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Broncos Position Breakdown: Defensive Line

Posted Apr 15, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason breaks down the Broncos' defensive line and pass rush entering 2014.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Up front and among the edge pass rushers, there were two infusions of talent.

The one that snatched the headlines, of course, was the signing of former Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware to fortify the edge pass rush. A 3-4 outside linebacker for most of his career, Ware will be listed as a defensive end in the Broncos' 4-3 scheme, but will see work in multiple stances.

"There are situations where DeMarcus will have his hands down and situations where he will be in a two-point [stance]. We’ve done that quite a bit with Von Miller," Head Coach John Fox noted at the owners' meeting last month. "It’s a comfort level even on their part.

"I think too much is made sometimes of a 3-4 or a 4-3 [defense]. They are all kind of the same. I think [Ware] can be productive in either [scheme]."

The second infusion of talent is headlined by Miller, because it comes from players that were already under their control.

By Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos were without a solid core of players who can disrupt an offense: outside linebacker and sub-package pass-rushing end Von Miller, defensive end/tackle Derek Wolfe, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. All were starters; all were lost to the Broncos between Week 12 and the playoffs.

"It was fun putting the magnets back up on the board and taking them off IR and putting them back on the roster," Elway said in February. "All of a sudden the team looked a lot better after we got those magnets back where they should (be)."

Their returns should help ease the losses of Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips, key contributors who signed with the Giants and Titans, respectively, in free agency. The expected growth of 2012 draft pick Malik Jackson and 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams is also expected to provide an upgrade; Jackson was a revelation who provided a strong interior pass rush in sub packages, while Williams learned from veteran Terrance Knighton after being pressed into service and showed improvement over his two months as a first-teamer. Mitch Unrein also factors into the mix at defensive tackle; in three seasons he has developed into a solid rotational player who provides quality, experienced depth.

But when Miller returns this year, all eyes will be on him. His talent and ceiling are arguably the highest of any player at his position in the league, and even coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he will be expected to produce. But last year was a step backward for him: the six-game suspension for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, minor brushes with the law and finally, a performance in the nine games that he played that was not up to the standard he set in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

"He's got to put last year behind him, and hopefully he learned his lesson from last year. He needs to get back to playing football and being the Von that he can be," Elway said at the Scouting Combine in February.

"I think that he has grown up a lot. I think he did a good job to adjusting, even though it affected him during the year -- it had to have, with everything that went on with him -- he's done a tremendous job of doing the right things and everything he's supposed to be doing. So hopefully he can continue to do that, because we'd love Von to be back to the Von we know he can be."

If that is the case, with Ware on the opposite side, the Broncos could have the most potent edge pass rush in the league. With good health and the development of Lerentee McCray and Quanterus Smith -- a pair of potential pass rushers who spent their rookie season of 2013 on injured reserve -- along with returning practice-squad and backup players like Hall Davis, John Youboty and Sione Fua, the Broncos appear to have plenty of competition lined up for training camp, and plenty of potential, as well.

But with all that said, the success of the front four and pass rush will, above all else, boil down to Miller's recovery and how well Ware fits.