Crowded Broncos' defensive line carries some question marks into training camp


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Question marks on a roster can’t always be erased with the luxury of depth.

And that’s where the Broncos find themselves in the defensive line as the team’s veteran players report for training camp on Thursday. They have a healthy selection of players they feel good about, who they believe fit what they need done up front in their new 3-4 defense, led by Malik Jackson, Vance Walker and Sylvester Williams.

So much so, this is how Gary Kubiak put it; “We have guys we like who we think we can get production from across the board. We think it’s going to work well because of how they go about their business.’’

Still, a position where team officials believed difficult decisions await them when the roster gets trimmed to 53 players in September is suddenly one where the Broncos need to carefully consider their options. Now sporting a 3-4 defense, the Broncos are expected to keep six or seven defensive linemen when the cuts are made.

But their task no longer may be simply picking the best players at the position with all of the information already in hand.

For one defensive end Derek Wolfe has been suspended for the first four games of the season for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Wolfe, who missed five games of the regular season and all of the postseason in 2013 after suffering a seizure on the team bus, has started 43 games in the last three regular seasons.

And he projected to be a regular at one of the team’s defensive end spots this time around as well; he spent much of the offseason program working with the starters.

He can participate in training camp and the preseason games, but giving him significant practice snaps with the starters is something the Broncos may not want to do given they already know he’s going to miss the first month.

When Von Miller was hit with a five-game suspension before the 2013 season, the Broncos altered their practice rotations as they limited Miller’s work throughout camp and the preseason. What the Broncos do when Wolfe is eligible to return for Week 5 could be a difficult call at that point as well if the replacement players are doing well and the Broncos have shown some chemistry up front.

There is also the matter of Antonio Smith. Smith has been the subject of a criminal investigation in Texas since November. As of this week no charges have been filed nor have prosecutors said charges will be filed against Smith in a case involving a child abuse complaint the Fort Bend County (Texas) Sheriff has publicly called “sexual in nature.’’

The Broncos, after several internal discussions, as well as several conversations with Smith in recent weeks, have elected to allow Smith to report to training camp. Smith, who has played for Kubiak, defensive line coach Bill Kollar and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips previously with the Houston Texans, is known as a Kollar favorite and has been lauded for his leadership as well as locker-room presence in his previous NFL stops.

But Smith’s future with the team could be affected by formal charges in the case.

Beyond those two off-the-field matters, there is the football fact the Broncos don’t have a true, full-time nose tackle with NFL experience. Rookie Darius Kilgo played the position at Maryland, but the Broncos’ top veteran candidates for the position – Williams and Marvin Austin Jr. – have not regularly played it.

Phillips has varied his approach through the years, using both the traditional big-bodied nose tackle, aligned directly over the center as a two-gap player, and the “lighter’’ players at the position, lining them up nudged toward one of the center’s shoulders.

“We’ve done it both ways and can make something work either way,’’ Phillips said as the offseason workouts drew to a close. “You adjust to your people and we will. We like what we’ve seen so far.’’

It all, however, means the Broncos Plan A at the position, may well turn into Plan B, or even Plan C in the coming weeks.

“We’ll do what we think is best at all the spot,’’ Kubiak has said. “That’s what training camp, the preseason, is for to make decisions about your roster, about what’s best.’’