The Denver Broncos had zero sacks in the Super Bowl, and they had 11 fewer sacks in 2013 than they did in 2012.
With Von Miller missing a lot of time and Elvis Dumervil playing in Baltimore, Denver's pass rush wasn't the same. Shaun Phillips carried the unit for a long time, accumulating 10 sacks, but his production started to decrease near the end of the year. He had just one sack in his last six regular-season games.
In the Super Bowl, Phillips and the rest of the pass rush failed to step up. The Broncos didn't have Miller, and they didn't have a sack either. Russell Wilson threw for 206 yards and two touchdowns on just 25 passing attempts, and the Seattle Seahawks coasted 43-8.
Was Denver’s pass rush the biggest problem? No. But it certainly didn’t help.
Consequently, many are hoping for the Broncos to make a big splash in that area. Greg Hardy and Brian Orakpo are among some of the quality pass-rushers available this offseason, and if Denver prioritizes the pass rush, it could probably lure a top-tier defensive end in.
But if it’s smart, it won't do that.
What Denver needs is an impact player in the secondary. The Broncos' lack of pressure in the Super Bowl hurt, but a sack or two wouldn't have changed the game.
An interception, on the other hand, could have changed everything. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was mediocre, Champ Bailey was burned repeatedly and fill-in Tony Carter was poor as well. As for the safeties, Mike Adams and Duke Ihenacho were nothing more than average.
Denver needs to improve the secondary, but it also needs to retain some key players. Its first priority must be re-signing the freakishly athletic Rodgers-Cromartie, who graded out positively in all but five of his 18 games and finished fourth in coverage among all corners.
It also has to sign a quality safety, though, to force turnovers, make big plays and add physicality to the defense. Denver must shell out money to Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward, Jairus Byrd, Bernard Pollard or whichever safety they look to sign.
The Broncos, which, as Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey stated, should have about $22 million to play with (factoring in money that will be paid to draft picks), need to sign players at other positions, though. They have critical free agents hitting the market at cornerback, wide receiver, guard, middle linebacker and defensive end.
Denver must re-sign at least some of these players. Harris, who was a lockdown corner before his ACL injury, is a top priority, and the Broncos would also benefit from signing the cheap but productive Zane Beadles.
The Broncos will also look at middle linebackers to replace Wesley Woodyard, who likely won't come back after struggling as a middle linebacker in 2013. However, because middle linebackers aren’t heavily valued in Denver’s scheme, the Broncos won’t pay a lot for one.
Still, signing someone like Daryl Smith or Dan Connor to help in pass coverage and spending, say, a third-round draft pick on a run-stopping middle linebacker wouldn’t be a bad idea.
The wide receiver conundrum isn't so simple. The productive Eric Decker is going to lure in wads of cash, and the Broncos likely won’t be able to pay him that cash. Instead, they could look for a cheaper but more reliable option, such as Anquan Boldin or Hakeem Nicks.
However, Denver would still have to pay up. And that would hurt its payroll.
It could be argued that adding, say, Hardy would be just as good as signing cheaper players. However, the Broncos need to sign players at weak positions, and the defensive line isn't weak.
Phillips and Robert Ayers are impending free agents, and Denver likely will only keep one. Ayers was solid when he played, notching 5.5 sacks, and Phillips was a playmaker. Both will be cheap, and Denver could sign one (preferably the more consistent Ayers) and still keep racking up sacks.
Why? Because of Miller and the other pass-rushing talent.
Miller piled up 18.5 sacks in 2012 and even when he had just five in 2013, Denver finished 13th in the league with 41 sacks. Phillips did well, but many other players contributed. Malik Jackson broke out with six sacks, and he could do more in 2014. Terrance Knighton and Derek Wolfe had three each, and Wolfe missed five games.
In 2014, others will contribute as well. Sylvester Williams came on with two sacks in Denver's last three regular-season games, and he's finally starting to adjust to the rigors of the NFL. The defensive tackle is known for his athleticism pass-rushing prowess, and he should be much improved in 2014.
Additionally, Quanterus Smith will be back. Like Phillips, he is inconsistent, but he's also productive. He tallied 2.5 sacks against Alabama's powerhouse offensive line in 2012, but he then tore his ACL. However, he should be fully healthy for the upcoming season.
Denver already has a wealth of talent on the defensive line. If it selects a pass-rusher in, say, the third round of this talent-rich NFL draft, it should be just fine. In fact, it could be argued that these Broncos have more pass-rushing talent than the 2012 unit that tied for the league lead with 52 sacks.
But without a good secondary, that wouldn’t matter much. Denver has to prioritize the secondary in free agency, which would improve its 27th-ranked pass defense. It needs to get the ball in the hands of the record-setting offense with stops and turnovers forced.
Using money on ball-hawking, physical defensive backs is the best way to do that. Adding pass-rushers might help, but it wouldn’t make as much of a difference in the turnover department. Hardy and Michael Bennett, arguably the second-best defensive end on the market, only forced one fumble apiece last season.
Bennett and Hardy could help in other ways, but they would be replacing capable players at inflated prices. Denver doesn't need another Dumervil when it's laden with talent on the defensive line.
Because with Miller, Smith, Wolfe and Ayers, the Broncos have all they need at a perfect price.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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