Denver Broncos: Breaking Down the Defensive Line Improvements

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIMay 31, 2013

ENGLEWOOD, CO - MAY 10:  Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams of the Denver Broncos participates in rookie camp at Dove Valley on May 10, 2013 in Englewood, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

When the Denver Broncos lost defensive end Elvis Dumervil, some thought the defensive line would fall apart. Then, the front office struck.

Denver lost Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens after an odd fax fail this offseason, and it had to make moves to help the line. With the 28th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Denver took Sylvester Williams, a 320-pound defensive tackle.

After adding Shaun Phillips, the organization felt that it had addressed the hole left by Dumervil's departure. The defensive line has depth, and Denver believes that it found a replacement for Dumervil in Phillps.

Did the defensive line improve? Let's take a look.

Shaun Phillips

While Dumervil is more hyped, Phillips and Dumervil weren't too far off in terms of production in 2012.

Phillips registered 9.5 sacks with the San Diego Chargers, and he ranked 21st in the league in that category. The Denver Post's Jeff Legwold wrote that coach John Fox sees Phillips as a Von Miller-type player, which is certainly a compliment.

Miller (Denver's star outside linebacker) and Dumervil were dominant together in 2012, and Phillips and Miller can perform just as well in 2013. Phillips just turned 32 years old, so he should still be able to produce at a high level. Phillips, like Dumervil, is small (250 pounds), but he is an impactful player.

In 2009, Phillips forced seven fumbles, and he followed that up by registering 11 sacks in 2010. In 2011, Phillips intercepted two passes in 12 games, and he had another solid year in 2012. Expect Phillips, who is motivated to make an impact in Denver, to stand out.

With the motivation he has and the performance he has turned in in recent seasons, Phillips should be able to make an monumental impact. Look for Phillips, who will play defensive end in Denver's 4-3 defensive scheme, to fill Dumervil's shoes and help greatly.

Sylvester Williams

Williams doesn't have the experience Phillips has, but he's a solid player who Denver was thrilled to obtain with the 28th pick in this year's draft.

The gigantic defensive tackle can certainly be classified as a steal, as he is extremely athletic and talented. Williams didn't start football until high school, but he picked up on the game rapidly, worked hard and reached the NFL.

In the first six games of North Carolina's 2012 season, Williams accumulated five sacks. He struggled a bit as the season ended, but he still finished with a respectable six sacks. With 13.5 tackles for loss as well, it's clear Williams made his colossal presence felt for the Tar Heels.

In Denver, he'll likely do the same. 330-pound Terrance Knighton was signed at defensive tackle to compete with Kevin Vickerson, and while both are definitely serviceable starters, neither are standout players. Williams, on the other hand, has what it takes to blossom into a legitimate star.

Williams may not dominate right away, as he is extremely inexperienced. However, expect Williams to start from Week 1 and play the majority of every game. By the end of the season, Williams will be a much better player, and he will be hard to stop in the playoffs.

And even at the beginning of the season, when Williams is getting used to the grind of playing in the NFL, he'll be a force.

Quanterus Smith and Terrance Knighton

Quanterus Smith accumulated 12.5 sacks in his final season with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, so it's safe to say that the Broncos got a steal when they picked him in the fifth round.

Smith tore his ACL last November, but he still managed to lead the nation in sacks in his 11 games. Smith registered 2.5 sacks against D.J. Fluker and powerhouse Alabama's dominant offensive line, meaning that he can dominate in the NFL.

Phillips and Derek Wolfe will likely start the season as the defensive ends, but Smith could work his way into that rotation as well. He's not likely to make a big impact at the beginning of the season, but he could blossom into a contributor by the end of the year.

Knighton's performance hasn't shown up much on the stat sheet over the course of his four-year career, but he has the physical tools to be a dominant run-stopper. Knighton, who is 6'3", also batted down four passes in 2010, so he can make an impact against the pass as well.

With only Knighton, Williams and Vickerson in serious competition for the two defensive tackle spots, Knighton will likely see the field on a large chunk of Denver's defensive snaps. Denver could also move the 300-pound Wolfe to defensive tackle on some plays, which would allow Smith to see some snaps and gain some experience at defensive end.

Neither of these players will make huge impacts this year, but both will make their presence felt. Both can come up with the occasional big play (Knighton has logged 7.5 sacks in his four-year career), and both can take steps towards becoming forces in 2014.

If all goes well for the two, they'll become above-average starters by the end of the year and forces in the future.

How Will Everyone Mesh Together?

With a plethora of serviceable starters, some deserving players will have to be relegated to a bench role.

Williams, Knighton, Vickerson, Smith, Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Phillips are the six players who are most likely to start, and the Broncos still could bring back defensive tackles Justin Bannan and Ty Warren. Wolfe is versatile, and he could definitely step in as a defensive tackle.

Right now, Wolfe, Phillips, Williams and Vickerson are the likely starters. Vickerson is smaller than Knighton, but he accumulated eight more tackles in 2012 and already has experience with the Broncos.

Smith isn't going to start in Week 1, but he'll play more and more each week. If the Broncos ease Smith into the NFL, he should be able to chip in. He dominated against Alabama's offensive line, one that was chock full of NFL starters.

Ayers is going to get a chance to play, and he'll likely see the field on running downs. However, Phillips is productive and Wolfe has the size to dominate at defensive end, and I think those two will eat into Ayers' playing time.

In other words, I don't see Ayers starting.

With Wolfe, Phillips, Williams and Vickerson, there should be no problems. Wolfe and Phillips combined for 15.5 sacks last year, and both should be able to get ample pressure on the quarterback again. Phillips, Wolfe and Miller combined for 34 sacks, and the three should wreak havoc on quarterbacks and torture offensive coordinators.

Dumervil and Miller worked well together, and Phillips, who is very similar in size to Dumervil, will form a formidable tandem with Miller. Phillips is speedy and can work around offensive tackles, while Wolfe is big and can use his strength to get by. This combination of strength and athleticism will allow Denver's defensive ends to get by big and athletic tackles.

Why? Because Phillips, who ran a respectable 4.69 40-yard dash, can get around big tackles with his quickness, while Wolfe can overpower smaller linemen.

For the defensive tackles, Williams has the ability to shed blocks and make his prowess felt in the running game, and he should be racking up a decent amount of tackles.

Vickerson ran a 5.00 40-yard dash, which is lightning-fast for a 6'5", 290-pound defensive tackle. He and Williams will be all over the middle of the defensive line, and they should be able to at least slow down runners to give linebackers easy tackles.

Knighton isn't as fast, but because of his size, no one will be able to run through him. With Vickerson's speed, Williams' athleticism and Knighton's size, any combination of Denver's defensive tackles (Williams and Vickerson, Vickerson and Knighton and Williams and Knighton) should allow them to stop running backs.

With a wealth of talent on the defensive line, it's hard to expect that the defensive line will fail to give headaches to opposing offenses.


Expect everyone to mesh together well, and expect a defensive line that tied for first with 52 sacks to exceed the lofty expectations set by last year's masterful performance.

Denver's defensive line is as good as anyone's, and it's going to prove that this season. General manager John Elway nailed it this offseason, and he's going to be rewarded with significant defensive line improvements.


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