Denver Broncos: Malik Jackson

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before a game had been played this season, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said this year's defense needed to be closer, in deed, to the 2012 edition rather than last season's.

With two regular-season games remaining, that has come to pass. This year the Broncos are currently No. 4 in total defense (309.4 yards allowed per game), No. 16 in scoring defense (21.6 points per game allowed) and tied for sixth in sacks (38).

Last season they were 19th in total defense to go with 22nd in scoring defense and tied for 13th in sacks as compared to No. 2 in total defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and tied for the league lead in sacks in 2012. Sunday's win in San Diego was the seventh time this season the Broncos have held their opponent to 17 or fewer points, including the last three consecutive games.

Last year the Broncos held just three opponents to 17 or fewer points. In 2012 they held eight opponents to 17 or fewer points before the Baltimore Ravens piled on 38 points in Baltimore's double overtime win in the divisional round of the playoffs.

And after a long look at the video from Sundays win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
  • Last season Malik Jackson was perhaps the team's most efficient player when he played 521 snaps on defense (52.3 percent of the team's total) and still finished second on the team in sacks (six), led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15) all while he led the Broncos' defensive linemen in tackles (42). Sunday Jackson was at his efficient best as in 32 snaps on defense Jackson was consistently disruptive. In the first quarter he pushed Chargers guard Chad Rinehart back into quarterback Philip Rivers nearly causing a fumble -- the play was ruled an incomplete pass after a replay review -- then threw Chargers running back Donald Brown for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter just before batting down a Rivers pass on the next play. There are personnel groupings when Jackson is often the only defensive linemen in a three-point stance in the formation. The Broncos have kept his production up despite Jackson playing roughly the same percentage of snaps thus far, given he's at 51.9 percent of the defense's snaps for the season and has been credited with 35 tackles with two regular-season games to play.
  • The Broncos are an aggressive lot on defense so it's no surprise a coach who knows them well -- Chargers head coach Mike McCoy -- would try to take advantage of it. The Chargers had some success floating a running back into the pass pattern after the Broncos has begun to rush Rivers in earnest. Donald Brown got free in the first quarter for a 16-yard catch-and-run looping behind the Broncos rushers as they went upfield and in the third quarter. Branden Oliver, after initially blocking linebacker Lerentee McCray, looped in behind the rushers again for a 17-yard gain. Later in the quarter, however, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton recognized another attempt and stayed with Brown in the middle of the field to force an incompletion by Rivers. Defensive end Derek Wolfe also saw it coming in the second half and stayed with Brown to force an incompletion.
  • The Broncos may have to re-think things at punt returner or consider a more liberal use of the fair catch. Both Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders, regulars in the Broncos' three-wide receiver look on offense, took big hits in the return game in Sunday's game. After Welker, who has had multiple concussions over the last two seasons, took a huge hit in traffic in the first quarter, Sanders lined up as the punt returner for the remainder of the day, where he too took a big hit on his 11-yard return in the second quarter. Given Sanders is currently sixth in the league in receiving yards (1,261 yards), he may not be the best alternative in a high-impact job either.
  • Brandon McManus has given the Broncos exactly what they wanted when they re-signed him off the practice squad just before the team's win over the Buffalo Bills. After surrendering far too much field position against the Kansas City Chiefs after McManus' release in the week leading up to that game, McManus forced four touchbacks in five kickoffs against the Bills at altitude. He then forced five touchbacks in seven kickoffs in San Diego and the Chargers started their drives following those kickoffs five times on the 20-yards line to go with the 24-yard line and the 18-yard line. And on those seven drives following kickoffs, having to go the long way, the Chargers scored one touchdown to go with a missed field goal, three punts and two interceptions.
DENVER -- After having recovered just two fumbles on defense in their first 10 games of the season, the Denver Broncos kept offering up the bunch theory on such things.

That once they started to happen, they will happen a lot.

“We wanted to get those turnovers," said defensive end/tackle Malik Jackson. “And they’re just starting to come, so right now we just keep doing what we’re doing."

In their 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, the Broncos intercepted Bills quarterback Kyle Orton twice and recovered a fumble by Buffalo rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins. It means in the past two games the Broncos have six takeaways combined -- their best two-game stretch of the season.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had interceptions for the Broncos against the Bills while safety Rahim Moore recovered Watkins’ fumble. Those three turnovers resulted in just three points for the Broncos, but Harris’ interception came late in the third quarter at the Broncos’ 2-yard line and likely prevented a Buffalo touchdown.

