Denver Broncos: Wade Phillips
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Through the early part of NFL free agency, the Denver Broncos have seen six players who started at least one game for the team in the past two seasons leave and signed a handful of players to try and cover the losses.
They also hope they did the math correctly and that four compensatory draft picks are headed their way on Monday to give the Broncos at least a 10-player draft class. At the moment, they have 73 players under contract for the coming season -- 34 on offense, 34 on defense and five specialists.
Here's the second of a three-day look at the current depth chart; tracking the departures and the signings to see where work still needs to be done.
Monday: Special teams
Defensive line: For the first time since 2010, the Broncos will sport a 3-4 look on defense this season. And while some of what they've done over the past four seasons has included plenty of 3-4 principles along the way, especially in the defensive front, it will be a change that will require some personnel decisions. With DeMarcus Ware likely to move to an outside linebacker spot, the Broncos have Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe as the projected starters at end.
Overall, the Broncos have seven players they list at defensive end on the roster, but most do not fit the profile of an end in a 3-4 scheme. Also, at the moment, two of those players -- Chase Vaughn and Gerald Rivers -- are "futures" signees, as two others, Quanterus Smith and Kenny Anunike, spent all or part of the 2014 season on injured reserve. Vaughn, Rivers and Smith also check in at 258 or fewer pounds as well, with Vaughn at 260, so they are all undersized for end in the new scheme and really have the body types for outside linebackers in a 3-4.
Free-agent signee Vance Walker, a 305-pounder, has played end in the 3-4 previously in his career and is expected to be in the rotation there. But put all that with Sylvester Williams and Marvin Austin Jr. as the only candidates to play the nose tackle at the moment, with Walker as a possible stop-gap if needed, and the Broncos will have the defensive front on the draft radar.
Linebacker: The Broncos certainly like their starting point here with Ware and Von Miller projected to be the starting outside linebackers to go with Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan projected at the two inside linebacker spots if Trevathan's return from last season's leg injuries continues as the Broncos hope. At the moment Marshall is expected to be the middle linebacker on the inside with Trevathan in weak-side inside linebacker.
Both Marshall and Trevathan have had 100-tackle seasons over the past two years -- Marshall in '14, Trevathan in '13 -- so the Broncos spot a quality grouping in the starting lineup with two proven edge rushers and two productive, athletic players who play with assignment discipline on the inside.
They have some depth having re-signed Steven Johnson to go with two picks from last year's draft class in Corey Nelson and Lamin Barrow. Nelson and Barrow played 109 and 49 snaps respectively on defense last season, but the Broncos continue to like their potential.
Also, Lerentee McCray, who played 121 snaps on defense last season, is a player the Broncos' former coaching staff believed could be a situational rusher, so it remains to be seen what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips does with him. Reggie Walker also signed this past week as well and while Walker likely sees time on special teams first, he can play any of the four linebacker spots in a 3-4 if needed and started six games over the last two seasons for the San Diego Chargers.
Still, the Broncos, because Trevathan is coming off three separate left leg injuries, would give a long look to the bigger inside linebackers in the draft class.
Defensive back: Given most defensive coordinators in the league rarely feel like they have enough depth at cornerback in these pass-happy times, the Broncos will always look for value in a coverage player on the draft board.
They signed Darian Stewart as an option to pair with T.J. Ward in some situations at safety, but they also have players such as Omar Bolden, Roby and Webster they can move around the formation in other personnel groupings, who are sure tacklers along the line of scrimmage and can cover in the open field.
The safety class in this draft is not considered deep, so for the teams who don't dive in early, they will have a difficult time in finding a player in the middle rounds worthy of the pick, but there is some value to be found at the back of the board.
With an opening at free safety after Rahim Moore departed to the Houston Texans in free agency, the Denver Broncos signed Stewart Friday to a two-year deal. And Stewart now joins a secondary where the free safety was the only starting position not manned by a Pro Bowler last season.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward each played in the Pro Bowl in January.
"I feel like I’m the final piece to the puzzle," Stewart said on a conference call Friday from Atlanta, where he was scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons. "The secondary, they’re one of the tops in the league, and I felt like they can get it done out there. We have a great organization and we have the personnel in place to get it done."
Moore, who got a three-year, $12 million deal from the Texans, started 48 games in his four seasons with the Broncos. The draft class is considered to be thin at the position, so Broncos executive vice president of football operatons/general manager John Elway had said earlier in the week that safety was one of the positions where the team would try to sign a player in the coming days.
