Countdown to camp: Defensive line

July, 19, 2014
7/19/14
7:30
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is, publicly anyway, a rather understated guy when he talks about the players around him.

A “solid player’’ is a guy headed to the Pro Bowl. A “really, really solid player’’ is a guy who already has been to several Pro Bowls.

So when he says the Broncos’ defensive front “has some options we feel good about,’’ it really means if the Broncos have the good fortune of good health -- they certainly didn’t on defense in 2013 -- then Del Rio sees something a lot closer to the top five defense the Broncos sported in ’12 rather than last year’s middle-of-the-pack group.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Terrance Knighton had sacks in three consecutive games last season.
“I think so, we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things,’’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “ … You always have to wait and see for sure when we all put the pads on and go at it. But I think there’s a lot of versatility in the group.’’

So much so, the position will feature some of the fiercest battles, not for starting jobs, but rather to simply carve out some playing time as Del Rio will routinely mix and match to fit a variety of down-and-distance situations.

It’s all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as training camp approaches.

Saturday: Defensive line.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: This position, and its place in the final roster count, has evolved at least some over the last three seasons. The Broncos kept 10 defensive lineman in 2011, the first season of the John Elway/John Fox regime as well as Dennis Allen’s only season as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Then in 2012, Del Rio’s first year with the team, they kept nine defensive linemen as they moved into the opening week of the regular season. Last season they kept eight on the roster.

They could get themselves to eight this time around as well, but to do that they would leave somebody behind who can contribute, if not for them, somebody else. Knighton and Sylvester Williams project as the starters at tackle, with Kevin Vickerson in the rotation. Mitch Unrein is a productive tackle who sees some spot duty on offense from time to time and played 148 special teams snaps last season.

The Broncos also see potential in Marvin Austin as well, a former second-round pick whose career has been derailed some by injuries. That’s five interior players right there.

DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Quanterus Smith will divide the snaps at end. Linebacker Von Miller has often dropped down to end in the team’s nickel and dime packages, so that impacts this group as well.

Jackson, who is one of the most efficient players in the league in terms of production in snaps played, and Wolfe move inside to tackle in some of the specialty packages as well. All in all, it projects to some tough calls when the cut to 53 players comes.

Break it down: Ware says he feels better than he has in more than two season and as a member of the league's 100-sack club, he certainly fits the profile Elway talks about when he says "I like to sign future Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulders.'' The Broncos will be creative with Ware. He figures to show up all over the formation, sometimes on the same side as Miller, something Del Rio did when he paired Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Because Wolfe and Vickerson spent so much of the 2013 season out of the lineup because of injuries, the Broncos got extended looks at Jackson and Williams last season. Williams has shown the athleticism the Broncos hoped for when they made him the first-round pick in ’13, and he appears poised for a significant jump in production this time around.

Jackson has simply forced the team to find a place for him in the lineup. He consistently gets to the quarterback when he’s on the field.

Miller
Knighton is in a contract year and if he plays wire to wire like he did over last season’s stretch run, after Vickerson went to injured reserve, he’ll be a popular player on the open market. The Broncos believe Miller will be full-speed -- he’s coming back from ACL surgery -- before the season is too old so he will be in the mix on passing downs in the defensive front. The Broncos thought Smith showed himself to be ready for some snaps as well.

Del Rio believes the potential of playing time is a powerful lure, and he has consistently used a variety of players in a variety of specialty roles to get people on the field and allow the Broncos to adjust to what an offense is doing.

"I think the guys know if they show us the can help, we'll get them on the field," Del Rio said. "That keeps everybody engaged.''

So, he’ll use plenty of folks in the front this time around, and the battle to get on the field should keep things lively for these guys all through the season.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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