When the Broncos recently added Quentin Jammer to their already crowded defensive backfield, one issue that arose - although hardly one that can’t be overcome - is how to handle that positional glut. Some folks have suggested that David Bruton should be one player to get the axe.
One reader wondered if Bruton was worth keeping...
Wait one second. Bolden and Irving were ST tackle leaders?! I thought L Ball and D Bruton were the ST aces? It shall be interesting come TC cut time.
...while another was succinct in pleading his case...
You can't let Bruton go. He is our best ST player.
That he is. His value goes far beyond just special teams, too. I don’t think there’s any chance of Bruton getting cut, so let’s talk about what makes him an untouchable to me, beyond the fact that Denver just re-signed him in March and gave him a $1.2M signing bonus.
For background, he was drafted in the fourth round back in 2009 and had an immediate effect on special teams, contributing nine ST tackles that year, plus 10 more in 2010. He may not be among the team leaders on ST tackles each year now, but that’s because gunner - his early role as one of the first players down, taking advantage of Bruton’s 4.46 speed - is often not his current role, as it was back then.
What he does do, though, covers a lot of territory.
Work ethic: We knew about this one early - Bruton was a co-captain for Notre Dame in 2008 and showed both leadership qualities and maturity when he was there. During his first training camp at Dove Valley, he immediately showed that he knew exactly what the pro game is about, as he was the final player to leave the practice field on multiple occasions. He’s maintained that level of work ethic, from all reports I’ve heard and read.
Leadership: Like Wesley Woodyard, Bruton has led from the front and by example. Although he played behind starters Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill, then behind Mike Adams and Rahim Moore, Bruton has always kept himself ready to step in when he’s needed. He goes about his work like the professional he is - he doesn’t skimp on film work, doesn’t complain if he’s not on the field with the defensive unit, and handles an essential role on STs - he’s the guy that calls changes in protection on punts, for example. For the quality of his leadership, he’s been made the ST captain. Jack Del Rio also has complimented his communication skills.
Size, Speed and Athleticism: Bruton is a 6-2, 219 lb player - big, even for a modern safety. Yet he ran the 40 in an average of 4.46 seconds, has a 41.5 inch vertical leap, and ran his three-cone drill at combine in 6.6 seconds. Drills and tests don’t tackle ballcarriers, but you need the tools he displayed to become a quality player. His speed has disrupted many a kickoff or punt return, and his tackling has kept players like Darren Sproles out of the end zone.
Punt protection: After his nine ST tackles as a rookie and 10 in 2010, Bruton’s tackles have declined over the last two years. His role has changed, but his production hasn’t diminished - it's just changed direction. His time spent as the ST gunner (as discussed here by former NFLer Rashied Davis) has given way to the position of personal protector on punts (whose responsibilities are detailed here). He’s often the man who’s playing back from the line of scrimmage and close to the punter - the last line of defense against the punt rush.
That player is also responsible for making sure that the protection package is lined up properly, and he will shift from side to side if needed to maintain the punter’s ability to get the kick away safely. That he’s playing back from the line of scrimmage also means that he’s usually going to arrive at the returner later, hence the difference in tackles. Bruton also protects the kick returner on kickoffs, which doesn’t create stats either. Denver doesn’t lack for quick, strong tacklers on ST at this point, but a veteran’s eye can make the difference between those tacklers being in the right place or not. That makes calling protections one of Bruton’s key roles.
Quality backup - and more?
Back in the offseason following the 2011 season, I took some time to review several of the plays that various people had dunned Bruton for when he was backing up injured safeties. Many people saw him running down the field, chasing ballcarriers.
I found that on almost every play, Bruton wasn’t running downfield trying to catch his mistakes. He was chasing after other people’s errors and keeping them from turning into TDs. He missed an assignment or two as he got comfortable on the field, but his overall body of work was very good. If a safety goes down, I don’t flinch when Bruton takes the field. He’s gotten gameday reps and he’s always ready, has studied the film, and prepared as if he’d be a starter. He’s a quality veteran backup who has started two playoff games and always keeps himself ready to go, even if he isn’t a starter on defense. With his ST duties he’s always an active player on game days, so he’s there to step in as needed. That might be soon.
As noted recently by Andrew Mason for the team site, Bruton rotated in with the starting defense during recent OTAs. That’s not hard to understand - Bruton has kept himself ready all the time, and he’s earned this shot. With his experience, size, and speed, adding his skills to the nickel and dime packages (and even perhaps the former base) wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Says Jack Del Rio,
He's taken charge, he's one of our better communicators and he's been a good special teams player here. He's hoping to do more on defense, so it's kind of similar to Wesley Woodyard.
When you put the qualities he’s bringing together, it may not solve the constant issue of covering tight ends, but his role on the team is still essential.
Like Keith Burns before him, Bruton takes pride in his special teams work and is a leader in an aspect of football that’s ignored by many of the fans - until a team starts giving up long returns and TDs. About that time, you’re relieved that a player like Bruton is on your squad. With his recent push to start, Bruton is only getting the chance that he’s earned.