Sunday's takeaways follow a game in which they had two interceptions and recovered a fumble against the Chiefs The cluster Sunday allowed the Broncos to roll to their 10th win of the season after three turnovers of their own -- two Peyton Manning interceptions and a Jacob Tamme fumble just before halftime.

“We just wanted to outplay their defense," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “We knew the strength of their team was their defense, their defensive line. We wanted to get more sacks ... every time their defense made a play we wanted to make a better play."
DENVER -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said this past week "everybody is beat up this time of year."

And the Broncos, now 10-3 after Sunday's 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills, will head into next Sunday's AFC West showdown with the San Diego Chargers a little beat up.

Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury in practice this past Wednesday when he was stepped on by a teammate, finished the win with two catches for 11 yards. It was Thomas' lowest output since he had 10 yards receiving against Detroit in 2011, the season before Peyton Manning's arrival.

"I know D.T. was hurting out there and he was playing through it," Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said.

Thomas was one of several Broncos who came into Sunday's game hurting a bit or who suffered injury in the win.

Julius Thomas, who has not played since injuring his left ankle in the first quarter of the team's Nov. 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, was in uniform for the game but did not play.

"If we needed him, we could have [played him] ... he's taken a step in the right direction and we're going to need him moving forward," Fox said.

Anderson injured his left ankle in the win and briefly left the lineup. He played with the ankle heavily taped over his shoe in the second half and had 10 of his 21 carries after halftime. Orlando Franklin, who's played with extra tape on his left ankle this season, briefly left the game before returning, as did guard Louis Vasquez, who was helped off the field and later returned.

Reserve tackle Paul Cornick, who has played as an extra tight end of late, left with a sprained toe on his right foot. Defensive end/tackle Mailk Jackson, who finished with six tackle, two tackles for loss and a sack, walked out of the stadium with his left knee heavily wrapped but was walking without a limp.

Defensive end Derek Wolfe briefly left after a tackle to be evaluated for a concussion but was cleared by the medical staff to return and played the rest of the way. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who missed practice time this past week because of a rib injury, also took a big hit in the same area as the injury when he fumbled late in the first half and will likely be limited in the week to come.

That's all in addition to five other players who were game-day inactives because of injuries: Running backs Montee Ball (right groin) and Ronnie Hillman (left foot) as well as wide receiver Cody Latimer (concussion), safety Quinton Carter (knee) and cornerback Kayvon Webster (right shoulder).
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The numbers speak for themselves and they’re essentially shouting at everyone at the moment.

Shouting that Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller leads the NFL with eight sacks while defensive end DeMarcus Ware is among four players tied for second in the league with seven sacks. Miller’s eight sacks put him ahead of six of the league’s teams and those 15 sacks between the Broncos’ two marquee pass-rushers put the pair ahead of 14 teams.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDeMarcus Ware's ability to get to the quarterback has benefited the Broncos this season.
The Broncos’ 21 sacks also tie them for third in the league though they've played one fewer game than the other four teams with at least 21. But if sacks had assists, Miller and Ware know who would get them. Because while the glamour guys collect the highlights along the way, it takes a defensive village to raise a sack.

"And those guys in the middle, they make it go," Miller said. "It’s like I’ve said, they’re unselfish, they just get to work."

In the end, it’s simple math, really -- the smaller the pocket for the quarterback to move around in, the bigger the chance Miller or Ware will finish a play with a sack.

They are the UTR Club perhaps, an under the radar football thing they all understand. And Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin Jr., Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have done the roll-up-the-sleeves work on the interior that, both Miller and Ware say, has allowed the Broncos’ edge rushers to have exactly the kind of impact the team had hoped.

Knighton, in particular, has caught the eye of personnel executives around the league as one of the most disruptive players in the Broncos' defense, even in the mass of humanity along the line of scrimmage.

"We wouldn’t be able to have success that we’re having right now without Malik and Derek Wolfe and Marvin and all those guys," Miller said. " … It’s like in basketball when you’ve got Kobe and Shaq. Those guys really make it go and I’m not trying to be funny about it, but those guys -- if it wasn’t for what Malik and Derek do -- we wouldn’t be able to do what we do on the outside. … They’re very unselfish."

This all was part of the offseason plan. In a defensive overhaul where plenty of attention in free agency and the draft went to the secondary, the Broncos’ decision-makers hoped recovery from injuries would give them back the defensive front they wanted.

