It's that time of year again.
Unbridled optimism is overflowing from all 32 NFL headquarters across the country. While many of these teams have good reason to be optimistic, the rest are trying to reign in the inevitable panic that can quickly consume an eager fan base.
I am going to examine the turbulent off season that has defined the 2009 Denver Broncos, and let you, the "glass half _____ reader", draw your own conclusions.
Let's start by taking a look at the side of the ball that has been absolutely excruciating to watch over the last two and a half seasons. This defense will decide the Bronco's season.
We all cringed when the Broncos defense would trot on to the field with an obvious lack of swagger. We all cringed when Nate Webster and Jamie Winborn would over-celebrate an ordinary tackle after a 15-yard gain. We all cringed when the once-proud defensive backfield would routinely line up across journeyman receivers with an enormous cushion, allowing them to compile career-best stats.
We all cringed whenever a quarterback with working limbs lined up under center and scanned across our wobbly unit with a grin on his face. It was hard to follow the games with all of the cringing going on.
The good news for Broncos fans? Change is on the way. The most encouraging change? Addition by subtraction.
Nate Webster grabbing air, Dre Bly chasing from behind, the M&M safeties allowing opponents to march safely down the field—those days are over, and these roster decisions may be the most overlooked improvements that could get this thing turned around.
Still, plenty of question marks remain for this defense, starting with how the Broncos holdovers will transition to their new responsibilities in Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense.
Can the defensive ends transform into legitimate outside linebackers?
Elvis Dumervil will be rushing the quarterback from a standing position, and he will be asked to drop back into zone coverages to disrupt short slants and shadow running backs releasing from the backfield.
Don't lose sleep over this one. "Doom" has outstanding athleticism, and he has been an absolute beast of a pass-rusher throughout his football career. He has exceeded expectations at every level, and he has shown a competitive fire that cannot be extinguished.
If the so-called experts still doubt him, let them jump on to the long list of "experts" with egg on their face. Pair him up with Robert Ayers, whom widely respected draft analyst Mike Mayock dubbed "this years' DeMarcus Ware", and you can justify salivating at the potential of these pocket-collapsing outside linebackers.
Can D.J. Williams successfully move back to the middle? Why not?
Much was made of Williams' previous stint as a 4-3 middle linebacker, and he was criticized for taking a step backwards in his development. I have to say it: Never in my life have I seen someone take so much heat for quietly switching to a new position and finishing second in the NFL with 141 total tackles. What may have started out as a rocky transition quickly turned into poetry in motion. Williams is a versatile, sideline-to-sideline, three-down player that can be counted on in coverage and run support.
Something tells me that Nolan can find a way to utilize D.J.'s skill set in a similar way that Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis were featured. By his side will be a battle-tested veteran, and a great stack-and-shed run stopper in Andra Davis. These two should combine to form a formidable duo in the middle. That is, if Wesley Woodyard can be kept off the field.
Can the new secondary produce more turnovers? That shouldn't be difficult.
There is plenty of room for improvement in this area, and they have drastically upgraded the secondary in every position outside of the shutdown spot currently occupied by Champ Bailey. Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill have shown to be tough, hard-nosed defensive backs with a knack for getting their hands on the ball. Aside from being a good fit with this new scheme, these two have already played big roles in a turnaround season with the Miami Dolphins last year.
Possibly the most controversial offseason move was the trade of the Broncos No. 1 pick next year for a second-round pick this year that was used to take Wake Forest defensive back Alphonso Smith. The jury is still out on this decision, but anyone who has watched this young man play has to be impressed. All he has ever done is make plays.
Don't tell him that he is 5'9". This little giant has shown an outstanding ability to mirror receivers and drive on the ball in the air. He has remarkable ball skills, and he doesn't get beat for touchdowns. He is a bulldog in run support, and he has racked up more sacks than some of the nation's top pass rushers. Stop me when you are discouraged. He intercepted 21 balls over his college career—ballhawk is an understatement.
Solidifying the defensive backfield is a man that needs no qualification. This guy embodies what football is all about. I don't care if he is 35 or 55; Brian Dawkins plays football going mach five with his hair on fire. Dawkins was aggressively pursued this offseason for what he had shown this last season, not for his name. Not only will Dawkins bring the wood—he will bring intensity, he will bring orchestration, and most importantly, he will bring a brand of leadership that we have not seen in Denver since Al Wilson was carted off the field. Dramatic secondary improvement. Dramatic.
Finally, the biggest question mark of them all: Can the Broncos defensive line shock the world?
Wow. Even a spin doctor like me would have to dig in for this argument, but here it goes: The truth is, no one knows.What we do know is that the Denver front office is taking a lot of unnecessary flak for not addressing the defensive line in the draft. The two defensive linemen that were identified as first-round worthy were LSU's Tyson Jackson, and Boston College's B.J. Raji, both of which were picked well ahead of the Broncos at No. 12.
What we also know now is that Raji is now being moved from nose tackle to defensive end for the Packers. Take that however you want to, but I would have been more than concerned if they had moved up to grab the consensus "best nose tackle" in the draft to later find out that he was not such a great fit there after all.
The depth at defensive tackle/end was paper-thin this year in both free agency and the draft. So what do you do? Reach for the next-best lineman and hope it works out? No. You take a difference-maker at another position of need, and you coach up the young talent on your roster until you can grab another difference-maker at a later time. Reaching is what got us into this mess.
So who will step up? Let's start by looking at the anchor in the middle. Many Bronco fans have offered up their predictions about an undrafted free agent rookie out of Hampton University named Chris Baker emerging as the starting nose tackle. While Baker does possess the requisite size for the position, I am not ready to jump on this wagon just yet. Instead, I am looking to a young talented player that has been waiting to break out.
Marcus Thomas has the potential to be a legitimate threat at the nose tackle position this season. Hear me out. Mike Nolan's defense is not your typical 3-4. The nose tackle's responsibility is not going to be occupying multiple blockers to keep them off of the linebackers like other 3-4 defenses. Nolan wants his defenders to attack and disrupt. The defense will dictate the play, not the other way around.
This plays to Thomas's strengths. When Thomas was a dominant force on an aggressive Florida defense, his assignment was to get into the backfield and wreak havoc. Thomas will now have the option of shooting either gap between the center and the guards to put pressure on the offense. Thomas has said that he has been gaining weight as well, and while this might indicate that he could slow down, remember this guy was doing back flips at 305 pounds. He can stand to gain ten to fifteen more and still be effective.
Ronald Fields will serve as an ideal rotational guy that can help assimilate the other linemen to Nolan's brand of defense.
Defensive end is a little murkier for me, but I like the size, and I like the competition. The favorites for the end spots at this point would be Ryan McBean and Kenny Peterson. Both have the measurables for the position, but neither inspires a wealth of confidence at this point.
The good news is that there is plenty of youth and potential. McBean fits the prototypical size requirements, and though he has yet to make a name for himself, he was simply a casualty of a very talented Pittsburgh roster. Peterson actually has been a solid contributor over the last two seasons, serving as a pass-rushing defensive tackle. He should be noticeably more comfortable playing in space, and still be able to anchor down and set the edge against the run. If neither of these two steps up, the door will be open for the likes of Carlton Powell, Everette Pedescleaux, Rulon Davis, and others.
Whether they reach their full potential or not, the Broncos will be much bigger and stronger along the front of their defense. The linebackers will have a solid mix of proven contributors and star potential. The defensive backs will play with a mean streak and create more turnovers. The Broncos defense will not be the same defense. That's a good thing, right?
(Part 1 of 2)