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Predicting the Broncos starting defense in 2019 reveals top group

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The Broncos are hoping for better results this year. That’s why they went out and traded for quarterback Joe Flacco. It’s why they maneuvered through the salary cap to bring in top free agents like right tackle Ja’Wuan James and corner/safety Kareem Jackson. It’s also the reason why they worked countless hours to build the best 2019 draft board they possibly could and then executed that plan during the process.

General manager John Elway has kept some key veterans in an effort to make another run at the postseason. The Broncos now have an interesting blend of youth and experience on this roster. This mixture has been evident during offseason training activities and minicamp this offseason.

Mandatory minicamp wrapped up last week at UC Health Training Center. After watching this team in practice for over a month, I’ve got a pretty good feel for who we should see at the top of the depth chart at each position for the Broncos.

Thus, it’s time to predict what the Broncos starting lineup will be on defense. (Yesterday, we broke down the starting offense)

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Defensive Line: Derek Wolfe (DE), Shelby Harris (DT), Adam Gotsis (DE)

The defensive line for the Broncos is a solid unit with one major change for the 2019 season. Domata Peko is gone at defensive tackle and Shelby Harris starts in his place. The Broncos didn’t want to lose Harris this offseason, so that’s why they placed a second-round tender on the restricted free agent. Harris signed his tender, so he’s on the books for just a little more than $3 million in 2019. He’s set to be the starting nose tackle, but he’s not your traditional nose tackle because Harris is not just a run-stuffing presence in the middle. He can knife through to get all important interior pressure from time to time as evidenced by his 7.0 sacks over the last two seasons as a part-time player.

There is a case to be made for Derek Wolfe as the most-underrated Broncos player. His numbers are solid yet unspectacular. It takes a more precise view on Wolfe to truly see the value of his game. Wolfe’s numbers are deceiving because of the games (twists, stunts) that he plays with Von Miller. The seasoned veteran often sacrifices his own stat line so that Miller can get his. That type of unselfishness is part of what has made Wolfe a quality Bronco for years.

Adam Gotsis is in the last year of his contract and this may be his final season with the Broncos. It’s taken years for him to develop into a decent player, but he is replaceable. In fact, he might get benched if his game falters under Vic Fangio. It shouldn’t, but I believe Gotsis has hit his ceiling as a pro and it wasn’t as high as the Broncos wanted it to be when they selected him as a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

Reserve to Watch: Dre’Mont Jones
The Broncos may have gotten a steal in the 2019 NFL Draft when they selected Ohio State defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones in the third round. Jones had to wait for his opportunity to shine with the Buckeyes, but he proved last year that he could be a disruptive force on all three downs and at multiple positions. I think Jones gets onto the field this year as a rotational defensive lineman who can get after the passer while holding strong against the run.

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Outside Linebacker: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb

The Broncos have the best outside linebacker duo in the NFL and the league ain’t seen nothing yet. (Yes, horrible grammar, but it sounds so good!). Miller is near the top of his game, but he can play better – even if that means playing fewer snaps to stay fresh. Ever since he showed up at the building, Vic Fangio has been proclaiming that Miller could do more. We should see him play at his best under Fangio – and that is a scary proposition if you’re facing Miller on the field.

Chubb might surpass Miller this year as the Broncos best pass rusher. That’s a bold statement, but one I think could come true. Chubb has the strength to set the edge and is not weak against the run. He’s always used his strength and hustle to get after the passer, but now he’s improved his game. Chubb showed the ability in minicamp to stack moves on top of moves. Rather than just use a bull rush and that’s it, Chubb looks like he can use a rip or swim move and then use a spin to get around would-be blockers. Add in his bull rush and you have a complete pass rusher – and one that could snare 15 or more sacks in 2019.

Reserve to Watch: Jeff Holland
Last year when the Broncos added Jeff Holland as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn, I felt they may have added a Shaq Barrett-like talent to the roster. Like Barrett, Holland fell undrafted largely because he was seen as a bad-body prospect. Holland played just 43 snaps in three games as a rookie. He didn’t get a sack in 2018 with limited playing time, but should be able to register perhaps as many as 5.0 sacks this year with Barrett gone (and Shane Ray too).

