Scouting the Broncos: Defensive Line

With the recent release of both Justin Bannan and Jamal Williams, and with Marcus Thomas currently uninterested in signing his tender, Denver is creating a brand new level of opportunity for whatever defensive linemen they acquire over the next six months. One has to hope that there will be a free agency period as well as the draft; and while questions about who Denver will select aren’t answered, the positions to be targeted has become more clear.

I have to admit: the logic behind letting Bannan go eluded me. I know that they didn’t want to pay out his $500K roster bonus or $3.5 million salary, so there’s one scenario that makes the most sense to me, and it follows the oldest laws of crime fighting or of young women who marry men fifty years their senior: Follow the money. Bannan is a good DT and from what I could see on broadcast film (it isn’t the same as coaches film so they may have access to observing weaknesses that we cannot), they wanted to avoid the roster bonus, and also asked him to take a substantial pay cut for doing a pretty good job; he turned it down and he’s now moving on. There’s not much else to say. I wish the big guy the best, and I enjoyed seeing him play as a Bronco. Good luck, JB.

With Ronald Fields expected to leave and Mitch Unrein an unknown factor (at least to me, so I asked a couple of folks from Wyoming about him), this is the listing from the Broncos' website:

No. Name Ht Wgt Age Exp. College
91 Ronald Fields 6-2 314 29 6 Mississippi State
94 Louis Leonard 6-4 325 26 4 Fresno State
98 Ryan McBean 6-5 297 26 3 Oklahoma State
79 Marcus Thomas 6-3 316 25 4 Florida
96 Mitch Unrein 6-4 300 23 R Wyoming
99 Kevin Vickerson 6-5 321 28 5 Michigan State

Defensive Ends

So, if we subtract Thomas, who may not return, and Fields who isn’t expected back and leave McBean (a FA) and Unrein (futures/reserve contract) on, for the moment, here’s a quick rundown on what Denver does have up front. Let’s start with the defensive ends:

  • Robert Ayers 6’3”  274 lb  25yrs. 3 yrs, Tennessee (DE)
  • Elvis Dumervil 5’11 248 lb 27 yrs. 5 yrs, Louisville (DE)
  • Jason Hunter  6’4” 271 bl  27 yrs. 5 yrs, Appalachian State (DE/OLB)
  • Ryan McBean 6’5’  297 lb 26 yrs.  3 yrs, Oklahoma State (DE)
  • Ben Garland (reserve) - 6’5, 275 lb, In Armed Services (DE)

Ayers and Dumervil are solid at their positions, and from everything that Fox has said, they are both expected to be three-down DEs. Of course, everything that the owners, GMs and coaches say at this point needs to be taken with a shaker of salt - a grain won’t do it just before draft time. However, when you add the other aspects - the current lack of DTs, for example - leaving Doom and Ayers at DE makes a lot of sense.

Ryan McBean is a player who had a surprisingly good run during the first half of 2009, and wasn’t as good during the second half. He was moved to RDE in 2010 to try and create better mismatches, but that didn’t help: if anything, he looked worse. However - given his size and short-area quicks, he might just be a good DE in the 40 front. It’s impossible to say, so I’m just going with my gut - right now, I'll guess he gets a chance to find out in camp - beyond that, I couldn’t say. He’s big for a DE, and that may turn into a trend. On the other hand, he’s a free agent so he may not be back at all - he’s purely a ‘time will tell’ type of player at this point. 

Jason Hunter came into Broncos camp on August 19, 2010 and was immediately moved from defensive end, where he had racked up five sacks for Detroit the year before, to the OLB slot. There’s a lot involved in making that kind of move, but Hunter did a pretty good job of managing it on the fly. Hopefully, he can return to DE as he did in Detroit and add another five sacks or so for Denver this upcoming season in backing up Ayers and Doom. I liked Hunter - he gained a lot of muscle weight when he came into the league as a DE, and with 4.55 speed in the 40, he’s a lot faster than your average DE. He could do well - I thought that he handled that change on the fly from DE to OLB with grace and solid effort. I’m hoping for more of the same, but I think he may be on the bubble. He's under contract for this season at $715K and is a free agent beyond that.

