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Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Posted Jul 11, 2013

Analyst Andrew Mason breaks down what to look for among the defensive line group once training camp starts two weeks from today.

"The important thing is not to recreate the individual. The important thing is to recreate the aggregate."

-- Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, Moneyball, page 141

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Last year, no one had more sacks than the Broncos, who finished the season with 52. When coupled with 160 hurries, as measured by ProFootballFocus.com, and a league-high 364 yards lost on the 52 sacks, it can be argued that the Broncos had the best pass rush in the league.

Only Von Miller provided more of any of those numbers than Elvis Dumervil, whose seven-season Broncos career ended in a flurry of hurried faxes that were too late to prevent an onerous guarantee from kicking in, necessitating his release.

A month later, the Broncos signed ex-Charger Shaun Phillips to help fill the void. But given that the ex-Charger is likely to assume a rotational role and looks to be behind Miller on the depth chart -- then it's clear that replacing Dumervil doesn't merely fall on Phillips' shoulders.

If the Broncos are to hit the 50-sack plateau again -- which they haven't done in consecutive seasons since 1991-92 -- it won't be because Phillips replaces 100 percent of Dumervil's pass-rush production. It will be because Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson and others pick up the slack.

"There’s no way you can replace what Elvis did for us production-wise," Miller said. "But I feel like if we all take a percentage of what he did -- if I step my game up five percent, Derek Wolfe steps his game up five percent -- everybody just takes a little piece of what him leaving has taken from us, I feel like we can definitely get it done."

If it's Wolfe who ends up picking up more of the slack than others, then it will represent a change in how the Broncos amass their sacks -- from the tackle slots on the inside rather than the ends. Wolfe lines up at end in the base 4-3 defense, but when the Broncos go into their nickel and dime packages, Wolfe shifted inside last year, and is expected to do so again. It worked for six sacks by Wolfe in his rookie season -- and it could have been more.

"I know the type of year that he should've had statistically last year," Miller said. "I probably got lucky with three or four of those sacks and took three or four of those sacks away from him. So I already know what's in store for him this season."

Last year, just eight of the Broncos' 52 sacks came from players who primarily rushed the passer from inside: Wolfe's six and Kevin Vickerson's two. But as passing games quicken and quarterbacks deliver the football faster, disrupting the pocket from inside becomes more essential. Thus, with Miller established on the flank, Denver opened two consecutive drafts with Wolfe and Sylvester Williams, both of whom were stellar pass rushers in college.

"Most rookies have a ways to go, but he's a pretty quick learner," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "He's quick off the ball. He's got some natural rush ability.

Between Williams, Wolfe, free-agent pickup Terrance Knighton and returning starter Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos expect to generate enough push from the inside to not need 11 sacks from the defensive end spot vacated by Dumervil.

But replacing Dumervil also means replacing the leadership of a team captain. A decent chunk of that could also fall on Wolfe's shoulders -- although as with his pass-rushing ability, the solution will be collaborative.

"You can just tell when we're working out, there's a lot of guys, leaders coming out of nowhere, guys that weren't really talking the year before," Miller said. "Elvis had that leadership he had established over so many years. But now somebody will rise during the offseason period, training camp coming around, the guys who make plays on the field. Somebody will fill that leadership void."

THE DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: THE BASICS

Robert Ayers: After a year out of the starting lineup, he returns at a vital juncture in his career. An every-down role is a possibility, if he plays well enough to reduce the need for a pass-rush specialist to substitute for him in nickel and dime packages. But he has just 6.5 sacks for his career, and even though he flourished in his most extended action last year at Carolina (one sack, five tackles and two passes defensed after Dumervil was injured).

Derek Wolfe: Perhaps the most promising sign for Wolfe last year was that he didn't hit the "rookie wall" into which so many young players smash in the final weeks, playing games that don't exist in a 12-game college schedule. Half of Wolfe's six sacks came in the last three games of 2012, with one sack each game. If you believe in momentum from one season to the next, Wolfe has plenty of it.

Terrance Knighton: Del Rio drafted him as a head coach in Jacksonville, and thought enough of his progress there to bring him aboard after a pair of coaching changes left Knighton out of the mix in north Florida. "I refer to him as a dancing bear type, because he's a huge man that has the feet to go sideline to sideline," Del Rio said.

Kevin Vickerson: He could be half of a big run-stuffing pairing with Knighton when the Broncos are in their base package. But the more seasoned Vickerson also has a few things to teach Knighton. "I think we're very similar in how we play," Knighton said of Vickerson. "I'm a bit quieter on the field. I keep to myself. He's more of a rah-rah guy. He's a veteran. I try to learn as much as I can from him. I'm just trying to learn how he plays and play off him and vice versa."

Sylvester Williams: The first defensive tackle taken by the Broncos in Round 1 since 1997 showed an ornery, feisty side by getting into a tussle during organized team activities. No one wants to see such a scrum explode into a full-tilt fracas, and this one didn't. But Williams' willingness to not back down against veteran opposition revealed a fearless side that should serve him well. Such a moment also demonstrated that Williams won't be undaunted against more seasoned, accomplished foes.

Malik Jackson: Versatile enough to play inside and outside, Jackson became a key part of the depth on the defensive line as a rookie. He's steady, but now the Broncos would like to see him become more explosive, particularly in the pass rush, where he was credited with just two hurries (acceding to ProFootballFocus.com).

Mitch Unrein: Versatile enough to catch a touchdown pass on offense, he didn't notch a sack but had the pressure that led to Miller's pick-six against Tampa Bay last December. Unrein and Wolfe also collaborated on a stunt that led to a Week 1 sack of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. But with Williams and Knighton aboard, opportunities for Wolfe and Unrein to work together could be reduced.

Quanterus Smith: How well he bounces back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last season will determine his place on the depth chart. Smith led Division I in sacks with 12.5 prior to the injury, and relies on his speed and quick first step to sprint past offensive linemen on the edge. If he develops multiple pass rush moves that aren't predicated on speed, he will prove to have been a steal as a fifth-round pick.

Jeremy Beal: This is a crucial third training camp for Beal, who tied for the team lead in sacks during the 2012 preseason but was waylaid by a knee injury that forced him to injured reserve.

Sealver Siliga: Most of his first year on the 53-man roster was spent watching; he only played in Week 13 against Tampa Bay, notching a single tackle. The arrivals of Knighton and Williams will crank up the pressure on Siliga.

Lanston Tanyi: In one season at Colorado State following a transfer from Appalachian State, Tanyi had three sacks and 77 tackles. At 6-foot-2 and 258 pounds, he will need to be a more efficient, prolific pass rusher than he was last year if he is to stick.

John Youboty: Another 258-pound defensive end, Youbouty switched from tackle last year and quintupled his sack total from 2011 to 2012 (one to five). It's doubtful, barring injuries, that both Youboty and Tanyi stick, so they could be grappling for one potential practice-squad spot.

Romney Fuga: Unlike his fellow undrafted rookies Tanyi and Youboty, Fuga is a defensive tackle who is stout enough to work on the nose if the need arises. But with plenty of work in store for first-round rookie Williams, free-agent pickup Knighton and returning tackles Siliga, Vickerson and Unrein, Fuga will need to maximize his repetitions.

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