Wolfe had spent the back half of the 2013 season on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms as the Broncos prepared to go on a road trip. Miller had suffered a torn ACL in a December game against the Houston Texans and Ware was a player the Dallas Cowboys were prepared to cut loose because, "They felt like they had a decision to make and maybe I wasn’t the player I was."

The Broncos gladly dove in with a three-year, $30 million contract for Ware with the idea that a fresh start would be what was needed after he finished with six sacks in 2013. It’s what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had been talking about for much of the offseason when he said that beyond the injuries that sent five defensive starters to injured reserve by the time the Broncos played in Super Bowl XLVIII, the fact the team wasn’t able to replace Elvis Dumervil’s impact last season impacted what the defense could do the most.

With Dumervil and Miller together in ’12, the two combined for 29.5 sacks as the Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 and the Broncos allowed just five rushing touchdowns.

"I think it all goes together," Knighton said. "When we get the good push in there, don’t give quarterbacks room to move up and throw, with DeMarcus and Von coming from the outside, that’s what we want. Hopefully I get a sack or two with all that, but if they get a sack, if we see them with the quarterback, we know we did our job, too. Sacks make everybody feel good."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After two high-profile player suspensions -- kicker Matt Prater and wide receiver Wes Welker -- forced some roster changes, the Denver Broncos closed out the bulk of their preparations for Sunday night’s opener against the Indianapolis Colts feeling the rest of the depth chart was in about as good of shape as it could be.

 Following Friday’s practice, Broncos head coach John Fox said, “It’s part of the game, [injuries do] happen. I don’t like talking about it much for obvious reasons, but we feel good where we are right now.’’

Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a fracture on top of his tibia in training camp, will be the only projected starter who will miss Sunday night’s game because of injury. Prater and Welker have been suspended by the NFL for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy and policy on performance enhancing drugs respectively.

Friday afternoon Trevathan said “I feel great, working my way back.’’

Trevathan and guard Ben Garland (ankle) were the only players on the roster formally ruled out Friday for Sunday night’s game. Defensive end Malik Jackson, who was excused from practice Thursday, practiced Friday and will play against the Colts.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For many who currently have lockers inside the Denver Broncos' complex, things get down to the vocational nitty gritty this week.

For months they have shown up to work each day, part of a team. They've worked in the weight room, eaten in the cafeteria and rubbed shoulders with their far more famous teammates.

After this week, the Broncos will send almost half of them on their way.

The Broncos will practice against the Houston Texans this week, play the Texans Saturday night and then cut at least 37 players from their current roster in a span of seven days with a fourth preseason game sandwiched in there somewhere.

And while the Broncos didn't have all that many roster jobs in play when they opened training camp, there are still plenty of tough decisions, especially at a few spots, with some things to consider:

Salary cap: The Broncos were active in free agency this past offseason. But they are squarely up against the salary cap right now -- $133 million per team -- and that is going to impact some of their decisions.

Only the top 51 salary-cap figures count in the preseason, but that luxury ends when rosters go to 53 players the week before the opener. The Broncos top 51 cap salary-cap figures come in at $129.7 million at the moment and the team is carrying $6.43 million worth of “dead'' money as well -- cap figures for players no longer on the team, led by $2.1 million for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper.

So, even with the accounting of salary cap rollover and subtracting other expenses that amount to about $3.3 million more available cap space, the Broncos are up against the limit when you consider they still have to leave room for players who end up on injured reserve and for a practice squad.

Right now the Broncos' top 53 salary cap figures come in at $130.761 million, so add in that dead money and it's clear they have work to get done whether that includes a new deal for Demaryius Thomas or an unexpected roster cut or two.

Defensive line: With their offseason work, to go with the recovery of those who were on injured reserve last season, the Broncos turned this from a red-flag position into one of the deepest on the roster.

As a result, the Broncos will likely let a player, or players, go here who will draw some interest from other teams. That hasn't always been the case with their roster in recent seasons, which may be, along with back-to-back 13-3 season, a measure of their progress from 2010's 4-12 finish.

The question really comes down to if the team keeps just eight players here, which is exactly what they did last season. Part of the rationale, from a personnel standpoint, in keeping eight is that linebacker Von Miller is in one of the defensive end spots for most of the team's pass-rush looks.

Start counting and it doesn't take long to find eight that would make a quality rotation. Combine some common sense with the way they've practiced and played the first two preseason games and DeMarcus Ware, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe are the starters in the base defense.

