Bunkley was an impact player for Denver in 2011 as one of the few defensive tackles who performed well against the run. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded Bunkley as the NFL's best run-stopping defensive lineman this season, making stops on over 11 percent of defensive snaps this past season.
Whether it was the pursuit of Peyton Manning or a hesitance to part with the money that New Orleans offered that ultimately led to him signing outside of Denver, the defensive tackle position must be addressed.
Ryan McBean was the most effective pass-rushing tackle last season as a rotational lineman, but was recently hit with a six-game suspension (along with starting linebacker D.J. Williams) for violation of the NFL performance-enhancing drug policy.
McBean is a restricted free agent, and so far Denver has tendered a contract. With the suspension in effect for the first six games, Denver will be thin at tackle for the beginning of the season.
Denver signed Ty Warren before the 2011 season, with the intent he would start opposite Bunkley at tackle. However, Warren went down with a triceps injury prior to playing a game for Denver. Warren is signed for 2012 and could make an impact, although whether he can stay healthy throughout the season is questionable at 31 years old.
Assuming Warren can remain healthy, that still leaves the other tackle position as a question mark. If Warren cannot, Denver will need to bring in a pair of tackles this offseason.
Marcus Thomas served as a valuable run-stopper last season at defensive tackle, but is an unrestricted free agent. There is currently no indication that Thomas will be returning to Denver.
Out for all but five games in 2011, Kevin Vickerson was slated to be a starter prior to the acquisitions of Bunkley and Warren. Although Vickerson is healthy and should contribute this season in a rotational role, he is not viewed as a starting talent in the NFL and would make a prime target for opposing running backs to exploit up the middle.
This leaves Denver with few options in free agency, since many of the big-name tackles have been signed. The top remaining tackles are Derek Landri and Amobi Okoye. Landri is likely to be re-signed by the Philadelphia Eagles and Okoye is in a similar situation with the Chicago Bears. Neither are much of an improvement over Thomas, and both would be considerably more expensive to lure away from their respective teams.
Among the restricted free agents are several enticing names, like Desmond Bryant of the Oakland Raiders and Sammie Lee Hill of the Detroit Lions. Both are emerging talents, but would cost the team picks to acquire.
One possible starter that has been overlooked is Albert Haynesworth. Unpredictable both on and off the field, Haynesworth has bounced between teams over the past several seasons as a result.
If Denver could get Haynesworth to focus, he would be a valuable tackle for both defending the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Haynesworth would be a risky signing, and likely a last resort for a team like Denver—it has had an abundance of off-the-field issues over the past several seasons.
The lack of available free agents makes the drafting of a defensive tackle necessary this offseason. With the abundance of tackles, Denver could acquire a valuable component for the defensive line in either the first or second round.
The acquisition of Peyton Manning has removed quarterback as a position of extreme need for Denver. The subsequent trade of Tim Tebow has given Denver a couple more picks to make moves with this offseason.
It would be foolish for Denver not to address defensive tackle early in the draft if it passes up tackles in this offseason's free agent class.
UPDATE: Denver has reportedly reached out to free agent tackle Marcus Thomas today following the loss of Bunkley.