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Dumervil Situation Affects D-Line Plans

Posted Mar 15, 2013

Andrew Mason takes a look at the defensive linemen on the roster, and how Friday's news surrounding Elvis Dumervil could change the team's offseason plans.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Friday's widely-reported events revolving around Elvis Dumervil's contract renegotiation and a subsequent fax-machine snafu not only forced the Broncos into an apparent release of the eighth-year veteran, but could have ramifications for the Broncos' offseason plans that go beyond whether or not Dumervil returns to the Broncos.

If the issue is resolved and Dumervil remains with the team, then the entire defensive line becomes a secondary need on draft weekend.  If not, then pass rusher vaults near the top of the Broncos' needs in late April -- which would remain the case even if they use free agency to fill that potential vacancy.

Adding a 30-something veteran free agent to provide edge pressure when they go into nickel and dime packages would lessen the blow of losing Dumervil in the short term, but would likely not be a long-term solution, and returning defensive end Robert Ayers, who could play more extensively if Dumervil does not return, has a contract that expires after this season.

Resolving the situation might involve a bit of a wait-and-see process. That's not necessarily a problem for draft preparation; there's time for the Broncos to adapt to changing needs between now and late April.

But asking a rookie to come in and replicate Dumervil's production -- even if he's a first-rounder in what appears to be a deep crop of pass rushers -- would likely be asking too much. Dumervil had 11 sacks last year; just eight rookie defensive ends in the last 25 years have matched that total. Thus, a veteran free-agent addition would be essential -- at least in the short term -- if Dumervil can't be brought back.

At defensive tackle, the Broncos can breathe easier after this week's re-signing of Kevin Vickerson and subsequent addition of Terrance Knighton. Together, the 330-pounders give the Broncos a massive inside presence, and Knighton's stated plans to watch Vickerson's film to learn how to play next to him offers a strong indication that the two will end up as the first-team pair when the regular season begins.  

On draft weekend, Denver might search for depth and another massive presence to develop in a rotation behind Vickerson and  Knighton. But given Knighton's experience in Jack Del Rio's defense from his years in Jacksonville, Vickerson's smooth adjustment to being 45 pounds heavier last year and Derek Wolfe's potential and ability to rush the passer from the inside, defensive tackle isn't the pressing need it was in previous years.

No matter what happens, the Broncos' defensive line construction resolves around one maxim: having the right tools for the right job, and using them interchangeably.

Linebacker Von Miller usually moved to one of the defensive end slots -- typically left end -- when the Broncos took out a linebacker to go into their nickel package. When Miller moved to a down position, Wolfe shifted inside to defensive tackle. Meanwhile, Dumervil stayed at right defensive end.

All three could be considered every-down players, playing in 80 percent or more of the Broncos' snaps. But everyone else worked on a situational basis, and none of the rest of the defensive linemen -- Ayers, Justin Bannan, Malik Jackson, Sealver Siliga, Mitch Unrein, Vickerson and Ty Warren -- played even half of the defensive snaps.

More and more, the defensive linemen sought by a 4-3 team like the Broncos are to handle specific situations than every down -- and to be versatile enough to swing between the inside and the outside, depending on whether the defense is in a base look or has five or six defensive backs.

Situational need and versatility enhanced the value of Wolfe, last year's top Broncos draft pick. Even though he hovered around 300 pounds, which made him bulky enough to work as a three-technique tackle, he had enough explosion, speed and pass-rushing moves to swing inside. 

Ayers and Jackson aren't as big as Wolfe, but both can also bounce inside in pass-rush situations; they provide the ability to directly relieve Wolfe in case he's injured.

Another name to remember is Jeremy Beal, the 2011 seventh-round pick who tied for the Broncos' preseason lead in sacks last year with two working as an edge rusher. He spent the season on injured reserve, but could be counted on to provide depth, whether Dumervil returns or not.

Beal and Jackson both had a pair of preseason sacks, and given the Broncos' oft-stated emphasis on developing their own players, they could find themselves in expanded rotational roles this year. 

But if the Broncos find value they like in the draft, they could face competition. The team's relative scarcity of pressing needs gives them the freedom to select the best player available at each spot -- which could make for a crowded depth chart up front if those "best players" are defensive linemen.