Of all the positions on the field, perhaps none has been more vexing for Broncos fans in recent years than the defensive line.
Aside from mainstay and two-time Pro Bowl end Elvis Dumervil, the unit has been in nearly constant flux with yearly scheme changes and a revolving door of players.
Over the last five years, a span that included three head coaches (Fox, McDaniels and Shanahan) and five defensive coordinators, Denver never ranked higher than 22nd in rushing defense.
The nadir of Denver’s defensive woes came in 2010 when the Broncos finished the season ranked dead last in total defense and team sacks and second-to-last in rushing defense.
While all the blame does not rest solely on the defensive line, that unit does own more of the responsibility for these miserable numbers than the other units. Also sharing some blame are Denver’s various football decision-makers who have repeatedly failed to stock the defensive line with adequate talent.
Draft busts like Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder and free agent flops such as LeKevin Smith, Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams have significantly hindered Denver’s defensive performances over the last several seasons.
Fast forward to 2012 when the prayers of Broncos Country for the team to add real talent to the defensive line were finally answered as Denver selected defensive lineman Derek Wolfe with their first draft pick, number 35 overall. The Broncos also picked Malik Jackson, the massive lineman from Tennessee, in the fifth round. Both rookies can play multiple positions along the line depending upon the down and distance.
Fox does not like to pigeon-hole players into specific roles and places a value versatility saying, “A lot of our (defensive lineman) have some flexibility so we will move them around.”
Wolfe has been one of the stars of the preseason for Denver notching seven total tackles and a pair of sacks in his four quarters of exhibition action.
The rookie has quickly caught the eyes of Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who love Wolfe’s tenacity, work ethic and commitment. As Del Rio explained, “Nothing is on his mind more than coming in here and helping his team win, I really like the way he's approached the beginning of his career.”
Del Rio was quick to caution that Wolfe is far from a finished product saying, “(Wolfe) still has a ways to go … but I like the way he's started.”
One of the things that caught the eye of the Broncos’ decision-makers in the pre-draft process was his experience at multiple positions while playing at the University of Cincinnati. Del Rio explained that Wolfe’s breadth of experience has aided his transition to the NFL.
His size, strength and quickness, along with his experience and intangibles, have led Denver defensive coaches to believe Wolfe will be a force both as a pass rusher and run stopper. Said Del Rio, “As a rusher inside (Wolfe) has some slippery-ness, he’s got some ability to finish on the QB and then outside he's real rugged on the edge, it's hard to run at him or near him."
While Wolfe brings versatility he developed over his NCAA career, veteran defensive tackle Ty Warren’s flexibility has been developed at the NFL level. Warren, who was one Denver’s prized free agents in 2011, is entering his tenth year of NFL service but has missed the prior two seasons due to injury.
Even though he is 31 years old, Warren says he feels as good as he has since high school as not playing the previous two seasons has refreshed him; he does not have as much mileage on the tires as do most other 10-year veterans.
Warren shed some light on why Fox wanted him as a central part of the Broncos’ d-line rotation saying, “In my experience I've pretty much played all along the defensive line so I know I can contribute anywhere on the defensive line if need be, it's really up to (the coaches) to plug me when where they think I can make an impact.”
Over the course training camp and first two preseason games, Warren has been working as one of the starting defensive tackles, along with 2012 free agent acquisition Justin Bannan, and has not displayed any lingering effects from his previous injuries.
The Broncos did suffer one major blow to the depth along the defensive line when first team left end Jason Hunter suffered a triceps tear and will likely to be placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Hunter had quickly gained favor with Del Rio, who praised the seven-year vet’s passion and drivesaying, “He approached things the way I like it, tough, physical … that's what we're looking for." Hunter had surpassed Robert Ayers, the starting LDE in 2011, on the depth chart early in camp.
While both figure to get plenty of playing time, look for Wolfe to get nod over Ayers for the starting job in Hunter’s absence.
While no one will confuse Denver’s defensive line with the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” of the 1960s, the 2012 unit figures to be measurably more effective than it has been in recent years.
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