Stewart played in all 16 games, starting 14, for the Baltimore Ravens last season. Some personnel executives said in recent days that Stewart was guilty of mental errors at times, but some who have coached him say they liked his willingness to stick his nose into the action and had improved his reliability as a tackler.
"I’m just ready to work. I feel like I always play with a chip on my shoulder, and that chip still remains," Stewart said. "I’m not done yet, I’m just ready to make plays. I’m excited about coming out there and getting to work and working with the secondary."
Stewart entered the league with the Rams as an undrafted rookie in 2010. The Broncos won’t specifically divvy up the playing time until the new coaching staff gets the players on the field.
But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has the personnel to do at least some mix-and-match work in the secondary in a variety of down-and-distance situations if he wishes. The Broncos used Bradley Roby on 75 percent of the defense’s snaps last season, and his playing time isn't likely to decrease as offenses aren't going to stop running plenty of three- and four-wide receiver sets against Denver.
Players like Omar Bolden, who has played at both cornerback and safety for the Broncos, could also get some situational work, as could safety David Bruton Jr., who often played in the team’s seven-defensive back look last season.
Stewart said he’s simply ready to dive in wherever he’s needed.
"One thing about this league, the more you can do, the better off you will be." he said. "My versatility, it helps me a lot. But not just with the safeties -- just trying to know where everyone’s at. I take pride in that. It all plays its part, especially with run fits and on the back end."
Stewart added he met Ward at the 2010 scouting combine, when Ward was coming into the league after finishing his career at the University of Oregon. Stewart was actually listed as a strong safety prospect by many teams before that draft.
"I think we will work together just fine. ... He's a good dude," Stewart said. "He’s a thumper and I think I add to their bunch. It’s great with my versatility, playing back deep and getting the ball."
“I can play any position," Walker said Thursday shortly after signing his deal with the Broncos. “Really whatever they need me to do, whether it’s D-end or nose (tackle) ... It’s a penetrating type of defense, so really wherever they feel that I fit. I spoke with the coaches and they’re pretty impressed that I can play all positions. It’s really wherever they believe I fit."
In John Elway’s tenure as the team’s top football decision-maker, the team has often looked for players after the initial signing frenzy of free agency subsides a bit, often signing those players to one- or two-year deals. Terrance Knighton and Wes Welker signed two-year deals in 2013, while Shaun Phillips was added on a one-year deal.
The Broncos signed a host of players to one-year contracts in 2012, including Brandon Stokley, Keith Brooking and Justin Bannan.
Walker, who is entering his seventh NFL season, signed a two-year, $4 million deal. The Broncos have seen him plenty over the last two seasons, as Walker was with the Chiefs last season and the Raiders in 2013.
Walker figures to be a rotational player for the Broncos. Walker played fewer than 10 snaps on defense in seven games last season for the Chiefs. He played more than 20 snaps on defense in three, with a season-most 53 against the Raiders in December.
Walker’s versatility was an attraction as the Broncos transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. With the Broncos having used up most of the workable salary cap space, Walker fits their on-field and budgetary needs.
"I really liked what Coach [Gary] Kubiak is doing, what he’s building, and also [defensive Coordinator] Coach [Wade] Phillips," Walker said. “He’s got a great defense. I studied him a good bit when he was coaching with the Texans, so I know a good bit about his game and am really excited to play for him."
The Broncos felt like they good depth in the defensive line on the roster to make the transition into Phillips’ defense with Sylvester Williams, Marvin Austin Jr., Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.
But Elway said earlier this week the team was still looking hard at available defensive linemen, especially players that could potentially play more than one spot. Walker, who visited the Broncos Thursday, fit that profile. After meeting with the coaches, including defensive line coach Bill Kollar, the Broncos signed Walker.
“[Kollar] is very energetic," Walker said. “He knows his stuff though. He’s very knowledgeable about a lot of things. He watched a good bit of film on me and gave me some feedback. We talked a lot about football for a couple hours. I was just really impressed with him. He seems like a great coach to have. I’m excited to work with him."
Elway said the Broncos have an idea of where they think the players will fit in the defensive line, but those roles won't be fully determined until the coaches see the players in mini-camps and OTAs.
Walker was in the Broncos' Dove Valley complex earlier in the day and formally signed his two-year, $4 million deal early in the afternoon.
Walker, who will turn 28 next month, is set to enter his seventh NFL season. The Broncos have seen him plenty over the last two years since he played last season with the Kansas City Chiefs and in 2013 with the Oakland Raiders. He spent four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as well, having been a seventh-round draft pick by the team in 2009. Walker was also a teammate of Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at Georgia Tech.
