2011 Denver Broncos DT Breakdown: How Much Improvement Can Fans Expect?
When John Fox came to Denver, he knew exactly what he was getting.
He was getting a headache in the ongoing quarterback controversy between Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.
He was getting an inexperienced EVP of Football Operations in John Elway.
But most importantly, he was inheriting the 32nd ranked defense in the NFL last year.
With that in mind, GM Brian Xanders, along with Elway and Fox, have done a lot of work to bolster the defense since the offseason began, but none of those moves may have as big an affect as the Broncos' decisions at Defensive Tackle.
With a porous defensive line in a 3-4 defensive alignment, the 2010 Broncos defenders couldn't stop the run at all. Ballcarriers averaged 4.7 yards per carry against the Broncos last year, and only the Buffalo Bills, at 4.8 yards per carry, gave up more on average. So a major overhaul was a crucial step for Denver in 2011.
Gone is Jamal Williams, the San Diego Chargers' legend that Denver picked up last offseason, as is Justin Bannan, who didn't make enough of an impact last year to justify his roster position. In fact, the only defensive line starter returning from last year is Kevin Vickerson, who started 12 games at DE last year. Vickerson will have to battle the Broncos' latest free agent DT acquisitions to even ensure a spot on the Broncos roster this year.
So with a new cast of characters at DT, and the Broncos reverting to the 4-3 alignment, how much improvement can Broncos fans expect this season? We'll break down each DT to find out.
Warren, the 13th overall selection in the 2003 draft, is likely on the down slope of a great career. After earning three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots his first four years in the league, Warren has grown into one of the best 3-4 NT in the league. He has started 92 of 105 games since being selected in the first round by New England in 2003, recording 496 tackles, 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Now, with Warren presumably lining up in a 1 technique, on the center's right or left shoulder, he should be able to bring his aggressive means of dealing with double teams to Denver's defense while also having the chance to get a few more one-on-one opportunities in passing situations.
The worry with Warren is his health. Although he endured his battles against injuries well in the past, a hip injury in training camp ended his season before it could even begin. With the emergence of Vince Wilfork, Warren became expendable, and the Broncos won in a bidding war against the Dallas Cowboys and Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys and brother of Jets coach Rex Ryan.
While Warren may have lost a step coming off his last injury, the Broncos felt like he was a worthwhile enough risk to commit to as the starting DT going in to 2011. Warren, when healthy, should provide a major upgrade to the defensive front, as offenses will have to compensate for his disruptive force inside while simultaneously dealing with DE Elvis Dumervil and rookie OLB Von Miller on the edges.
Since his days as a All-American at Florida State ended, Bunkley has been working hard to escape the 'bust' tag that seemed to follow him through his years in Philadelphia. While Bunkley's production in college was top-notch, and he seems to have the measurables (44 reps of 225 on bench press at the NFL Combine) coaches look for in a defensive tackle, he remained largely ineffective for the Eagles. He battled injuries last year in Philly and eventually lost his starting job to Antonio Dixon. Once DT Cullen Jenkins was brought in by the Eagles, it was only a matter of time until Bunkley saw his walking papers.
Bunkley's arrival in Denver, though, could very well provide his road to redemption. He's a veteran presence with great experience, having started in 56 of his 72 games and recording six sacks. Bunkley should be able to surpass his competition for the starting DT (3-technique) spot alongside Ty Warren before the season begins.
Marcus Thomas, the Broncos' fourth round selection from the 2007 draft, has been as consistent as any other Broncos DTs over the last few years. In 2010, Thomas recorded career highs in both solo tackles and total tackles (29 and 35, respectively) while also providing one sack.
Thomas was a major priority for the Broncos this offseason, but he only signed a one-year deal, meaning that this will be a make or break season for Thomas in Denver. Thomas will rotate in regularly with both Warren and Bunkley at the 3 and 1 techniques. If things go well, Thomas could very well be eyeing a starting DT position in Denver over the next three to five years, but if not, expect him to test the free agency waters again in 2012 without much resistance from the Broncos.
Kevin Vickerson re-signed with the Broncos this offseason, providing them with one returning starter from the defensive line. Vickerson was a bright spot on an otherwise shoddy defense last year, so the Broncos rewarded him with a two-year $4.75 million dollar contract before the lockout in March.
Vickerson should see a lot of action this year as the Broncos evaluate their long-term position on the massive run stopper. Look for Vickerson to rotate in regularly on first and second downs and to control the middle of the line in goal-line situations. Vickerson may see extended action if Ty Warren continues to have lingering ankle issues, or if his recovery from his labral tear regresses.
Jeremy Jarmon's 2010 was anything but normal. First, former Broncos coach Mike Shannahan made the switch to the 3-4, so Jarmon lost a bit of weight so that he could play OLB in the system. When progress wasn't being made by Jarmon throughout the offseason, he packed on the weight necessary to line up as a DE. Jarmon then battled injuries throughout the year, only playing in five games throughout the entire season.
Because Jarmon is a bit of a "tweener" at 286 lbs., expect the Broncos to use his versatility to their strengths. While Jarmon doesn't quite have the talent to beat any of the presumed starters, that doesn't mean he won't see a lot of playing time in 2011. Look for the Broncos to use his big body as a DE in obvious running scenarios while also playing him at DT in nickel and dime formations.
Ryan McBean regressed a bit in 2010, after a 2009 season in which he started 14 games. McBean was relegated to the bench after former coach Josh McDaniels brought in Jamal Williams last year, but he did appear in all 16 regular season games for the first time in his NFL career.
McBean was a fourth-round selection by the Steelers in 2007, but was picked up by the Broncos in 2008 after appearing in only one game for the Steelers. After spending 2008 on the practice squad, many felt like McBean was on the right track in 2009, when the Broncos first made the transition to the 3-4. McBean, playing the double-team-taking-on NT position, was credited with 19 solo tackles in 2009. In 2010, that number would drop to just 12.
After a disappointing 2010, the 2011 training camp is a big opportunity for McBean to prove he can be more disruptive in handling one-on-one blocking. If not, he may be looking for employment elsewhere.
Leonard, at this point in his career, seems more like a "camp body" and less like someone with a real shot to make the 53-man active roster. After signing with San Diego as an undrafted college free agent in 2007, Leonard subsequently spent the first week on the Chargers' practice squad before being signed by the St. Louis Rams, only to be cut three weeks later.
Since then, Leonard has bounced around the league, playing for Cleveland, Carolina and New England before signing on with Denver. Leonard showed signs of growth in Carolina, playing in two games, starting one and recording six tackles before being placed on the injured reserve with a fractured ankle. Leonard is likely the first on the outside looking in after the Broncos go through roster cuts, but if anyone above him on the depth chart underperforms or gets injured, don't be surprised if John Fox looks to Leonard to add depth to the position.
Mitch Unrein spent the preseason in Houston in 2010 before being waived by the Texans in early September. After a year away from the game, Unrein was signed to a future/reserve contract by the Denver Broncos in January.
Unrein was a three time all-Mountain West selection at Wyoming, and started every game in his Junior and Senior season. While Unrein has a great motor, the abundance of veteran DTs signed by the Broncos will make it tough for him to make the active roster. Unrein should be on the practice squad this year with the chance to move up to the active roster if Broncos' defensive line continues to remain relatively injury-prone, as it has in years past.