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Inside Linebacker: Todd Davis, Josey Jewell

There was a ton of buzz before the 2019 NFL Draft that the Broncos were in the market for an upgrade at the inside linebacker position. In fact, most every mock draft had the Broncos adding an inside linebacker like Devin White (LSU) or Devin Bush (Michigan) in the first round. Instead, even with Bush on the board, the Broncos decided to go in a different direction and traded back from their No. 10 overall pick.

That was a vote of confidence for Todd Davis and Josey Jewell.

Davis is such an improved player. During the last couple of seasons, he has taken his hard-hitting ability and couple it with the football intelligence to be in the right spot more than not. When Davis arrives at the ball-carrier, he does so with a thunder. Now, instead of guessing like he did as a young player, Davis does a good job of “scraping and flowing” to the play.

Jewell is entering his second year and should take a step forward this season. He’s not the most-athletic player and may come off the field in passing situations. Jewell is a sound tackler and doesn’t let a running back run over him. He’s good as a run-defender but needs to improve his ability in coverage if he wants a larger role in 2019.

Reserve to Watch: Justin Hollins
The Broncos and I disagree on where rookie linebacker Justin Hollins should play at the pro level. I graded him as an edge player who can get after the quarterback with length and burst. The Broncos want to see if Hollins can take those athletic traits and use them at inside linebacker. While he’s not known as a “thumping” tackler, Hollins does have the athleticism to be utilized in coverage. Perhaps that’s his best asset on the inside.

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Cornerback: Chris Harris Jr., Bryce Callahan

There is no doubt that Chris Harris Jr. is one of the best cornerbacks in the game today, but the Broncos are taking a chance across the field from him with free agent addition Bryce Callahan. First and foremost, Harris is still at the top of his game. The Broncos went ahead and gave Harris a raise this offsesaon to end his holdout, but they did not extend the future Hall of Fame corner. That means a veteran (and now healthy) Harris is still playing at a high level and is in a contract year – which means he’s likely gone next offseason. The Broncos should get the most out of Harris while they can.

Callahan is a great slot corner, not as good as Harris, but he can blanket cover receivers on underneath routes. Is he capable of playing at a high level when moved to the outside? The Broncos are fixing to find out because that’s where Callahan is going to play in Denver. Even when the team is going to nickel coverage, Callahan still plays outside (with Kareem Jackson in the slot). Callahan is fast, but he’s very small and will struggle if a larger receiver is in his zone. While quarterbacks may (and should) avoid throwing at Harris, Callahan is likely to get a ton of targets – much more than he would playing in the slot. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not Callahan is up to the task.

Reserve to Watch: Isaac Yiadom
Teams are often looking towards the future in the NFL Draft. That’s what I thought last year when the Broncos added Boston College cornerback Isaac Yiadom in the third round. Yiadom is really smart and finds his way around the football frequently. He’s tough, as evidenced by him trying to play through injury as a rookie. We’ll see if Yiadom can take a step forward in his second season and be the eventual replacement for Harris.

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Safety: Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons

The safety position looks a bit different than I thought it would – even after the biggest waves of free agency were over. It looks so different because we’ve learned through OTAs and minicamp that Kareem Jackson was mostly playing safety for the Broncos.

Jackson was one of the top free agents the Broncos picked up this offseason. He’s played safety before, but he was mostly a cornerback during his time with the Texans. That’s what I thought he was going to play (with a little safety mixed in) when the Broncos picked him up. Instead, the opposite is true and Jackson is a starting safety. He’s a hard hitter and a great player, so the Broncos should be getting a fine performance from Jackson no matter where he lines up.

Justin Simmons could be the greatest benefactor from the addition of Vic Fangio. Just last year with the Bears, Fangio got All-Pro performances out of his safeties. Simmons hasn’t even made a Pro Bowl yet, but this could be the year that he makes it. Like many others players on this defense, Simmons is smart and seems to be around the ball a lot. Fangio should be able to take his physical and mental skill set and put him in a position to make a ton of plays. I’m really looking forward to seeing the type of leap that Simmons could take in 2019 – a contract year for the young safety.

Reserve to Watch: Will Parks
It’s interesting to note that we’ve seen more from Will Parks in practice when Harris returned from his holdout. Parks began the 2018 season looking like a player who was lost on the field and then – it just all came together for him. That game against the Steelers and his touchdown-saving hit seemed to turn the light switch on for him. We’ll see if Parks can continue to ascend in 2019 – a contract year for the young safety.