He's played at defensive end in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense and played at defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense with the Falcons. In all he's started 28 games and played in at least 15 games a season in five of his six seasons in the league.
The Broncos have been on the hunt for more depth on the defensive front, but the plan was to wait after they had cleared the opening hours of free agency to settle in.
"It just slows down, now you get out of the frenzy of everything and you can kind of get back to the reality, try to find some good football players," said general manager John Elway.
At the moment the Broncos plan to use Sylvester Williams and/or Marvin Austin Jr. at nose tackle in their new defensive scheme. However, Elway also said this week that the specific decisions about where players will line up for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be made after the offseason work begins on the field.
Elway had said on Wednesday that the Broncos would keep looking to add a player or two in the defensive line in advance of Walker's visit and included Broncos free agent Mitch Unrein among the possibilities as well.
"I think [the coaches] have got to get a feel for them, either nose or [defensive end] on the back side," Elway said. " … We're working on getting Unrein back and continue to look at the market."
Also Thursday the Broncos had safety Darian Stewart in for a visit. Stewart played the 2014 season with the Baltimore Ravens when Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator. The team also signed punter Karl Schmitz, who can also kick off, to a deal Thursday.
Schmitz, who graduated from Missouri-St. Louis in 2011, has an array of YouTube videos that show his work, including a 70-yard field goal using a kicking stand for the ball -- no snap, no hold. Schmitz will be an NFL rookie this season.
Today: Rahim Moore
Wednesday: Virgil Green
However, it was Moore who played more snaps this past season -- 1,054, which was 51 more than Ward -- and he would have played the most snaps in 2013 as well had he not gone to injured reserve in November of that season.
So, the Broncos have liked Moore enough to have played him more than any other defender on the roster this past season, but they might not like him enough to keep him since they already have three high-dollar, long-term contracts in that position group.
So Moore joins the sure-we'd-like-him-back free agents the Broncos have, a list that includes defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and tight end Virgil Green, and now it’s just a matter of whether the budget allows the team to offer Moore the kind of contract that is competitive from what he can likely receive elsewhere. Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said, "we have to see where the number is and what the budget is and who fits for us."
Last month coach Gary Kubiak said of Moore; "He’s played well ... he played very well. The defense played well ... and we’ll have to see how the other one works out, but we’d love to have him back."
From a football standpoint, Moore's position in the defense might be in flux as the decision of what to do at free safety still has to be made by the incoming defensive staff, led by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Especially since, in these pass-happy times, the defense is spending the majority of the time in the nickel package -- five defensive backs.
That also means they are trying to find enough quality coverage players who can hold up in 1-on-1 matchups in space and still keep enough disciplined tacklers on the field to defend the run. Offenses have tried, with some success, to put the Broncos in the nickel on early downs and pound away in the run game against the lighter formation.
It means the Broncos could be, at least in some situational work, looking for more of a hybrid cornerback/safety type to man the free safety spot on some downs. So, instead of player piling up more than 1,000 snaps as Moore did, they might be looking at more of a mix and match approach, but none of that gets worked out until they actually get to put players through the paces on the field.
And the Broncos don’t get on the field until long after free agency opens. So, they can only plan right now, and the odds are a big part of that plan will be what they want to do after Moore moves on.
Today: Terrance Knighton
Saturday: Orlando Franklin
He’d like that to be in Denver, “because this is a great spot, a great locker room."
And, of course, the Broncos' defensive captain would like to maximize his earning potential in what is a short career window for players, because “you do have to think about down the road, taking care of things, getting yourself in a good position."
Whether all of that adds up to Knighton and the Broncos eventually putting pen to paper, with smiles all around, remains to be seen. Knighton, on several fronts, has expressed his frustration in recent weeks with a lack of movement on that front from team officials.
The Broncos have had some discussions with representatives for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas -- the team's highest-profile free agents -- in recent weeks and months. Team officials, including director of football administration Mike Sullivan, who handles the team’s contract negotiations with players, made the rounds at the scouting combine with a variety of agents, including Knighton's.
But for the most part, Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he’s going to let the market open and then see what kinds of salary numbers are swirling around the players, and that includes Knighton.
“Obviously, players want all the money and they want to play where they want to play," Elway said in Indianapolis. “Heck, I’ve been a player; I understand that, but I can’t calm the frustration because we have to do what’s best for the Broncos and also know we would love to have him back, but we’ve got to see what that number is."
Elway said, in the end, it’s about “what we can fit and who can fit in there."
