When Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders inherited the first roster in NFL history to relinquish a three game division lead with three games to play, it was obvious the Denver Broncos would have a much different look in 2009. Despite a very active offseason, the team faces many questions about their roster heading into training camp – namely on the defensive side of the ball.
Fresh off one of the worst defensive performances in franchise history, McDaniels hired former San Francisco Head Coach and experience defensive mind Mike Nolan to rebuild the Broncos defense into a 3-4 unit – creating new question marks for what was already one of the league’s weakest defenses. Here’s a look at the Broncos’ three weakest positions as the team prepares for the 2009 season:
Nose Tackle–Heading into the NFL Draft, many experts had the Broncos targeting Boston College’s B.J. Raji and Ron Brace as potential prospects. Instead of attempting to trade up into the top ten to select Raji or using the #37 pick acquired from Seattle to pick Brace, the Broncos ignored the position through all seven rounds of the draft.
The team’s leading contenders to fill the position are Ronald Fields, Marcus Thomas and Carlton Powell. Fields has experience (as a reserve) in Nolan’s defense from his time in San Francisco while Thomas and Powell are new to the position and unproven as NFL defensive lineman. A sleeper is rookie Chris Baker, an undrafted free agent out of Hampton with enormous character questions but intriguing talent.
Going without a proven nose tackle may be a recipe for disaster as division rivals San Diego, Kansas City and Oakland all feature running attacks that could take advantage of a soft interior defense. Without a major run stuffer in the middle of the defense to command double teams and allow linebackers to flow freely, the Broncos’ defense will not only be vulnerable to the run but the playaction passing attack as well.
Defensive End– Like the nose tackle, these players are primarily run stuffers however they look to penetrate offenses more often than their defensive line counterparts. LSU’s Tyson Jackson would’ve been a strong candidate for the Broncos in the 1st round had he been available. With Jackson going #3 overall, the club avoided selecting a defensive end in the 1st round, and every other round, of the 2009 NFL Draft.
The team did sign two interesting undrafted free agents in Rulon Davis from Cal and Everette Pedescleaux from Northern Iowa. Both players, while raw, could push for a spot in the defensive line rotation. The Broncos resigned Kenny Peterson who has experience playing the technique and is coming off a surprising season, while both Thomas and Powell will likely be given looks at the defensive end spot which may fit their penetrating skill sets better than the nose tackle position. An interesting name to keep an eye on is 3rdyear man Ryan McBean who has been working with the 1stunit throughout offseason mini camps.
The 3-4 defense is only as effective as its three-man defensive line and without pillars at the defensive end position, it’s highly likely the unit will struggle in 2009. The team heads into training camp with plenty of candidates but no players at the position with a history of production. If the Broncos fail to find capable defensive ends, not only will the unit struggle in stopping the run, but the outside linebacker’s ability to rush the passer becomes much more difficult without a collapsing pocket.
Outside Linebacker– Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. Defensive success in the NFL is all about getting to the quarterback and for years the Broncos have struggled mightily in this area. One of the biggest adjustments for the defense in moving to the 3-4 is the conversion of Elvis Dumervil, Jarvis Moss, Darrell Reid and Tim Crowder to outside linebacker from 4-3 defensive ends.
In the 3-4 alignment, it is the responsibility of the outside linebackers to rush the passer and it will be very interesting to see how the Broncos’ pass rushers make the transition. The most pressure will be on Dumervil to make the adjustment smoothly. Not only will he be rushing out of a two-point stance, but he’ll have coverage responsibilities as well. The change is a major one but may better suit his smaller size and provide more opportunities coming off a disappointing 2008 season.
The other player to keep an eye on is 1st round pick Robert Ayers, selected 18thoverall out of Tennessee. Ayers played as a 4-3 defensive end in college but is projected as a 3-4 outside linebacker by the Broncos. He has outstanding size and athletic ability, but it will be a significant challenge to adapt to playing a new roll while adjusting to the professional game simultaneously. Despite this undertaking, Ayers will be expected to compete for the starting outside linebacker position across from Dumervil in hopes the two can provide a much needed pass rush.
The Broncos defensive hopes are largely pinned on this group’s ability to adjust to their new rolls. While Dumervil, Ayers and even Moss project well to the position physically, the reality is that the Broncos currently have no players on the roster with experience as outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense. Learning an entirely new skill set is difficult enough, but doing so while being counted on to make an impact immediately may be too much to count on.
For the Broncos weaknesses at these and other positions, the club has done well improving several other areas of the roster throughout the offseason. The running back, wide receiver and defensive back positions are all deeper and more talented than a season ago following acquisitions in free agency and the draft. Despite these improvements, if McDaniels and his staff fail to get production from the nose tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker positions in their revamped defense – it will be a very long season for the Broncos.