Malik Jackson, Quanterus Smith and Marvin Austin project as the next three. That could leave, if the number is eight, Mitch Unrein, Kevin Vickerson and others scrapping for a final spot. Vickerson did not play in Sunday's preseason game in Santa Clara, California, as he continues to work all the way back from his hip injury of 2013.

Returner: There are still questions to answer here. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood has shown enough on offense to make a case as the sixth wide receiver and he has shown the most consistency among the punt returners. Wes Welker is a fall-back option, but he had two concussions last season so that's not preferable.

At kickoff returner the Broncos are still inconsistent fielding the ball in practice and haven't had many chances to show much in their games -- no kickoff returns against the 49ers. Defensive back Omar Bolden looks like the safest bet at the moment.

Offensive line: The Broncos have kept nine players in each of the three previous seasons and there is no reason to expect they won't keep nine once again.

So, that means the final spots will come down to youth vs. veteran. The Broncos are looking at the young players here. Guard Ben Garland and rookie tackle Michael Schofield played more Sunday -- 54 snaps each -- than any other Broncos players. Guard Vinston Painter and tackle Paul Cornick, who both were on Broncos practice squad last season (Painter finished the season on active roster), were next in line with 39 snaps each.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos continue to grind through their preseason work, and as they get set to roll through their third week with Monday morning's practice, here’s are some things to consider:
  • Nate Irving has shown the coaches he intends to be the team’s middle linebacker, and it would take some unexpected events at this point for Irving not to be the guy in the middle of the base defense. Now, that is certainly a specialty package of sorts given that the Broncos line up in the nickel more than twice as often as they do in base, but Irving has done everything the team wants him to do. And more importantly, he has improved his game since the last time they tried him in the middle before eventually moving him out of the job. So far he has been consistent in his run fits, quick to the ball and reliable in finishing tackles.
  • The Broncos are a deep team, one that’s finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and retained a fairly youthful roster. With that said, there aren’t all that many roster spots in play. Still, two players who arrived a bit under the mainstream radar are making pushes to star. Rookie running back Juwan Thompson, if he maintains his current momentum, is a viable option to get snaps in the offense with the proficiency he’s shown in pass protection and the athleticism running the ball. Toss in his special-teams abilities and he should make it. The tougher question will be fifth-year wide receiver Jordan Norwood. Norwood, who has started four games in his previous four NFL seasons combined, has shown he fits the offense and could contribute as a receiver -- there are several rosters in the league he could make -- so if he can win the punt returner job, the Broncos will have to make room.
  • Rookie tackle Michael Schofield didn’t get a snap on offense in the preseason opener -- he did play six snaps on special teams -- but in looking at practice it’s clear the kid still deserves a chance at the right tackle spot. Sure, he’s going to make a mistake or two, but he looks to have the goods and will bear watching in next Sunday’s preseason game in San Francisco.
  • One of the best things the Broncos did in the preseason opener was to give backup quarterback Brock Osweiler a chance to rebound from an interception. He’s in his third season of one of the more odd apprenticeships the league has to offer. He knows the playbook, but he still needs to play. And if that means he gets more snaps than the usual No. 2 in a preseason, so be it. But the fact the Broncos let him play through three quarters last Thursday night is time well invested. Osweiler rebounded from his mistake to later make a touchdown throw -- a 34-yard rocket to Norwood down the hash -- that showed why he clearly has starter potential. Plenty of surviving as a quarterback in the league is bouncing back from a mistake to play with confidence. The Broncos need to know Osweiler can do that, and the only way to find out is to give him preseason snaps.
  • It will be a surprise if the Broncos don’t consistently create pressure on opposing passers. Their specialty packages -- nickel and dime -- will be intriguing once they unveil what they will do in the regular season. But having Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Quanterus Smith and Malik Jackson all in some kind of a front-seven mix gives defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio plenty of options.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Revenge is not best served in the preseason, but as far as sometimes sloppy, weather-delayed games go, the Denver Broncos gladly took the 21-16 victory over the Seattle Seahawks for what it was worth.

A good start.

“That’s it, you know you always want to play it hard," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "And in that first quarter, a little bit of the second quarter, it felt like a regular-season game. Yeah, it feels good to beat them anytime. Last season they beat us in the preseason and the Super Bowl. Obviously it will feel better to beat them in Week 3 in their house, but we want to get this going and it was a good way to get it going."