It means Knighton, who played 48.5 percent of the defensive snaps this past season (520 in all) as most often an early-down player, will almost certainly face a decision about a little more money somewhere else or a Broncos team that had 11 players named to the Pro Bowl with Peyton Manning poised to formally return for the 2015 season. Oakland, with former Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio now the team's coach, is expected to make an offer.
Knighton thinks highly of Del Rio and Del Rio has now made it a point to have Knighton in his defense in both Jacksonville and Denver. Knighton fits, as a nose tackle, in Wade Phillips’ defense for the Broncos, but he’s also at a position where the Broncos believe Sylvester Williams, their first-round pick in 2013, is ready for more – he played 39.7 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
The Broncos also have, with Manning’s imminent return, needs along the offensive line to address with the hunt for at least two and possibly three new starters as well as at tight end, where the team’s top three players at the position are all scheduled to be free agents.
It’s why Knighton has also said “it’s a business at the end of the day and they’re going to do what they think is best and I’ll do what I think is best."
Even Phillips, when he was formally introduced to his new job, said "I think everybody knows we're going to a 3-4."
Over the last four seasons with John Fox as head coach the team played with 3-4 principles on defense, so given how the defense was built, this isn't some from-the-ground up transition. The Broncos have linemen -- Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe -- already in house who should transition nicely.
They have three players under contract in the secondary who went to the Pro Bowl in Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward to go with growing expectations for where Bradley Roby can go in Year 2.
The player with the biggest jump to make is Williams. Start with the position he plays.
Joe Collier, who knows a thing or three or 9,000 about the 3-4 defense -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has publicly said he learned the 3-4 from Collier -- has always said the most important position in the defense is the nose tackle, the big guy in the middle of the defensive line. Collier has said "if you don't have that guy you can't play the defense … or play the defense like you need to play it."
And right now that guy would be Williams. As coach Gary Kubiak has pointed out in recent days, Phillips has adjusted to personnel through the years, lining up a mammoth nose tackle directly over the center or using a slightly smaller (relative term) player lined up slightly to one shoulder of the center. Williams, at 313 pounds, would be considered one of the "smaller'' types.
"Wade has played with both, Wade has had the huge guy and … Wade has played with the small guy -- Earl Mitchell in Houston," Kubiak said. "Wade has adjusted to both kinds of nose guard."
Kubiak also scored a bonus when Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien allowed defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who has family in Colorado, to accept a position on Kubiak's staff. Kollar is one of the most respected position coaches in the league and the players will find he is waiting to prod them plenty toward better things.
When the topic of Williams came up at the scouting combine last week, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said: "Sylvester's going to tested, going to get pushed."
The Broncos will look hard at interior defensive linemen in the draft as well, and there is also the matter of Terrance Knighton. Knighton, too, would fit the nose tackle role for the Broncos, but he's also an unrestricted free agent.
Elway has said the Broncos will talk to Knighton's representatives, but also added the team had to see "where the market is," which often can mean the player will find bigger offers elsewhere.
It all pushes Williams, the Broncos first-round pick in the 2013 draft, to the front of the line.
2. Job opening at fullback: Kubiak was clear the Broncos are on the hunt for a fullback, a position they did not stock on the roster last season. The Broncos used tight end Virgil Green at times as a lead back, as well as reserve guard Ben Garland. They did line up in a two-back look on a smattering of snaps this past season, usually with three tight ends in the formation as well in short-yardage situations. Of the current backs on the roster Juwan Thompson is the most likely candidate, but Kubiak added a "smaller tight end’’ might fit the job description as well. “Obviously I’ve had one on my team all the time, it’s something we’ve discussed, that we’re going to have to find, or have to build,’’ Kubiak said. He added players who fit the bill would be reviewed over the next week at the combine as well as in the weeks leading up to the draft.
3. Come ready to work C.J.: Running back C.J. Anderson, whose roster spot was on shaky ground last spring when he showed up to the start of last year’s offseason workouts a little heavier than the Broncos coaches wanted and looked sluggish in that early work. But through training camp and into the season Anderson rebounded for 648 yards rushing over the last six regular-season games. And from a football perspective Anderson is considered a quality, potentially immensely productive fit in the run game Kubiak will install. Kubiak said he confirmed that in a conversation with Anderson shortly after Kubiak was hired. Asked Wednesday if Anderson would be the starter, Kubiak said; “He’s got to go earn that. I think when he walked off the field last year he was playing that way … I told that when I talked to him, I said ‘C.J., when you come back to the offseason, you need to walk in here handling yourself like a starter.’’
