Name That Front Seven

A DCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

Through all the turnover that the 2009 Broncos have experienced, and will continue to experience as we head into training camps in July, it’s hard to identify just one position battle in particular that stands out from the others. Of course it’s hard to overlook the quarterback battle that is bound to take place when the team opens camp. The media has all but handed the starting job to Kyle Orton, who it had been speculated was an intricate part of the Jay Cutler trade, coming over from Chicago. I don’t think the battle is that simple, however. After hearing rookie head coach Josh McDaniels discuss each of his three quarterbacks’ performances following the first two mini-camps, he had nothing but praise for Chris Simms, who hasn’t played been a full-time starter since rupturing his spleen early in the Buccaneers’ 2007 campaign. Unfortunately, I’m sure that this battle will receive more than its share of attention as judgment day for McDaniels approaches.
To me, the most interesting battle comes on the defensive side of the football where the Broncos have experienced the most off-season jumbling. With the hire of veteran defensive coordinator and former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, the 2009 Broncos will attempt to make the switch to the 3-4 defense. Sounds simple enough. Only, the Broncos are returning only 5 of the 11 starters on defense from last year. As for the defensive front, arguably the team’s most glaring weakness, the Broncos have done little to none to add new prospects. Thus, the battle for starting jobs along the defensive front seven this training camp leaves the most to the imagination. I am honestly only sure of one thing within those positions as of right now: D.J Williams will find himself a starting spot (most likely at one of the ILB positions). Other than that, uh…
First of all, at the defensive end position, Denver is trying to make itself two DE’s who can handle the responsibility of playing the five-technique in the 3-4. These players have to be big run stoppers who do a lot of dirty work for not much glory. That last part may actually define one of the Broncos’ only two players with experience playing this position, which would be military vet and former Cal Bear Rulon Jones. The only problem with that is that Jones came to the team as an undrafted rookie free agent. Although, it’s difficult to throw any rookie into a starting position, let alone one who got passed over 265 by other NFL teams. The only other player who has played the 3-4 end before in his career is Pittsburgh Steeler castoff Ryan McBean. Unfortunately, since he was drafted in 2007, McBean has started just one game. If I were to put my money down on any players to win the two starting spots, I’m not sure I’d put it on these two.
As far as the other candidates, all of which have never seen action playing the five-technique, I think Marcus Thomas is talented enough to make the transition. The former 4th round pick of the Broncos in 2007 has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but to make this transition he’ll need to improve his run-stopping abilities, which he has struggled with in the past.
The other player who could have a realistic shot at topping the depth chart would be Kenny Peterson. He has the size (6’3 300) to make the transition, and the new coaching staff likes his attitude and abilities enough for them to make him the lone defensive free agent re-signed in the off-season. He is a veteran presence and a hard-worker, which may make him the best bet on the current roster to get the nod at one of the two spots.
Carlton Powell, last year’s 5th round pick, might be the only other player on the roster right now who could sneak up and challenge for a spot here. However, given his skill set coming Virginia Tech, he seems more suited to try the switch to nose tackle, given he adds a bit of weight over the next few months.
That brings us to nose tackle, arguably the most important position on the field in a 3-4 defense. Ironic enough, on paper this appears to be Denver’s weakest spot going into the season. The aforementioned Powell could gain some playing time with a strong performance at camp, but as of right now Ronald Fields appears to be penciled into the starting spot. Fields was brought over by Mike Nolan from San Francisco to perhaps man our front in Denver. To me, the fact that Nolan brought him over means a lot. Nolan is familiar with him and his talents, so for him to sign Fields as soon as he was named defensive coordinator means that he is confident enough in Fields’ abilities to trust him to compete for a starting spot. Though the veteran has never been an elite talent in this league, his is big and strong, and can take up blockers and eat up space. Or in other words, do exactly what a nose tackle is asked to do in the 3-4.
The Broncos also have free agent J’vonne Parker, in addition to undrafted rookie Chris Baker. The Broncos are high on Baker’s talents, but as mentioned before, it’s difficult to throw a rookie into the line of fire, let alone an undrafted one, let alone one who would be asked to play the most important defensive position on the field.