And a look back at the game showed some good things, some bad things and a little in between.

  • [+] EnlargeJohn Fox
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Fox was likely frustrated with all of the yellow flags Thursday night. There were 25 penalties in all, including 12 on the Broncos.
    OK, we get it. The officials are under orders to crank things down even more on defensive players. That’s what "points of emphasis" are, after all. And the Broncos may disagree with a few of the flags, and a few were in the "iffy" zone, but 12 penalties for 95 yards is not how they’re going to want to do business. They had 12 different players flagged in the game, including guard Louis Vasquez, who was flagged just three times in all of last season. Vasquez’ holding penalty was one of four holding penalties the Broncos had Thursday night. And beyond the flags that come with the scrutiny on defensive holding and illegal contact, offensive holding will bear watching for this team. Last season the Broncos threw more passes than every team except the Cleveland Browns and they were also one of 10 teams to be flagged for holding at least 26 times -- the Broncos had 26. Thursday night Vasquez, Chris Clark, Ben Garland and Gerell Robinson were each flagged once.
  • The Broncos often talk of having the same playbook for starting quarterback Peyton Manning as well as backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. And they do. But they still used different pages Thursday night. After lining up in heavy formations for the first four snaps Manning was in the game -- two snaps with two tight ends and two snaps with four tight ends (backup tackle Paul Cornick was one of them) -- the Broncos went to their bread and butter as they lined up in a three-wide formation for Manning’s next 19 snaps (penalties includes) before closing out with a two-tight-end-look on Ronnie Hillman's 1-yard touchdown run. When Osweiler entered the game in the second quarter, with several backup linemen as well, the Broncos were in two-tight-end looks for five of his first seven snaps, six of 10 snaps during his second drive, and four of five snaps on his third drive. On Osweiler’s third possession, the only snap the Broncos were in a three-wide resulted in a sack. It simply may be difficult to gauge Osweiler's true proficiency in the team's three-wide look in live contact until he gets to run it behind the team's starting offensive line.
  • When the Broncos' defense has Von Miller at full speed to go with DeMarcus Ware, defensive end Quanterus Smith could still add a rather tidy X factor if Jack Del Rio can find a place for everyone. Smith, who spent last season on injured reserve, consistently forced the issue in the pass rush Thursday night. Smith already has better inside moves than most young pass-rushers. It enables him to take advantage of tackles simply guarding the corner against an outside rush. He has flashed enough power that he may offer the Broncos something at left defensive end in their specialty packages with both Ware and Miller in the game. Drop Malik Jackson into the middle the defensive line and that's one of the better rush packages the Broncos have been able to trot out in quite some time.
  • The Broncos are likely too crowded on the depth chart to accommodate him, but undrafted rookie defensive end Kenny Anunike merits a long look for the team’s practice squad. The guy makes things happen.
  • The Seahawks took their swings at rookie cornerback Bradley Roby, the Broncos’ first-round pick this past May. That was especially true when Roby lined up well off the line of scrimmage, outside of the 5-yard chuck zone. On the Seahawks' last possession of the first half, Tarvaris Jackson completed passes to Paul Richardson, for 12 and 9 yards, on plays where Roby surrendered a big cushion at the snap. If the rookie is going to give that much ground and the free release for the receiver that comes with it, he’s going to have to close on the ball more quickly.
  • Brandon Marshall and rookie Lamin Barrow were lined up in the two linebacker spots in the Broncos’ second-team nickel. They will almost certainly be among the six or seven players the Broncos keep at the position as will Lerentee McCray, who started at strongside linebacker for Miller.
  • Garland, who was formally moved to guard this past offseason, and Vinston Painter were in two guard spots with the second-team offense.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Just a few days ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said because no fans have been able to attend the team’s training camp practices this year due to construction at the Broncos' complex, that the players might need something to boost them "especially when you get into that third or fourth padded practice and it’s kind of the dog days of training camp."

Well, Monday morning marked the team’s third padded practice of training camp and Manning took it upon himself to give the workout a little kick start. The Broncos routinely play music out of a speaker roughly the size of a Smart Car while the team stretches.

Each day brings a different musical selection from a different player or coach, ranging all over the genre map. Monday’s offering was "Rocky Top," a remember-when country song played at almost every play stoppage and/or touchdown by the University of Tennessee marching band – Manning’s alma mater.

So, as the song played Monday, Manning offered up the dance steps to go along with it. Punter Britton Colquitt, also a former University of Tennessee player, joined in as well.