4. Grow up fast: Of the Broncos' draft class of 2014, only the defensive players selected got any significant playing time, especially first-round pick, cornerback Bradley Roby. But of the offensive players in the class – wide receiver Cody Latimer, tackle Michael Schofield and center Matt Paradis – only Latimer played in a game and he played only 37 snaps on offense all season. Kubiak said he has looked at practice video of that group, from both OTAs and into the season, and believes all three will be in the mix to be considered for far bigger roles this time around. Kubiak said he liked Schofield leading up to last year’s draft and that he liked what he has seen from Paradis as well. On Latimer he said; “I spent a whole day with him in Baltimore [before the ’14 draft], we really, really liked him. I think a lot of his ability.’’
5. On the nose: Kubiak said the Broncos would like to retain as many of their pending unrestricted free agents as possible, including defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Knighton would be one of the best fits to be the nose tackle in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, but Kubiak said the Broncos could adjust to the personnel they have. “Wade has played with both, Wade has had the huge guy [at nose tackle] and … Wade has played with the small guy – Earl Mitchell in Houston.’’ Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are expected to move smoothly into the two defensive end spots in the three-man front, and Kubiak said he liked the potential of both players.
A closer look at the areas the Broncos could address in the draft. We'll continue today with a look at the linebackers, which are scheduled to work out Sunday in Indianapolis.
Position of need: As they install Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, they have plenty to work with at the position, starting with impact edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to line up at outside linebacker. Add in Brandon Marshall, the team's leading tackler this past season, to move into one of the inside linebacker spots as well as the Broncos' hope for a healthy return of Danny Trevathan, and that's a quality group. But the Broncos will still be on the hunt for a bigger, early-down presence on the inside to go with building some depth behind Miller and Ware.
Three players the Broncos could target in the draft:
Denzel Perryman, ILB, Miami (Fla.): Perryman measured out at 5-foot-10 5/8 inches tall at the Senior Bowl and weighed in at 242 pounds. He is a consistent tackler who plays with power in the middle of the field and has shown good range to with good instincts. When you look at the game video you see he prepares and is rarely fooled.
Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: Like Perryman, if the Broncos want a chance at him they would likely have to commit their first-round pick (28th overall) to do it. McKinney is a tall, athletic player with a big reach and may even translate to one of the outside linebacker spots because of it. But he usually squares up blockers in run defense, sheds and plays the ball well. He's a taller player, so when he does miss tackles he misses them because he took on the ballcarrier too high.
Nate Orchard, OLB, Utah: Take a look at the Senior Bowl practices and you see a prospect who showed pass-rush skills, did just fine in coverage and understands how to hold the edge in run defense. He's got good size (6-3 1/4, 251 pounds at the Senior Bowl), a high-effort player who was a three-year starter. Knows how shed blockers and use his hands to keep himself in a position to make plays.
But there was a moment in the Denver Broncos’ stretch drive this past regular season when linebacker Von Miller and defensive end DeMarcus Ware were seated next to each other and were asked to name the game to that point in the season when the Broncos had done the best job rushing the passer. And both players, simultaneously and without hesitation, said; “49ers.’’
Stands to reason, at least from the perspective of sack artists, since the game video revealed the Broncos not only were tied for the season best in sacks in the Oct. 19 win over the 49ers – they had six, one of two six-sack games during the season – but they were also the most aggressive in going about it in that game.
Eleven of those snaps included five pass rushers and on three snaps the Broncos sent at least six. The Broncos also had two games when they sent at least five pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks for 13 snaps – wins over the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins.
No team attempted more passes against the Broncos last season than the Bills did – 57 – and the 49ers’ 46 attempts amounted to the fifth-highest total for the season.
It all comes to light because if there was a consistent criticism of the Broncos’ defense in the public domain it was that Jack Del Rio, with the likes of Miller and Ware in the formation, wasn’t aggressive enough in the rush. Both Del Rio and coach John Fox routinely said, with logic on their side, the best strategy on defense in these pass-happy times was a defense that could consistently create pressure with four rushers – with those four players coming from anywhere in the formation – so the Broncos could have seven players in coverage.
And overall, the Broncos did lead the league in forcing three-and-outs this past season – 30.8 percent of offensive series – and the team set a franchise single-season record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game (79.8).
But in the biggest moments the league's big-name quarterbacks have gone about their business largely unencumbered, including the loss to the Indianapolis Colts last month. The Broncos have had one sack in their last three playoff losses combined in two home losses in the divisional round to finish out both 2012 and 2014 to go with the loss in Super Bowl XLVIII to close out the 2013 season.
