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Monday, June 1, 2009
Broncos' weakness: Defensive front seven

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

Despite allowing 28 points per game last season, the Denver Broncos used only four of their 10 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Of those four selections, only the 18th overall pick, Robert Ayers, is a front-seven player. And, oh yeah, Denver is changing its defensive scheme to a 3-4.

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The Broncos did draft three defensive backs and also added Renaldo Hill, Andre' Goodman and Brian Dawkins on the back end. The secondary has a chance to be vastly improved and is now fortified for the long term. But if a defense allows opposing quarterbacks to sit back in the pocket without much heat, NFL receivers are going to get open. Denver sacked opposing quarterbacks only 26 times last season, and only three defenses allowed more than the Broncos' 7.7 yards average in the passing game.

 
  Ron Chenoy/US Presswire
  The Broncos are hoping rookie Robert Ayers can give their pass rush a boost.

Of course, if a defense can't stop the run, pass defense becomes even less important. Only the winless Detroit Lions allowed a greater yards per rush average than Denver last year.

There are some pass-rushers in this front seven. Ayers has a world of upside and may end up being a force at outside linebacker. My worries with him are that he never eclipsed 3.5 sacks in any of his college seasons and will be learning a new position -- as will just about everyone on this front seven. It also is conceivable that Ayers plays defensive end in this scheme, which would be another adjustment. Denver's defensive coaching staff is excellent, but in learning new techniques, surely there will be growing pains.

Elvis Dumervil is an excellent pass-rusher. He doesn't get the publicity that he deserves as an edge rusher, but he is technically sound, has a variety of moves that he sets up very well, has great initial quickness and knows how to use his lack of height to his advantage to get under blockers' pads and bend the edge. But teams routinely run at him, and he struggled to hold the point from his 4-3 defensive end position last year. Moving a little farther away from the ball might help, but I also have doubts about his ability in coverage along with his run support.

Jarvis Moss, a former first-round pick, is a wild card here. He has done little to justify his high draft position, but the new scheme could potentially revitalize his career at outside linebacker. Still, he doesn't appear fluid or loose enough in the hips to be effective with coverage responsibilities.

D.J. Williams is going to be a starting linebacker and there are other able bodies here as well, including newly signed Andra Davis, Boss Bailey and Wesley Woodyard. Davis played in the 3-4 with the Browns, but is a declining player. Still, he is tough, a good leader and a solid enough inside linebacker. Woodyard is smaller, but he is a natural playmaker and will get time as a sub package contributor. All of these players are better off on the inside in the 3-4, yet none are ideal.

The defensive line is in worse shape than the linebackers. It wouldn't shock me if Marcus Thomas became a high-end starter for the Broncos in the near future. Tim Crowder does have some upside as well and could be better suited for the odd front. But there isn't much else to get excited about. Nose tackle is the No. 1 problem; 3-4 defenses without a presence in the middle crumble. There doesn't appear to be a presence in the middle.

Granted, the Broncos have a new coaching staff and will be running a different defensive scheme. And the personnel changes could help their cause. And surely running back after running back will not fall to injury. Everyone knows that having a strong running game is a defense's best friend. But their front seven is still a glaring weakness. I just don't see enough good players up front.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.