The most intriguing battle of them all may be at the 3-4 OLB positions. This unique position is often the glory position in the 3-4. All-pros and big names such as Shawne Merrimen, Demarcus Ware, and Joey Porter have thrived in these roles, making their name known with their big-time pass rushing abilities. It is no wonder the Broncos are going to have so many guys competing for these spots in camp.
One we can all but lock up, despite the rookie talk earlier, would be 1st round pick Robert Ayers. Ayers comes in as a tremendously athletic talent with a quick first step. He is built in the same range as the Merrimen’s and Ware’s, though lets not put that kind of pressure on him just yet. I wouldn’t expect him to put up the gaudy numbers that those kinds of guys put up this season, but there is little question he has the ability to make that kind of impact.
Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos’ most consistent defensive lineman in the last three seasons, could very well take the other spot. He has a small frame, at only 5’11, but his long arms and constant motor have made him a legitimate pass rushing force to this point in his career. One could draw the comparison to last year’s Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison based on simply those attributes. In fact, the former sack master at Louisville may have already made the comparison himself. Dumervil has already boldly predicted a 16-sack season for himself, but Elvis, come on, you’ve got to win the spot first. Nolan isn’t just going to hand this spot over, and neither are his competition who aren’t lacking motivation.
Competing with him will be the two 2007 defensive end busts under Shanahan’s campaign: Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder. Of the two, Crowder has proven to be the more consistent and effective one, but that doesn’t say much as he played sparingly in his rookie year, and was injured the majority of last year. Moss had always seemed out of position in the 4-3 defensive end spot, though with the switch to the 3-4, he hopes to revitalize his once bright career. He better too, because he may be standing on his last leg in Denver.
Crowder, like Ayers, has the frame that compare to some of the best 3-4 OLB’s in the game. He doesn’t seem to have that pass rushing burst that the others have, however. As a defensive end, Crowder was called on more for his run-stuffing abilities, which are important, but not necessarily the primary attributes of this position.
As far a Jarvis Moss, experts saw him as a better 3-4 OLB prospect than a 4-3 defensive end one, as he has been forced to play in his first two seasons. It’s difficult to forget his explosiveness coming off the edge for the Florida Gators, but he is really going to have to do something special to make this roster. His attitude and work ethic, which let me first point out aren’t horrible by any stretch, don’t necessarily fit the mold that McDaniels is trying to bring in. Moss would be a dark, dark horse to win a starting spot. With his salary cap figure as a former 12th overall pick, I’d even go out on a limb to say he’s a dark horse to make the roster.
Darrell Reid is to me the most intriguing of the bunch. He comes over from the Colts as a special teams ace. Though he is extremely talented and has a great combination of size, speed, and hustle. With the right direction, he could perhaps play himself into the starting spot over Dumervil.
Finally, another interesting battle could take place at the ILB position. I think it’s safe to allocate one of the two spots to last year’s defensive captain and all-pro talent D.J Williams. D.J has been asked to play a new position in each season he has spent as a Bronco. It’s only natural to him to learn a new spot at this time of year, and such he shall do.
Starting next to him in the middle could be veteran Andra Davis, the free-agent signee from the Cleveland Browns. Davis is a tremendous vocal leader, so his contributions could go beyond just his tackling abilities (though it is worth noting he has averaged 103 tackles a year since 2003). At this point, it would seem as though it is his position to lose.
Or perhaps Wesley Woodyard/Spencer Larsen’s to gain. Wesley Woodyard’s ability last year gained attention throughout the league as early as the preseason. His instincts and hard hits gained acclaim throughout Shanahan’s staff. When D.J Williams went down his injury, Woodyard filled in nicely. While he is still very raw, and often left himself out of position, he is a very good prospect for Nolan’s 3-4.
Larsen, who last year became the first player to start a game on offense, defense, and on special teams, will likely remain a special teams ace this year. Though he may not find a starting spot on offense of defense, he will make the roster without a doubt. His crushing hits on special teams, as well as his versatility makes him tremendously valuable. I’d expect to see him all over special teams, and as a 2nd stringer at both fullback and ILB. The kid can really do it all. Hmm, McDaniels is a QB mastermind… Larsen as our starting QB in 2012 anyone?
Hey, anything is possible with this new coaching staff. That’s why I really have no idea who will be running out on the field for our front seven week one in Cincinnati. Only time, and camp, will tell.