The video of the five-time NFL MVP is already making the social media rounds.

"I love it," said defensive end Malik Jackson, another former Vol on the Broncos’ roster. "They need to play it every day. ‘Rocky Top’ is awesome. Go Vols."

"It was his day to pick the music so it wasn’t a surprise to me what it was going to be," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said.
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.

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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer “we don’t draft All Pros, we have to make them.’’

And over the course of the next week we’ll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, some will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season’s run to the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeMalik Jackson
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesMalik Jackson played a little more than half of the defensive snaps last season but still posted six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Today: Defensive end/defensive tackle Malik Jackson

When Jackson arrived with the Broncos he was a player who had functioned well both at end and tackle during his time at the University of Tennessee. He consistently showed the ability to affect games in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference where most weeks it was another potential NFL draft pick across from him. He was routinely quick off the ball, usually the first out of his stance at the snap in the Volunteers' front, as well as USC before his transfer.

But he has been more than that in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme. So much so, Jackson continues to force his way into the team’s thinking about how it does things and who gets to play.

And by any measure, statistical or game video, Jackson deserves even more snaps than he got this past season. Whether he actually gets them is a question, however, given both Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson are on track to return to the lineup after spending part of the 2013 season on injured reserve.

The Broncos also added DeMarcus Ware in free agency so the snaps across the defensive front will be harder to come by at times. But Del Rio loves to work situations with a variety of personnel groupings as he believes the lure of some playing time keeps everyone engaged -- “we’ve proven to them if they show us they can offer something, they’ll play,’’ Del Rio said -- as well as keep more players fresher longer during the season.

That approach doesn’t affect Ware, a member of the league’s 100-sack club in his career, but Jackson is in that situational group. But no player on the Broncos’ depth chart made the most of those snaps like Jackson did last season.

He can play the defensive left end on early downs -- the power or strongside end -- with enough physicality to hold the edge and then move down on the inside on passing downs and play with athleticism. And in doing that, consider what he did with his playing time last season.

Jackson played 591 snaps in the regular season, or 52.3 percent of the team’s total. And yet he was second on the team in sacks (six), led the team’s defensive linemen in tackles (42, seventh on the team overall) and led the team in tackles for loss (11) as well as hits on the quarterback (15), often outdistancing players who spent far more time on the field than he did.

Some of those numbers were impacted by Von Miller’s six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and the fact Miller missed the regular-season finale after suffering a torn ACL as well. Wolfe’s struggles on the field following a preseason neck injury also figured in, even before Wolfe went on injured reserve after suffering seizure-like symptoms.

But the totals also speak to Jackson’s ability to affect offenses when he’s in the lineup from wherever he is in the formation. Wolfe played a similar inside-outside role in a productive rookie season in 2012 so Del Rio does have some balancing-act work to do with two players who have filled similar roles.

The Broncos spent 66 percent of their snaps in the nickel last season and figure to be somewhere north of the 60-percent mark this season, even with the power-first NFC West rotation on the schedule. So Jackson and Wolfe figure to spend more time in the rotation as rush tackles, as it were, with Ware and Miller in the outside spots.

But Jackson’s production can’t be ignored and should be rewarded until somebody else's is better.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During this past week's minicamp workouts, you could see plenty of the Denver Broncos' top draft picks on display on offense.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and left tackle Ryan Clady are former first-round picks by the team. Guard Orlando Franklin, running back Montee Ball and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer are former second-round picks. Rookie tackle Michael Schofield, who will need a remember-when training camp to earn the starting right tackle job but is slated to get a long look, was a third-round pick last month.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos have gotten critical production from late-round picks such as sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan.
Of the players who project in the top tier of the rotation on offense, tight end Julius Thomas -- a fourth-round selection in 2011 -- is the lowest draft pick among the players originally selected by the Broncos.

The defense, however, is a bit of a different matter, at least the top of the performance food chain.

"I think we've got some guys who prove it doesn't matter how you got here," said linebacker Danny Trevathan. "It matters what you do when you get here. I don't know if it's like that everywhere, but it's like that here."

So much so that an argument could easily be made that, as the Broncos closed out the regular season in 2013, the three players on defense not named Terrance Knighton who were playing the best were Trevathan, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle/end Malik Jackson. Harris, who went to injured reserve with a partially torn ACL in January, was an undrafted rookie who made the roster in 2011. Jackson was a fifth-round pick in 2012, and Trevathan was a sixth-round pick in '12.