I can only wish Ben Garland well; he doesn't figure into Denver's plans unless he's released early from his military commitment.

Defensive Tackles

  • Kevin Vickerson 6’5” 321 lb. 28 yrs. 5 yrs.  Michigan State (NT/DT)
  • Louis Leonard, 6’4” 325 lb 25 yrs. 4 yrs, Fresno State (NT) 2011 $555,000
  • Mitch Unrein, 6’4, 300 lb, 23 yrs old, Wyoming (DL, future/reserve contract)

Kevin Vickerson and Louis Leonard are just plain big - about 325 each, give or take a Fat Burger. It’s possible that they are the new style of nose tackles that we can expect from Denver - with the right under tackle, either could be adequate. Vickerson is clearly the one they like - he showed moments of real athleticism last year. I don’t usually use that word with a guy of his size, but I recall one play from 2010 that had him stretched out horizontally in the air, literally flying over from RDE to the right A gap, grabbing the jersey of a running back with one big hand, and helping to bring him down. I rarely had anything bad to say about Vickerson, so I’m not disappointed that he’s staying - I had hoped that he would. He did have to serve a four-game suspension in 2008 for violating the NFL's PED rules, but he hasn't had any off-field issues since. The Broncos just gave him a brand new contract - they signed him to a two-year, $4.75 million contract extension last week which includes a million-dollar signing bonus that will be paid in installments. It looks like Denver is going with his size and athletic skills.

Leonard is a puzzle. In fairness, they can cut Leonard without much money changing hands, and he’s similar to Vickerson in size, if not skills, so keeping him until after the CBA is negotiated makes sense. I’m hoping that he can fill the nose tackle well enough to back up Vickerson unless Denver has someone else in mind. Leonard was in his fourth season when Denver signed him last December, after spending time with St. Louis, Cleveland and Carolina. He was a full-time player for the Browns in 2008, but made only four starts over a 16-game span. Cleveland traded him to Carolina for a draft pick the following year and he wound up on injured reserve in Week 1 of 2009 with an ankle injury. He moved from there to the Patriots for a very brief stint (signed with them on December 15, 2010 and was cut on December 22). Denver acquired him on December 29th. His contract is for $555,000 in 2011 and in 2012, he would be a free agent. However, as I mentioned, if Denver doesn’t keep him they aren’t really on the hook for anything.

Mitch Unrein out of Wyoming is supposed to have the skills to play at either DE or DT. At 300 lb, the DT slot seems more likely, but Unrein had a good run at Wyoming and could be a fair rotational player. He hasn’t had a chance to show his skills in a way that the fans can get a feel for, so we’ll have to wait and see on him. the folks I spoke to from Wyoming, including our own TJ, felt that he was a strong player who was aggressive on the field and played well. I hope that continues - he’s on a futures/reserve contract, so nothing is written in stone.

What does this all tell us? For my money, it says that Denver is going to take the best under tackle on the board at #2, and more likely than not, that they might need a second addition via the draft or FA and will probably look for LB help and perhaps RT help as well in the draft. The team is somewhat thin on DE - Ayers, Doom and Hunter, with McBean a FA who didn’t produce last year in a different scheme - and currently has only two experienced DTs, plus Mitch Unrein.

Denver has to do exactly what the FO has said - they need to hit on their higher draft picks and know the FA rosters like they know their multiplication tables. They’ll have to target well and spend the money to bring in players that match with their desires and their system. The Broncos are once again embarking on changing over the entire approach to offense and defense - let’s hope that this one goes a little more smoothly.

There’s one thing that you can say about all of this: It surely is going to be interesting. Go Broncos!

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

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