In the Super Bowl loss Russell Wilson completed 69.2 percent of his passes while Andrew Luck completed 62.8 percent of his passes in the Colts’ win over the Broncos in January – neither was sacked by the Broncos. In the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season the Broncos sacked Joe Flacco once and while Flacco completed onlt 52.9 percent of his passes he threw for 331 yards on 18 completions.
So, while incoming defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has not promised a blitz-happy attack – he, too, likes to create as much pressure with four rushers as often as possible – he has promised an aggressive mindset.
“We’re aggressive,’’ Phillips said. “Defensive players, they’re aggressive by nature. I think you take something away from them when you don’t let them be. And aggressive doesn’t mean blitzing all the time, but it does mean coming off the football -- everybody coming off the football. You won’t see a square stance from a defensive lineman, so to speak for people who know football, where you’re reading. This is an attack defense, and that’s the way players like to play. You get the best results out of that and I think you play the best that way so we’ll be that way.’’
At the Pro Bowl, in the days leading up to the Super Bowl they had hoped to be playing in, both Miller and Ware offered a prelude to those sentiments. Both players, surrounded by Super Bowl reminders in the stadium where the title game would be played just a week later, offered the hope of aggressiveness.
“You always want to get to the quarterback,’’ Miller said. “This defense has the players to do it, we need just to get in the lab and figure out how to be better. Because we had moments where we showed what we can do, but we didn’t do it enough, myself included, I know that.’’
“We feel like there’s more we can do,’’ Ware said. “We want every play to be hard on the quarterback.’’
Today: Defensive backs | Tuesday: Special teams | Rest of the series
When Wade Phillips accepted the Broncos' offer to be the team's defensive coordinator he certainly knew what he was getting himself into -- he called it "probably the best situation, defensively, that I've come into." Not only does he have two top-shelf edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but Phillips will now get to work with a secondary that sent three players to the Pro Bowl.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- the three Pro Bowl selections -- represent quite the starting point for the secondary. Many in the league considered Harris to be the best at his position this past season, because of his ability to play both in the slot or on the outside, on either side of the formation.
Salary cap: The Broncos have invested at this position. Ward leads the way in '15 and will count $7.75 million against the cap with his $4 million base salary guaranteed on March 14. Talib will count $7 million against the salary cap and his $5.5 million base salary will be guaranteed when the new league year opens on March 10. Harris will count $3 million against the cap in the first full year in his new deal, while safety David Bruton Jr. is slated to count $1.65 million against the cap to go with cornerback Bradley Roby at $1.58 million. Omar Bolden ($778,607 against the cap) and Kayvon Webster ($731,950) are also under contract for at least 2015.
Pending free agents: Only two Broncos' defensive players were on the field for more than 1,000 snaps this past season -- Ward and Rahim Moore. Moore led the defense with 1,054 snaps and he is scheduled to be the only unrestricted free agent among the team's starters or top role players. The Broncos will look at what it would take to get Moore back, but with the team facing some other needs/decisions in free agency, Moore may be able to get a bigger offer elsewhere. Safety Quinton Carter, who has dealt with knee troubles for much of his career and finished this past season on injured reserve, is also an unrestricted free agent.
Who could stay: The Broncos have positioned themselves to have some consistency in the lineup over the long haul at this position, barring injury of course. Talib, who just turned 29 last week, is the oldest starter and Roby, the team's first-round pick in last year's draft, has the look of a starter-in-waiting even as he plays a big role in most of the defense's specialty packages.
Who could go: The Broncos have seen the growth in Moore, who genuinely wants to be a high-quality player and puts in the time to do it. He has shown mental toughness in how he has rebounded from the Broncos' double-overtime loss to close out the 2012 season -- the game-tying play in the closing seconds of regulation when Moore was the target of most of the blame some of his teammates should have shared. With the Broncos having some other things to address in free agency, starting with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas as well as the offensive line, Moore simply may be able to get more guaranteed money from somebody else.
What they like/want: The defense has plenty of proven players, but there is still a clean-slate element to things whenever a new coaching staff arrives. But overall they're well stocked at cornerback, especially if Webster turns into the player former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio consistently believed Webster can be, and Ward gives them the strong safety Phillips will want. They need to locate a free safety if Moore departs.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It's a 3 because one of the starting spots figures to be open if they don't re-sign Moore.
