Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Starters: Terrance Knighton (DT), Sylvester Williams (DT), DeMarcus Ware (DE), Derek Wolfe (DE)
Backups: Malik Jackson (DE), Quanterus Smith (DE), Marvin Austin (DT), Mitch Unrein (DT)
What was once a weakness is now a strength for the Broncos. With only a few moves, the Broncos have the most talented group of defensive linemen they’ve had in years.
The beef in the middle can stuff the run and get interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Terrance Knighton was benched for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, but he came to Denver in 2013 and his career was rejuvenated under former Jaguars head coach (and current Broncos defensive coordinator) Jack Del Rio. Knighton is now a fan-favorite and a dominant player in the middle of the line who regularly takes on double teams.
In the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected defensive tackle Sylvester Williams out of the University of North Carolina. Williams took some time to get going as a rookie, but when he stepped into the starting lineup he played well. Entering his second year, Williams has grown and developed even further. He’ll ride the momentum he built in the second half of last season into an even more productive 2014.
DeMarcus Ware was arguably the biggest free-agent move for the Broncos—or any team across the NFL. The future Hall of Fame pass-rusher should be in for a bounce-back season after a disappointing 2013, when he played out of position, was hurt and compiled only six sacks. Ware also gives the Broncos a mentor for linebacker Von Miller. That’s something they’ve missed since losing Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens during the 2013 offseason.
Derek Wolfe suffered scary seizure-like symptoms last year after complications from a spinal injury he suffered in the preseason. Wolfe is now healthy and back to 295 pounds. He’s a good edge-setter as a run-defender, and he’s tenacious when rushing the passer.
The Broncos group of backups could be starters elsewhere in the league.
Malik Jackson only keeps getting better with time. He’s got the length and strength to easily move opponents out of his way en route to the quarterback. Jackson can play outside at defensive end, but he can also be moved inside to defensive tackle in certain packages.
Quanterus Smith returns to the field after missing his rookie year in 2013 due to a knee injury he suffered in two years ago at Western Kentucky. He has shown good speed, lateral agility and explosion this year in camp. He’ll be a wild card as a pass-rusher, and Smith could push for five or more sacks in 2014.
Mitch Unrein is a blue-collar guy who can do whatever is asked of him. He’ll work well as a rotational defensive tackle, can rush the passer and can even play fullback on offense if called upon.
Marvin Austin is finally healthy and ready to play up to his enormous potential as a pro. The 2011 second-round pick by New York Giants has bounced among four different teams during his short pro career. Problems staying healthy and motivated have plagued him during that time. He’s getting a fresh (and final?) shot with the Broncos, and Austin has responded well to this career near-death experience.