That's a lot of top-shelf production from players taken on the draft's third day and just the kind of performance a team has to have in the annual selection event if it's going to compete over the long haul and avoid the anchor of "dead" money on the salary cap from free agents no longer on the roster who essentially were signed to repair draft mistakes in previous years.

Among the projected starters on defense, the Broncos have committed some early picks on defense in the John Elway/John Fox era. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Von Miller are former first-round picks, and this year's top Denver pick, cornerback Bradley Roby, is slated to play in the nickel. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe is a former second-round pick.

Nate Irving, a former third-round pick, sits atop the depth chart at middle linebacker, but he will have to hold off this year's fifth-round pick, Lamin Barrow, to keep the job. Barrow is a third-day pick who already has the look of a guy who's going to push early and often for playing time.

It is what Elway, as the team's chief decision-maker, needs to happen if he's going to be able to stick to his mantra that the Broncos are trying "to win [from] now on." Because, although the first- and second-day picks get the biggest headlines, it takes the third-day guys added into the equation to get any team into the biggest games.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos try to shed their finesse label many in the league have affixed to them -- a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl will do that -- they will look to a front they believe has the potential to fuel a defensive resurgence.

Now, the caveat of how rose-colored glasses of the offseason tints all conversations about what's to come certainly applies here. Players are healthy, checks have been written in free agency, draft picks secured and new faces abound on the depth chart.

But for a team that has tried to bulk up on defense -- tried to add more speed and get a little nastier edge along the way -- the interior of the defensive line could be a foundation for all of that.

"I thought Terrance [Knighton] stepped up and had a big year for us," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "[He] really played well down the stretch and he's now a real anchor for our front. Not only physically -- he's a very strong, talented guy -- but also the leadership ability he brings.

"There's great competition in there," Del Rio said. "You've got Malik [Jackson], who stepped in and played well. [Sylvester Williams], who stepped up when [Kevin Vickerson] was injured and played well. And now you've got Derek Wolfe back and Vickerson on the mend, and so you've got some talent in there and those guys will sort it out through competition."

Knighton and Vickerson are both the early-down, sun-blockers Del Rio wants on the interior. And this time last year the two were the unquestioned starters.

But as Vickerson continues to work back from a hip injury that landed him on injured reserve last November, Williams has worked with the starters in recent workouts. Williams was the Broncos' first-round pick and the Broncos believe he has the potential to be the kind of player who is strong enough to anchor in the run game as well as disrupt things behind the line of scrimmage.

Jackson can play both at tackle on passing downs as well as end in the pass rush. He one of the most efficient players in the league having finished among the team leaders in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits despite playing just more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps. Wolfe, who finished the '13 season on injured reserve after showing big promise as a rookie in 2012, can also play at end and tackle.

Toss in a late free agent signing in Marvin Austin and the Broncos believe they can mix-and-match up front effectively enough to consistently free the outside rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said the Broncos had a first-round grade on Austin three years before injuries derailed much of his first three seasons in the league.

"I think we can do some things," Knighton said. "But everybody has to get to work and just play. But we have the guys for the jobs."

Del Rio likes to vary the team's fronts, especially in their specialty packages. And the Broncos spent the majority of their defensive snaps in the nickel (five defensive backs) last season and figure to be forced to play as if it's the base defense much of the time again. However their schedule rotation does include the rugged NFC West this time around.

With preseason games against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as well, the Broncos will play six games in all against the four NFC West teams so the Broncos figure to get tested plenty in the power game as well.

"But I feel good about our group," Del Rio said.
In the days that followed the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl loss, John Elway said one of the early bright spots to the start of the offseason was “moving the names."

The names Elway moved were on the rather hefty list of players who had finished the 2013 season beneath the heading of “injured reserve."

“And when I took those names and put that back under the roster, I felt a little better about our team right there," Elway said. “Getting those guys back on the field makes us better … and if their recovery keeps going as they have, we’ll continue to feel good."

Now, the caveat here, and anywhere you’re talking about the recovery of an injured NFL player, is that no team, no player, ever says anybody is behind schedule in his recovery. As in ever.

But there is no question the list of players the Broncos had on injured reserve in 2013 was impressive in its depth, especially considering the team still finished 13-3 on the way to a Super Bowl appearance. Still, the Broncos have plans for 2014, plans that require a select group of recovering players to be all they can be.


