The Denver Broncos added a good amount of depth this offseason. They had no idea how important their cost-effective signings would be.
Star linebacker Von Miller was hit with a four-game drug suspension, one that leaves a hole at outside linebacker that seemingly cannot be filled. Miller piled up 18.5 sacks last season and finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and he is poised to do more in 2013.
Unfortunately for him, he will likely only have 12 games to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Assuming his appeal is denied, Miller's four-game suspension will force him to miss the first month of the 2013 season. Many think that the Broncos will lose a good chunk of those first four games, as they will be missing their defensive leader against top-tier offenses.
The Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants are the Broncos' first two opponents, and both are good teams with stellar quarterbacks. The Broncos will miss Miller in those games, and they will miss him against the athletic Philadelphia Eagles.
However, while Denver's outside linebackers have big shoes to fill (again, assuming his appeal is denied), they will survive without him.
Can Denver's offense carry it to wins without Miller?
Denver has star quarterback Peyton Manning, arguably the best receiving corps in the league and a stellar offensive line. If rookie running back Montee Ball can shred defenses like he did in college, the Broncos will have the best offense in the game.
As long as the Broncos have Manning, who finished second in MVP voting last season, they will be fine. Manning tossed 37 touchdown passes last season, and he consistently picked apart defenses. He will do the same thing in 2013, and he will help the Broncos excel in their first four games.
Manning now has one of the best slot receivers in the game in Wes Welker, and he still has prodigies Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside. He has lots of weapons around him, and he and those weapons will spearhead a high-scoring offense once again.
That offense will be complemented by a stingy defense, one that will still function properly without Miller. Derek Wolfe, Shaun Phillips and others can apply pressure on the quarterback, and Champ Bailey, Chris Harris, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and other defensive backs can lock down top receivers and contain top-flight aerial attacks.
Denver's secondary is one of the best in football, as the team has a multitude of depth at safety and three stellar cornerbacks. If the pass rush does its part, the secondary will put up gaudy numbers once again.
Luckily for the secondary, it will benefit from a good pass rush. And yes, the pass rush will do its job in the first four games.
Why? Because Phillips, who easily led the San Diego Chargers in sacks last year, will probably step in for Miller on passing downs. Oh, and Wolfe will wreak havoc on quarterbacks.
Phillips played strong-side linebacker with the Chargers, and he should do that in Denver's predominant 3-3-5 nickel package. As denverbroncos.com noted, the Broncos ran the nickel in about two-thirds of their defensive snaps last season.
In their nickel, the Broncos have a three-man front. At times, they will likely have some defensive linemen two-gap, which means that the linemen will fill two gaps by taking up two defenders. This creates rushing lanes for blitzing linebackers.
Phillips should be that blitzing linebacker.
While Phillips will rush in the nickel, he won't play much in the 4-3. The 255-pound Phillips isn't a good run defender, so the Broncos will need another linebacker to fill in for Miller in the 4-3.
Outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard will likely occupy the weak-side linebacker position, and Nate Irving, Steven Johnson or another middle linebacker will start in the middle. On the strong side, Danny Trevathan, who usually covers tight ends in the nickel, will likely start.
Should the Broncos mix and match or let Phillips take over completely?
In addition, undrafted rookie Lerentee McCray can step in, and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley could shift over if needed. The Broncos have enough depth to mix and match, which is what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will likely do.
And, they have enough depth to get by without Miller.
Phillips is the main reason why. Even though he didn't benefit from much two-gapping last season, he piled up 9.5 sacks. He has speed, and he can burst through blitzing lanes. He should be able to pressure the quarterback, and he should do a fine job filling in for Miller.
But even if Phillips and the outside linebackers falter, the Broncos will be able to pile up sacks. Wolfe had a solid six-sack 2012 season and he's ready to take the leap to stardom in his sophomore year. He is an extremely mature player with a solid build as well.
Wolfe is similar in some ways to Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 with 20.5 sacks. Wolfe and Watt can both overpower offensive linemen, as Wolfe is 295 pounds and Watt is 300 pounds.
Wolfe didn't put up gaudy numbers in 2012, but he will in 2013. As Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post noted, Wolfe played defensive tackle in about 70 percent of Denver's snaps last season. Because of the additions of defensive tackles Sylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton, Wolfe won't play defensive tackle much more.
That will allow him to go after the quarterback as a pass-rushing defensive end. He and Watt will have similar roles in 2013, even though the two play in different schemes.
Watt was able to rush freely in 2012, even though he plays in a base 3-4 defense. Usually, 3-4 defensive ends two-gap for blitzing linebackers, but Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips instead lets Watt terrorize quarterbacks as a pass-rusher instead.
Wolfe plays in a 4-3, but because the Broncos usually run the nickel, he often plays in a three-man front. The Broncos will likely end up having Wolfe rush instead of two-gap, as he is more effective chasing quarterbacks. He primarily played defensive end in college, and he piled up 9.5 sacks doing so in his senior season.
If the Broncos decide to let Wolfe rush a lot, they likely won't two-gap much. That would hurt Phillips, but it wouldn't kill the team at all.
Can Wolfe fill Miller's shoes?
Wolfe is more of a threat as a pass-rusher, and he is Denver's second-best pass-rusher (behind Miller). The Broncos want him to go after the quarterback, and he will make an impact doing that in 2013.
Wolfe can replace Miller's pass-rushing production, and Trevathan, who picked up 32 tackles in his final 12 regular-season games in 2012, can do the same thing against the run. However, the Broncos need depth at linebacker, as Trevathan can't play on every defensive snap.
Luckily, Irving can switch positions and spell Trevathan. If that happens, Johnson would likely take over at middle linebacker. That wouldn't hurt the defense, as Irving and Johnson are both solid run defenders. The two combined for 10 games with double-digit tackles in their final years in college.
In the nickel, the Broncos can get by with Phillips, Irving and, at times, McCray. Phillips is far from the league's best or biggest pass-rusher, but he can come through with some key sacks.
If the Broncos get some pressure from Wolfe, Ayers and fifth-round draft pick Quanterus Smith at defensive end as well, they will be fine.
The Broncos added solid depth on defense this offseason, and it will pay off for them in the first four games. They added some quality players and can mix and match to fill in for Miller because of it. Filling Miller's shoes is no easy task, but the players on Denver's roster can complete the task.
Denver could pursue a free agent like John Abraham as well. According to spotrac.com, Denver has nearly $14 million in cap space to play with. It could use some of that money to sign Abraham or another pass-rusher, but it doesn't need to.
How many games will Denver win without Miller?
As long as Ayers, Wolfe and Smith can chip in with some sacks from the defensive line, and as long as Phillips, Trevathan, Irving, McCray and the outside linebackers can get after the quarterback and make some tackles, the team will be fine.
Denver will see a drop-off in production without its star linebacker, but it will be temporary and won't kill the team. If Miller is suspended, he would only miss 25 percent of the season, which isn't a lot. The team has serviceable stopgaps, and it has a great offense to alleviate some of the pressure from the defense.
With Manning on the team, it will do fine. And, with Del Rio mixing and matching multiple people to fill in for Miller, it should do fine.