. Miller was just coming out of college and is learning every day. Robert Ayers will be a year stronger, Wolfe will be used, and the pass rush should be substantially improved.

Nor was Wolfe the only draft pick aimed at strengthening Denver’s pass rush. In the next segment, we’ll go deeper into the defensive ends, look at what makes them stronger this year, and into the linebacking corps and their own strengths and weaknesses. As several folks have requested, a breakdown of the defensive backfield will also follow.


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