ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Life without Elvis Dumervil might not be all that different for the Broncos in the final sum, but it will require tweaking for the short term -- and re-assessment of draft needs for the long run.
In the short run, the Broncos could turn to Dwight Freeney or John Abraham, prolific but 30-something pass rushers who reportedly visited Broncos headquarters on Thursday. One of the two appears likely to be the Broncos' fall-back option, but no matter which veteran joins the Broncos, he will be just part of the solution.
Freeney and Abraham are still capable of mounting an effective pass rush, and could experience a short-term revival with Miller drawing extra attention. Freeney's modest five-sack total in 2012 must be viewed through the prism of his position shift to outside linebacker; his quick first step around a tackle lends itself best to attacking from a hand-in-the-dirt stance, and compensates for his smaller-than-average frame. He had 42.5 sacks in his previous four seasons at defensive end, including 8.5 in 2011, when he was a bright spot of an otherwise dismal Colts season.
Abraham, most recently of the Falcons, is two years older than Freeney, but was more productive last year, had just one fewer sack than Dumervil the last two years and forced as many fumbles (six) in 2012 as Dumervil.
The primary question on Abraham is also the most obvious one: how long can he last? This will be his 14th season; since the NFL began keeping sacks as an official statistic in 1982, just four players have posted double-digit sack seasons in their 14th season or later -- although two of them, Bruce Smith and Kevin Greene, did so twice after passing that marker.
There'll be a domino effect on the defensive linemen who return. Robert Ayers, Dumervil's backup last year, appears likely to play a more prominent role, perhaps as a first-teamer on base-package downs at right defensive end, with Derek Wolfe keeping his base spot on the left side.
On nickel and dime downs, the still-to-be-determined veteran addition can line up at one of the defensive end spots, with Von Miller on the other side and Wolfe working from a defensive tackle slot, as he did in 2012. If Wolfe improves as a pass rusher, he can also help replace Dumervil; he had six sacks in a promising rookie season and could give the Broncos their best interior pass-rush threat in years.
The impact on Miller will be worth watching. Will he rush the passer from the right side more often now, or will a potential replacement for 2012 slide into the same pass-rushing responsibilities that Dumervil held, leaving Miller working more often at left defensive end when the Broncos go into nickel and dime packages? This is a question -- but is also leads to creative options the Broncos can explore in OTAs and training camp.
Perhaps the most crucial question revolves around what the Broncos do for the long term. Although a veteran like Abraham and Freeney can shore up the situation for the short term, the Broncos will not only have to plan for life beyond one of those two, but will have to make a decision on Ayers, whose contract expires after this season.
That would lead the Broncos to the draft, which offers an abundance of potential pass rushers.
Although the options available at the 28th pick aren't sure things, the addition of a veteran and the presence of Ayers allows the Broncos the opportunity to gamble on a high-upside defensive end like the lanky, athletic and raw Margus Hunt, who didn't take up football until showing up on the SMU campus to work with a track coach on the hammer throw, discus and shot put.
Another high-upside possibility who might fall to the 28th slot is Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, whose film is much better than his Combine workouts, which appear to have somewhat depressed his stock. UCLA's Datone Jones and Florida State's Tank Carradine could also be on the board at No. 28.
The Broncos might also look toward the middle of the draft; one possibility could be Western Kentucky's Quanterus Smith, who was inconsistent but occasionally spectacular; he had three sacks against Alabama last year. Coincidentally, Smith weighs 250 pounds -- the same as Dumervil for most of his Broncos career, although Smith is six inches taller. He would have to add weight to be anything more than a pass-rush specialist in the 4-3.
The Broncos' reported inquiries into Freeney and Abraham shows they had a backup plan after the acrimonious -- and unusual -- break-up with Dumervil. But the process of replacing him has only just begun.