You Got Served: Talking DTs, and dipping our toe in the draft

To answer some questions that were in the comments of today's Lard, the Broncos play a hybrid defense, which is more akin to a 3-4 than it is to a true 4-3.  You can think of it as a 3.5-3.5 if you’d like.  The discussion was around whether the Broncos have featured an adequate interior pass rush from its defensive tackles, and whether the scheme actually calls for them to really rush the passer.

The Broncos use three 300-pounders on their base defensive line, in Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, and Justin Bannan.  That’s why I say it’s more like a 3-4 than it is like a 4-3, because in the base running scheme, the defense is asking those three players to two-gap, and to effectively control six of the eight gaps.  That’s a challenging task, and the front three for the Broncos has been consistently up to the task this year.

The two edges are manned by SLB Von Miller and open-side DE Elvis Dumervil (or Robert Ayers).  Eight gaps are accounted for by five players, and that allows the ILBs (two from among Wesley Woodyard, Keith Brooking, D.J. Williams, and Danny Trevathan) to read the run play, and flow to the action.  It also allows them to briefly maintain their initial depth, and avoid biting on play action.

The addition of Wolfe, the return of Bannan, and the improvement of Vickerson has made this a workable plan.  On a 1st-and-10, or a 2nd-and-5, when the offense is just as likely to run as pass, those guys are playing the run first, and then seeing if they can get into a rush in the event of a pass play.

The defensive philosophy that the Broncos are adhering to, which is pretty longstanding and conventional, is that it’s of paramount importance to stop the run.  That’s a little counterintuitive, vis-à-vis the known fact that NFL teams tend to achieve two full yards more per pass play than they do per run play. 

The efficacy of “stop the run,” in itself, is a bit debatable, but the value of the follow-on result that’s being sought is not.  The idea is that offenses will run the ball half the time on neutral downs, and that limiting those runs to little or no gain takes them off schedule, and that makes them more predictable. 

On 2nd-and-9, a team is twice as likely to pass as it is to run.  On 2nd-and-5, they are only slightly more likely to run than they are to throw.  When an offense stays on schedule, the whole playbook remains available to them, and that makes everything they do more difficult to defend.

As for the question of whether Vickerson, Justin Bannan, and Mitch Unrein are being asked to rush the passer, the answer is “sometimes.”  As mentioned before, in neutral downs, it’s a secondary responsibility, and the Broncos are willing to live with them not getting to the QB, as long as they get some push, and close down escape lanes from the outside rush.  These Broncos DTs have been doing a pretty nice job of that, and it’s an underrated value-add.

On known passing downs, the Broncos do want to unleash their inside guys, and in those situations, guys like Wolfe and Ayers, who have more natural pass rush ability than the base-down DTs, often move inside.  In those situations, where the primary assignment is to get to the QB, the coaches should have higher expectations of guys getting there from time to time.

The reason this topic was brought up was that people are starting to ponder draft needs, very prematurely.  I’ll engage in that briefly, in general terms, although I haven’t even begun researching specific draft-eligible players, and probably won’t for another month.

I think this Broncos team is likely to be in a “best-player-available” situation, and that’s a good place to be.  As I review their 2013 cap situation, I think that Joe Mays ($833,333 cap hit, $3.5 million salary savings) is likely to be cut, and that D.J. Williams ($1.733 million cap hit, $6 million salary savings) may join him, although there isn’t seemingly a dire need for it.

Key veterans like Jim Leonhard, Keith Brooking, David Bruton, Brandon Stokley, and Dan Koppen will have expiring contracts, and I don’t expect Tracy Porter ($4 million salary in 2012) to be back.  All of the Broncos current DTs (Vickerson, Bannan, and Unrein) are expiring.  Vickerson and Bannan will be unrestricted, and Unrein will be restricted.

Obviously, the biggest free agent will be Ryan Clady, but I fully expect him to be back, whether via the franchise tag, or a long-term contract.  The franchise amount this year for offensive linemen was $9.8 million, and the $6.3 million difference between his 2012 salary and that is basically covered by cutting Williams, or is two-thirds covered by the departure of Porter.  It’s not a cap-wrecker, by any means.

Assuming those roles are filled by re-signings or outside veteran additions, the Broncos draft need profile should look about like how it looks now.

Since the Broncos will likely be drafting 27th or later, it doesn’t make much sense to focus on specific names.  I’d be pretty happy upgrading up the middle – safety, middle linebacker, defensive tackle, or guard.  I’m not big on the idea that RB is a need area, just as I wasn’t last offseason.

Looking way ahead, if I were picking from the list of players that ESPN’s Scouts, Inc has between #25 and #45, (allowing for minor trades up and down) these are the names I’d be picking from:

Rank Player Position School
25 Corey Lemonier DE Auburn
26 CJ Mosley OLB Alabama
27 Jonathan Banks CB Mississippi State
28 Justin Hunter WR Tennessee
29 Kawann Short DT Purdue
30 Keenan Allen WR California
31 Sharrif Floyd DT Florida
32 Matt Barkley QB USC
33 Zach Ertz TE Stanford
34 Cordarrelle Patterson WR Tennessee
35 Kevin Minter ILB LSU
36 Mike Glennon QB NC State
37 Tyler Eifert TE Notre Dame
38 Tavon Austin WR West Virginia
39 Jake Matthews OT Texas A&M
40 Tank Carradine DE Florida State
41 Logan Ryan CB Rutgers
42 Matt Elam S Florida
43 Robert Woods WR USC
44 Eric Reid S LSU
45 Jesse Williams DT Alabama

Obviously, the Broncos aren’t going to be too heavily in the market for QBs, so that removes two names, but any of the rest of those players could be a good addition to the team.  I prefer safety over all other positions, and I prefer Elam over all other safeties (I’ve seen him a lot, and he’s excellent).  I can envision Rahim Moore and Elam playing together as starters, and Mike Adams in the big nickel role, and I like how that looks.

If you want a sleeper position, there’s a lot of WR value in this area.  The Broncos may decide not to pay big bucks to both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and if they love a guy in this area, they could lock in a cheap replacement for Decker, a year before his contract expires.  That’s how smart teams do business.

In any case, we’re getting into that season concurrently with playoff and Super Bowl season.  Since I only live four hours away from Mobile now, I’ve applied for media credentials to the Senior Bowl and its related practices and events.  Time will tell if they think we’re a big-time enough site to grant them, but I’d like to be there, to get us started on providing the best draft coverage Broncos fans have ever seen.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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