Today: Linebackers | Monday: Defensive backs | Rest of the series
Especially since Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are now outside linebackers in the Wade Phillips defense, so Phillips already has the edge players he needs to have the kind of pass rush he wants. But Brandon Marshall, who led the team in tackles last season, also projects to be a quality fit at one of the inside positions, as does Trevathan if his return from three separate injuries to his left leg goes well.
The Alpha: It’s time for Miller to step forward even a little more. He will turn 26 in late March, has had three seasons of at least 11.5 sacks, two with at least 14 sacks, and is entering the final year of his original rookie deal. There is every reason to expect Miller will flourish in Phillips’ defense, and Ware’s influence has helped -- Miller was a far more prominent voice in the team’s locker room this past season than he was in previous years. That transition would be closer to complete if his teammates saw enough to elect him a captain.
Salary cap: Miller leads the way with a $9.754 million cap figure, and Ware is at $8.667 million. The other half of Ware’s $7 million base salary is to be guaranteed on March 14 -- the first half was already guaranteed last year when he signed his deal. Trevathan, who will enter the last year of his deal in '15, will count $1.6 million against the cap. Everyone else at the position who is under contract carries a cap figure of $557,790 (Lamin Barrow) or less, including Todd Davis ($510,000), who was a starter down the stretch in '14.
Pending free agents: Marshall was signed off the Broncos’ practice squad to close out the 2013 season and went on to become one of their most indispensable players this past season. He will have to wait for his major payday. But he is a restricted free agent the Broncos would likely have to give the highest tender and still be prepared to match most any offer he would get from the outside. Irving, who finished the season on IR, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
Who could stay: Marshall isn't going anywhere, and most everybody else is under contract. The question for all of them will be how they transition into Phillips’ defense and find roles that suit them, especially for the younger players like Barrow, Davis, and Corey Nelson.
Who could go: With the Broncos set to address some issues on offense that could need attention in free agency, like the offensive line and at tight end, the crowd at linebacker -- especially with two picks from the 2014 draft at the position -- doesn’t help Irving’s cause.
What they like/want: They want to begin filling out the depth chart for the new scheme. The Broncos have certainly played with some 3-4 principles at times in recent seasons under John Fox, but it will be their full-time scheme now. And with Ware set to turn 33 in training camp, they might be looking to round out some future depth at outside linebacker. They have to quickly find players up to playing on the inside, alongside Marshall, or in their situational work in the nickel or dime.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 1, but this is a best-player-available team through and through, and if a physical middle linebacker type is on the board for them early in the draft, they would jump at that.
Wade Phillips, with his four decades of NFL experience, has arrived as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator to find the cupboard, talent-wise, pretty full.
"I’m pretty good at what I’m doing; I’ve done it a lot of times," Phillips said this week. "This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into -- or way better than any other situation I’ve come into. Normally they’ve had a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better. That’s what I do, is improve them."
Or as cornerback Chris Harris Jr., one of those Pro Bowl participants, said before Phillips was hired: “Whoever comes in is getting a defense ready to go. We can do big things."
The Broncos will do those things with a different scheme on defense. Phillips said Tuesday what most thought when he was formally announced as Jack Del Rio's replacement, that the Broncos will move to a 3-4 look on defense.
Former Broncos coach John Fox, first with Dennis Allen at defensive coordinator and then Del Rio, used plenty of hybrid fronts and often lined up in a 3-4 look in situational work over the past four seasons, including using a traditional 3-4 look when they faced teams who worked comfortably out of two-tight end formations or had a read-option quarterback.
But while Phillips’ scheme will be a far more traditional 3-4 look, he believes, especially with the ability to line up Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware as the team’s outside linebackers, to go with three Pro Bowl players in the secondary -- Harris, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward -- the personnel on hand will make it a smooth transition.
"The outside ‘backers, you want them to be the rush guys," Phillips said. "I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good ones. Simon Fletcher here had (16) sacks and I think he set the sack record here for a long time. So we can utilize the guys that have talents to rush. I’ve always said, ‘Hey, if he can rush well, if he’s a really great rusher, let him rush.’ It seems simple but sometimes people want to drop them in the pass and all that stuff. It’s also the cornerbacks, what they can do. It’s what Harris can do, what Talib can do. It’s whatever they can do really well, then we’re going to utilize that."
Miller, who has had at least 11.5 sacks in three of his four seasons with the Broncos, offers Phillips the kind of starting point he had in 2011 when Gary Kubiak hired Phillips to be the Texans defensive coordinator following a year when they finished 30th in total defense.
