The Denver Broncos were ready to move on without Elvis Dumervil when he agreed to take a pay cut less than an hour before his 2013 base salary would have become fully guaranteed. Both sides feverishly worked to get the signed contract to the league office before the deadline, but were thwarted by a piece of technology that’s basically obsolete in America.
The Broncos released Dumervil, allowing both sides to consider their options. Dumervil ultimately found a better deal with the Baltimore Ravens, even though the Broncos were reportedly willing to bring him back until the Ravens swooped in according the USA Today. The Dumervil divorce was ultimately a good thing for both sides; Dumervil found a better deal with the Ravens and the Broncos figured there would be more value in a free agent.
Now the only question is if a player like Dwight Freeney will have a positive or negative impact on the Broncos.
That question can best be answered by determining how losing Dumervil will impact Von Miller and how his role might change with Freeney on the other side. How the loss of Dumervil impacts Miller will ultimately determine how it impacts the Broncos, and there are plenty of factors to consider.
Every player’s impact on a team is composed of basically two things: cost and production. In some cases, however, a player produces in a way that isn't seen on a stat sheet. A two-gapping nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is a good example of a player who might not put up big stats, but drastically impacts players around him.
In a similar way, having two good pass-rushers puts the pressure on the offense to make sure they can protect the quarterback. With Dumervil opposite Miller, offenses were in a tough spot in pass protection because they couldn’t commit their running back to helping on one side or the other. The Broncos also occasionally flipped Dumervil and Miller to opposite sides to make it even harder for offenses to shift their protection to Miller’s side.
The presence of Miller made Dumervil expendable, which also drove down his value to the Broncos. Part of the reason Dumervil received a better deal with the Ravens was because of their need for a pass-rusher to replace the exodus of Paul Kruger. The Broncos obviously felt that Dumervil’s pay didn’t match his performance and the Ravens were willing to pay more for that production.
There’s a good reason why the Broncos are going after Freeney, John Abraham and potentially other pass-rushers to replace Dumervil. Almost all of Dumervil’s value to the Broncos was providing pass-rush opposite Miller. As long as the Broncos can replace Dumervil’s pass-rush production, they will have replaced most of what they lost, and for a fraction of the cost.
The Broncos are taking a risk that they can get the same production for less money. Abraham was a more productive pass-rusher than Dumervil last season according to Pro Football Focus, but he’ll also be 35 years old next season. Age is a concern when it comes to a drop in production and a player’s ability to stay on the field. The good news is that Abraham has missed only two games in the last six seasons.
Freeney wasn't quite as productive a pass-rusher as Dumervil last season, and he’ll be 33 years old next season. Freeney’s sack output has also declined in each of the past four seasons, which is a bad sign of things to come. The Broncos are clearly hoping to get the best of Freeney by moving him back to defensive end, where he played prior to moving to outside linebacker last season, but that’s no guarantee. Freeney is a gamble, but one the Broncos may feel is worth taking.
If the replacement for Dumervil can’t stay healthy or consistently beat left tackles, offenses are going to focus more attention on Miller. Not only will the Broncos see a dip in production from the player replacing Dumervil, but there will a negative impact on Miller’s ability to get to the quarterback because he will be the focus of more attention.
Some of the risk involved could be mitigated by getting more pass rush out of the players already on the roster. Derek Wolfe might be used a little more as an interior pass-rusher and the Broncos could also try to get more out of Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson. If the offense is better with Wes Welker, that will also help the defense.
Losing Dumervil could also impact Miller’s production against the run, which is a minor concern. The impact could be positive or negative depending on a variety of factors. Dumervil was ranked 54th among 62 defensive ends (4-3) against the run by Pro Football Focus.
Obviously, poor run defenders are often targeted by opposing teams.
Miller was a highly efficient tackler and rarely missed a tackle, but he didn’t have as many opportunities to make plays in the run game in 2012. Presumably Miller wasn’t tested as much because he combined with Wolfe to make it very difficult to run to the right side, while the combination of Dumervil and the undersized Wesley Woodyard presented a more attractive alternative.
At least when it comes to Pro Football Focus grades, Freeney has been one of the worst edge defenders against the run for the past couple of years.
Whereas Dumervil has been in the 40-50 tackle range over the past three seasons, Freeney has been in the 10-20 range. It’s not too much of a leap to think that teams would run at Freeney and Woodyard with regularity unless the Broncos paired Freeney with a strong run defender.
Abraham compares much more favorably to Dumervil, having compiled between 35 and 40 tackles in each of the last five seasons. Signing Freeney might negatively impact the Broncos against the run and result in a drop in production against the pass, while Abraham would be almost like a clone of Dumervil.
If the Broncos don't end up signing Freeney or Abraham, they might end up with more of a third-down specialist to go along with a two-down run defender. If that were to happen, the Broncos might strengthen the run at the expense of the pass rush, which could force teams to run to Miller’s side with more regularity. Miller has been great against the run, but the last thing the Broncos want is him thinking too much about teams running his direction.
The loss of Dumervil has the potential to damage the productivity of the defense if the Broncos don’t go about replacing him wisely. The Broncos don’t want Miller thinking too much about the run or offenses focusing too much attention on him.
Replacing Dumervil with a veteran, even if it means losing some productivity, provides the Broncos the money to give Miller the contract extension he deserves before he becomes a free agent. Dumervil was going to be gone next year to create cap space for Miller even if the restructured contact didn’t get lost for 15 minutes in the fax machine at Kinko’s. The Broncos also couldn’t commit much of their future cap space to re-sign Dumervil because they know they will need it to sign Miller.
It’s probably good that the Broncos are taking their time evaluating the situation, because finding one player who can replace everything Dumervil did will be difficult. It’s more likely that the Broncos will have to bring in multiple players to fill Dumvervil’s void, even if one of those players is a big name.