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Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Broncos' defensive line continues building toward full strength and health, the unit's success could come via its volume of quality contributors -- and the willingness to use its members to attack in waves, from all angles.

The pass-rushing proficiency of DeMarcus Ware, the big-ticket acquisition on the line, could give the Broncos the kind of bookend, complementary pass rush they had in 2012. In that season, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 sacks -- 18.5 by Miller, 11 by Dumervil.

But Ware and Miller, who comes down from linebacker in pass-rush situations to work as a hand-in-the-dirt end, are just the beginning.

If the unit is healthy, at least one of the inside/outside duo of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe will not start. But that leaves the two multi-faceted players -- who line up on the outside in the base package and inside in pass-rush situations -- to push each other, and, potentially, for one to relieve the other. That also leaves three starting-quality defensive tackles -- Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Kevin Vickerson -- for two spots, once Vickerson returns to full health after last year's season-ending hip injury.

"There's a lot of competition for those two inside spots," said Jackson, "but the best men will be there and the best four will be on the field, so you really just kind of go out there and do your thing on the field and everything else will sort itself out."

The liberal rotation ensures that Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio has roles for more than the best four, so the second team will see plenty of work, depending on the situation. If the Broncos maintain good health into the regular season, then their backups will be of a first-team quality.

Look no further than the end of last season, when the Broncos were without Wolfe and Vickerson; Jackson and Williams grew into their roles. For Vickerson and Wolfe, their starting jobs will have to be earned -- and not because of anything they did wrong in coming back from injuries, but because their understudies delivered.

Williams, in particular, has a first-round pedigree, and at times late in his rookie season, played like a Pro Bowl veteran.

"Sly (Sylvester Williams) has come back in good shape. I think him and Terrance, they have a real good relationship," Del Rio said. "I think it grew at the end of last year and I think they've tried to kind of pick up where they left off as they finished the year."

That Wolfe, Vickerson and others are prepared to stake their claims to playing time reveals the above-average depth of the line, and gives Del Rio myriad options to keep everyone fresh -- and attack with as much vigor in the fourth quarter as the first.


DeMarcus Ware: Although Ware is a newcomer, leadership is expected from him. In nine seasons with the Cowboys, Ware became not only one of the league's most feared pass rushers, but one of its most deeply-respected players. Among his tasks: to free Miller for more one-on-one runs at the quarterback, and to provide mentorship to the young pass rusher.

Terrance Knighton: If Ware is the new leader, Knighton is the incumbent. He stepped into that role late last year, and his willingness to spend time helping Williams study film and the playbook paid handsome dividends by the AFC Championship Game, when the Broncos controlled the Patriots' interior offensive line.

Check out photos of the defensive linemen who will be in training camp with the Broncos.

Malik Jackson: He finished second on the Broncos last year with six sacks, but that doesn't reflect his overall work against the pass, which focused on pressure and forcing the quarterback out of his comfort zone between the tackles.

Derek Wolfe: That he played through what turned out to be a significant spine injury reveals plenty about his fortitude. That he has been able to put much of his lost weight back onto his frame shows his diligence in the weight room. The task now is performance.

Sylvester Williams: His growth on the field last year found its roots in the film room, where he and Knighton studied opponents' play -- and each other's. Their skill sets also complement each other; Williams' pass-rushing burst meshes well with Knighton's ability to draw double-teams.

Kevin Vickerson: Sometimes Vickerson's dance along the edge of infractions crosses the line, as it did with three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (one declined) in a two-game span of midseason. But he brings a raw intensity that is a bit unusual, even for an NFL defensive tackle, and whether he earns back his starting role or not, his bubbling cauldron of emotion can make the defensive line better.

Quanterus Smith: He has more moves, particularly with his hands, than he ever possessed when he was a prolific sacker at Western Kentucky. His knee has healed, and his explosion off the edge looks like it did when he was beating future early-round picks D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandijo for three sacks in a 2012 game. "He's clearly light years ahead of where he was last year," said Del Rio.

Mitch Unrein: Few rotational players are more dependable than Unrein, who adapts well to changes thrown in his direction and, by last year, was also the Broncos' short-yardage fullback. Including the postseason, Unrein has played in 39 consecutive games.

Sione Fua: The third-round pick of the Panthers in 2011 got into a pair of games for the Broncos late last year after Carolina waived him Nov. 12. He signed with the Broncos after Vickerson's hip injury; if the Broncos are at full health at defensive tackle, he'll have to fight for a roster spot.

Marvin Austin: Talent has never been the problem for Austin, who was the No. 52 overall pick in 2011. Staying healthy, however, is another matter entirely, beginning with the torn pectoral muscle he suffered in his rookie preseason. He has played in just 11 career games, all in the last two years. He's a low-risk, potential-high-reward addition.

Hall Davis: A January practice-squad addition, Davis has not played a regular-season snap since seeing action for Cleveland in a pair of games late in the 2012 season. At 270 pounds, he can hold up at the point of attack. But with Jackson, Wolfe and others in the mix, he needs a brilliant summer to stick.

Kenny Anunike: The undrafted Duke product showed some flashes of brilliance off the edge during OTAs. He had six sacks in each of the last two years, one thunderous hit of Texas A&M-turned-Cleveland-Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and finished his career at Duke with 15 sacks. He is also one of the brightest Broncos, earning his degree in biological anthropology and anatomy.

Greg Latta: The 260-pound undrafted rookie is a strong run defender, but his pass-rush production was limited in his years at Purdue. Latta is an outstanding athlete, having played basketball in high school, but is still raw, since he didn't play football until 2010.

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