Ware played for Phillips in Dallas from 2007-10 and had 14, 20, 11 and 15.5 sacks in those four seasons. Also at linebacker, Brandon Marshall is expected to be a quick fit into one of the inside spots, as would Danny Trevathan if his recovery from an injury-marred 2014 -- three separate injuries to his left leg -- goes well.
“That’s what a defensive coordinator is in the NFL, you take the talent of the players you have and the really talented ones, you do what they do well and let them do it,’’ Phillips said. “It’s not the scheme itself, it’s the players … Utilize their talent, and that’s what we try to do and we’ve been pretty successful with that.”
In terms of the players on hand, the Broncos will have to answer the roster question at nose tackle. Terrance Knighton, who would be the most likely candidate there, is an unrestricted free agent who would be a coveted player for Del Rio in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach.
If Knighton isn’t re-signed -- and he is likely to get the biggest offer elsewhere -- then Sylvester Williams would get some work in the middle of the defensive line. The Broncos also have two players on the roster who project to be productive players at the two defensive end spots in a three-man front in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.
So, given all of that, Phillips was asked this week if there would be added pressure with the new gig.
"I don’t think there’s pressure not to mess it up, I think it’s to get them better," Phillips said.
"I’ve been lucky to get into the right situations with good players and I think we have them here."
Safe to say the three coordinators coach Gary Kubiak hired, like Kubiak himself, don't need a Google map, to find the Broncos facility.
Kubiak played nine seasons at quarterback for the Broncos and was an assistant coach on the Broncos staff for 11 more by the time he became Houston Texans coach in 2006. Kubiak was Elway's teammate in his playing career and was the offensive coordinator for the Broncos' in the last four years of Elway's playing career.
Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played 11 seasons at linebacker for the team and was an assistant coach in Denver for 15 seasons on both Mike Shanahan's and Josh McDaniels' staffs. Dennison, too, was a teammate of Elway's.
"I was going to come back to Colorado, working or not," Dennison said Tuesday, his second official day in his new office as the football staff returned to work this week. "This is where I really wanted to be, there was never a year where I wasn't a month in Colorado. It's an exceptional opportunity to come back and work from the Broncos."
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was the Broncos defensive coordinator from 1989 to 1992 and was the Broncos head coach in 1993 and 1994.
"We had a great six years here," Phillips said Tuesday. "It's a great town."
And special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis grew up in Arvada, Colorado, and spent his first four seasons as an NFL coach (1989-1992) on Dan Reeves' staff with the Broncos. DeCamillis said Tuesday his parents still live in the Denver area as do his two brothers.
Asked about his best Broncos memory growing up, DeCamillis said; "Probably the first Super Bowl with Red Miller. I can remember having a big party at our house, the Orange Crush, all that stuff."
Phillips, in his first official question-and-answer session since he was hired as the team's new defensive coordinator, provided a few nuggets along the way.
On being hired after the Broncos had pursued Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, a former Texans assistant with both Phillips and Gary Kubiak, Phillips said, "I think John [Elway] and Kube and myself all feel like Vance is a bright young star. But I believe I'm of first magnitude myself. I think that's the way they judge brightness of stars, anyway. So it worked out great. It worked out great for me and I think I'm going to do a great job for this team."
On why, after nine different NFL teams over almost four decades, he still wants to coach: "I love coaching. That's what I do. My wife, Laurie, wanted to get me out of the house after a year of being around so I love what I do. I was a lousy head coach, but I'm a pretty good defensive coordinator and that's what I do well. So I wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn't be happier."
On some of the best defenses he's had, Phillips said, "The '91 defense here was one of the best I've ever had. We lost 10-7 in the playoff game in Buffalo [the AFC Championship Game] but I think we threw a screen pass for a touchdown to them. That's how they got 10 [points]. We had a great bunch. I've had a great bunch everywhere I've been. I've been lucky to get into the right situations with good players and I think we have them here."
Both Kubiak and Elway had played in that game -- Kubiak took over for an injured Elway in the fourth quarter and went 11-of-12 passing for 136 yards in that quarter. But since it was Elway who threw the interception in that game, on a tipped pass that resulted in the Bills' touchdown, Phillips was then asked about the play that involved the team's current football boss. "Yeah, I don't know (laughing). I don't know who caught it either. Kube almost brought us back in that game. [Running back Steve] Sewell fumbled right at the end of the game and we missed three field goals in the wind. We had the opportunity to win it all there."
And finally on coming back, for his second stint with a team that fired him as coach following the 1994 season to hire Mike Shanahan, Phillips noted, "Somebody said about coming back to Denver, and I said, 'Well, when you've coached for 32 teams, you almost have to come back to one you've been with before.'"