LT Ryan Clady. When they signed Will Montgomery last week, the Broncos were getting a power player who was miscast at times in the Redskins’ zone-run scheme.

When Broncos coach John Fox says the team will play the best five as the starting offensive line, that usually means some shuffling is on the horizon to get those best five on the field. Montgomery, who has stared at guard and center in his career, will get a long look to be the starting center. And at the moment, the left guard spot -- where Zane Beadles has played -- will be filled by Orlando Franklin or Manny Ramirez.

The decision will eventually come down to whether bumping Franklin inside and moving the more mobile Chris Clark to right tackle makes for the best five.

But none of those plans will mean much if Clady isn’t himself as he returns from last year’s foot surgery. Clady, the final first-round pick of Mike Shanahan’s tenure in Denver, is the football gift that has kept on giving.

He is one of the best, and for a team that would like to work out of open formations as much as the Broncos do, Clady is key to opening up more of the passing game. Quarterback Peyton Manning can always get the ball out and did last season on the way to a pile of offensive records with Clady out of the lineup, but he would have more choices in the pattern with Clady on the blind side.

Elway has said Clady will be ready for the season, but he has now had knee, shoulder and foot surgery over the past four years.

CB Chris Harris Jr. Again, a lot of plans hinge on Harris’ recovery. He did tear his ACL all the way through and did not damage any of the other ligaments in the knee, so he has publicly said he believes he’ll be ready to go for the regular season despite suffering his injury in January.

The Broncos signed Aqib Talib in free agency, and Talib projects as the other starter alongside Harris. But the Broncos spent more time in the nickel last season than they did in any other defensive package. The Broncos say Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, is ready to enter the rotation, but the Broncos still need some attention here in the draft and more size at the position as a whole.

But if Harris isn’t ready to go, it’s an issue, especially when you consider Talib. He has the ability to match up on any receiver he would face, but Talib has yet to play 16 games in a season in his NFL career.

LB Von Miller. At his best, Miller is a game-changer in the Broncos defense. Trouble is the Broncos haven’t seen his best since the 2012 season after a suspension, an intentional weight gain he said was to add more power to his game and his knee injury all turned 2013 into a difficult run.

With Miller’s contract set to run out after the 2014 season, the Broncos are faced with a rather large decision to make on the guy they made the second pick of the 2011 draft. On the business side, they need to see a player on and off the field worthy of the long-term commitment Miller’s representatives will be looking to secure.

On the football side, Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s master plan on defense would require DeMarcus Ware and Miller in the formation. Miller’s timetable to return will depend on his knee, but the Broncos need him to be all-in on getting back and having things in order off the field as well as on it.

The D-line three-pack. Ware’s signing changes the dynamic in the Broncos’ defensive front. Adding a 100-sack guy will do that.

But Del Rio would like to use plenty of people in plenty of roles. “Our guys know if you show you can help us, we’ll put you in a position to do it," he said.

Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip), defensive end Derek Wolfe (illness) and defensive end Quanterus Smith (knee) will be in that mix after finishing last season on IR.

Malik Jackson has made the most of his time on the field when others have not been in the lineup, and he’ll get more snaps in the coming season at the expense of others. Jackson can play the power (left) end when needed and move down inside when the Broncos go to nickel and dime looks. That versatility affords him plenty of opportunities.

Vickerson is largely an early-down player at this point, but the combination of Vickerson and Terrance Knighton in the middle of the formation gives Denver plenty of bulk. That said, Sylvester Williams should push for more snaps this season or he isn’t the prospect he showed himself to be before last April’s draft. Those snaps would most likely come in Vickerson’s spot.

But until Miller comes back, the Broncos need Smith to be the guy who put in a three-sack game against Alabama in his final season at Western Kentucky and at least be ready to be a situational rusher. Smith’s injury -- a torn ACL -- happened in that season, so he will be almost two years out when the regular season begins.

“Those things are always uncertain until they’re all back," Fox said. “But we feel good about where everybody is there, and your defense is going to look a lot different, play a lot different if all of those guys are in it. That’s not an excuse, just a fact."
The Denver Broncos showed what they thought of their projected depth chart by where, and how quickly, they spent their significant pile of money in the hours after free agency began.

They went defense, defense and defense in T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware before they then signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. But even given those four marquee efforts, the Broncos said a lot about their plans by what they didn't do in free agency.

In short, as general manager John Elway put it, "some of these young guys have to step up and be ready to contribute ... that's the way it has to be."