The Denver Broncos showcased three defensive stars in the Pro Bowl and look to build off of a successful 2009 defensive campaign with plenty of young talent.
Ryan McBean, 25, Vonnie Holliday, 34, and Kenny Peterson, 30, were all serviceable in 2009, but acquiring a stud at this position would help the defensive line tremendously. Robert Ayers, 23, who is better suited for the linebacker position in the 3-4, is listed as a possible back-up at this position, but his diversity with both positions gives the Broncos extra depth. Darrell Reid, 27, can also play both DE and OLB, so his versatility is clutch as well.
McBean offers youth at this position and should increase his defensive production with more NFL experience. Holliday, who produced five sacks last season, is aging, so expect McBean to play a larger role next year if needed. Peterson led the Broncos defensive lineman in tackles, but only produced one sack. Despite Elvis Dumervil, who can also play this position, notching up 17 sacks last season, more pressure from the defensive ends will help solidify a fierce pass rushing attack.
Retaining Dumervil will dictate how Denver will spend their money on defense this offseason, as well as their decisions in the draft. Julius Peppers will most likely not be re-signed by Carolina, so he will head the list of available free agent defensive ends. If Denver can afford to accompany a pass rusher like Peppers with Dumervil, they could create one of the fiercest defenses in the league.
Denver will most likely not pursue Peppers though, but they could throw offers to other available free agent defensive lineman to the likes of Ray Edwards, Marcus Spears, or Johnny Jolly, depending on how their futures with their current teams play out. Denver will not likely waste a high draft pick on this position considering their other needs.
Denver could really use a big talent here, and very well could solidify that by drafting a defensive tackle in the second or third round. The Patriots have decided to place the franchise tag on Vince Wilfork, so attaining him will not be an option despite McDaniels inside hook with the New England players.
Richard Seymour could be an interesting option here as far as potential free agents are concerned, and he has experience playing in the 3-4 defensive scheme that Denver utilizes. Aubrayo Franklin is another top talent on the market, but the 49ers will look to keep him on their roster if possible.
Ronald Fields, 27, started at nose tackle for Denver last season and is backed up by Marcus Thomas, 23. Both players combined for 52 tackles last season, but neither player recorded a sack. Stopping the run is the main goal at this position, but having some pressure come up the middle against the pass would help.
If Brandon Marshall does stay in Denver, the Broncos might decide to pursue a defensive tackle in the first round. Offensive line will be a priority in the draft, but don't be surprised if Denver trades up to pick a premier defensive tackle to the likes of Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy.
Other available first round options will be Brian Price of UCLA or Dan Williams of Tennessee, which Denver might be able to trade down to acquire. Otherwise, look for Denver to target Terrance Cody from Alabama or Jared Odrick from Penn State if either happen to fall to the second or possibly the third round.
If Denver does not sign a top free agent defensive tackle, they will without a doubt take one in the draft, most likely in the first three rounds. If the Broncos can apply a beast in the middle of this line to stop the run and apply pressure up the middle, it will tremendously help this unit.
Elvis Dumervil turned out to be a monster at this position for the Broncos. His presence made this defense tremendously fierce and also helped them jump out to an undefeated record early on in the season. Dumervil is a free agent this offseason and retaining him will be a top priority for Denver. If he returns to the Broncos and can post even close to the 17 sacks he racked up this year, he will help Denver showcase a top defense. Considering that Dumervil is only 25, look for Denver to attempt to wrap him up in a long term contract if possible.
Mario Haggan, 29, produced decent numbers, tallying 63 tackles last season, but he is also the oldest of the Broncos outside linebackers. Wesley Woodyard, 23, who can line up as inside or outside linebacker, saw his fair share of action last season and should contribute more next year with Haggan getting older. The Broncos will focus their attention to acquiring another inside linebacker in the draft, but they could decide to add another outside linebacker in free agency. It will most likely not be a big name though.
D.J. Williams, 27, had another successful campaign for the Broncos last season, totaling 122 combined tackles along with 3.5 sacks. His presence gives the Broncos one of the best middle linebackers in the game, but with their 3-4 defensive scheme, he will need some help next to him. Andra Davis, 30, posted 3.5 sacks as well, to go along with 90 combined tackles, but Denver will look to find a future replacement considering his age.
Woodyard can be utilized as an inside linebacker and his youth gives Denver another young talent with diversity on this side of the ball. There are a couple intriguing options available in free agency at the linebacker position, but I look for Denver to draft an ILB in rounds 4-6, if not sooner.
Jamar Chaney of Mississippi State is capable of playing most linebacker spots, something that always is in interest to Denver. Sean Lee of Penn State is a solid talent and did bounce back after a torn ACL to have a great 2009. Micah Johnson of Kentucky is dealing with a recent injury, so he should fall later in the draft and will be an interesting option.
Champ Bailey, 31, will be the starter in Denver for at least one more season and is coming off of an outstanding year, making another Pro Bowl appearance. Bailey is a premier shutdown corner in the NFL and gives Denver a top option to cover threatening number one receivers. If Bailey can remain healthy, his presence on the field automatically gives the Broncos one of the better secondaries in the league.
Ty Law, 35, is a free agent this offseason, but he would like to remain in Denver. Despite his age, he is an intelligent veteran with invaluable experience. If retained, he will not be listed as a starter, but he should be an excellent backup option if somebody goes down. Andre' Goodman, the other starter, is also 31, so look for Denver to draft a future replacement for him in this year's draft.
Depending on where Kyle Wilson of Boise State, Donovan Warren of Michigan, and Brandon Ghee of Wake Forest fall in the draft, all three could be a possible second round draft selection for Denver. Otherwise, look for Denver to consider Perrish Cox of Oklahoma State or Devin McCourty of Rutgers as other round two selections. The Broncos will definitely look to solidify more depth at this position in the draft, and it will most likely between rounds two and four.
Brian Dawkins, 35, didn't look his age last year and dominated for the Broncos at the free safety position, making yet another Pro Bowl appearance. Renaldo Hill, 30, is listed as the strong safety, but he will have some competition with the young David Bruton, 22, and Josh Barret, 24. Barret is a free agent this offseason, but he will most likely be retained by the club. Darcel McBath, 23, is a solid young talent whose playing time should increase next year.
With Dawkins stepping it up for Denver, it made the safety position one of the strongest parts of this defensive unit. Obviously Dawkins age is a concern, but there is no reason why he can not produce another solid season for the Broncos for at least one more year. The Broncos most likely will not address this position in the draft, unless a can't miss talent falls to the later rounds.
When Denver was playing undefeated ball, it was their defense that was carrying the load. The lack of offense applied more pressure on this unit to win ball games, causing the team to falter down the stretch. Outside of a couple ball games later in the year, this Denver defense produced results and helped the Broncos nearly reach the playoffs.
With the need for more offense being the top concern for Denver this offseason, the Broncos will not ignore available talent on this side of the ball if presented to them in the draft or free agency. Denver will target a defensive tackle, inside linebacker, and cornerback during both. If top talent can be secured, Denver could return next season with one of the best defenses in the league.
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Written by Josh Souder