The Denver Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part of our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the defensive end position.
Starters: Derek Wolfe (LDE), Adam Gotsis (RDE)
The Broncos likely have just one more season with Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis as their starting defensive ends. Both players are in the final years of their respective contracts and neither may be back next season.
When Vic Fangio was hired as the new head coach of the Broncos earlier this year, Derek Wolfe was among the group of Broncos at his introductory press conference. It seemed like Wolfe made an immediate bond with his new head coach. In a contract year, Wolfe could post better numbers than ever under Fangio’s guidance. Wolfe has a cap hit of $10.9 million with $2.3 million in dead money this season. The future is unknown for Wolfe, but he certainly could be a great fit for Fangio.
One can’t merely look at statistics when weighing the production of Wolfe on a week-to-week basis. So much of what Wolfe does goes unnoticed by the box score. Last year in 16 games, Wolfe played 710 snaps and racked up 29 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception and five passes defensed. Some might look at the lack of sacks – and the fact his sack total has dropped each of the last two seasons – and think something’s wrong with Wolfe. Quite the contrary in fact. When you watch Wolfe work in tandem with Von Miller it’s easy to see how he is sacrificing some of his personal stats so that Miller can thrive – and that’s something even Miller admits publically.
Wolfe is an important part of his defense for the mind-meld that he has with Miller. The two have worked together so long up front that they know what each other is thinking no matter the scenario. Wolfe is selfless and gladly ‘plays games’ with Miller so opponents don’t know what’s coming – and it works well for the duo. His games with Miller aren’t the only good thing he brings to the table. Wolfe is a great team leader and known for his inspiring talk in the locker room. Wolfe is a warrior and will sacrifice a lot to win, and that’s something his teammates respond to and respect him for.
Adam Gotsis was not a favorite pick of mine when the Broncos picked him up in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. Now, after three seasons, I can say that Gotsis is okay while the player I wanted the Broncos to draft there (Yannick Ngakoue) is a star player for the Jaguars. Gotsis has only 5.0 sacks over three seasons, while Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks during that same time.
The Broncos have one of the best defensive line coaches in Bill Kollar, and the word was Gotsis was a player Kollar stood on the table for before the draft. I’ve heard Kollar thought Gotsis reminded him of J.J. Watt, a player he coached to superstardom with the Texans. Needless to say, Gotsis has not even come close to that level of production. Now, to be fair, the Broncos need Gotsis to be a solid defensive end and not a player like Watt (although that would’ve been nice).
The good thing about Gotsis is his availability. He’s appeared in all 16 games each season of his three-year pro career. Gotsis only had five tackles as a rookie in 2016, but he’s upped that number to 26 in 2017 and 25 in 2018. Even though he only has 5.0 sacks as a pro, Gotsis is coming off a career-high 3.0 sack season in 2018. His numbers are trending the right way, but they are just okay at best. I do like the fact that Gotsis had two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and six passes defensed in 512 snaps last year.
Gotsis is in the final year of his contract with the Broncos and he’s looking for a ‘Fangio bump’ too. He has not been a great, very good or even good player for the most part with the Broncos. Gotsis is ‘okay’ but is hoping for more in 2019 – good news for himself and for the Broncos this season.
Reserves: Zach Kerr, DeMarcus Walker, Dre’Mont Jones
The group of reserve defensive ends features a solid veteran, a second-round bust and a third-round pick with incredible upside. They have some players designated on the Broncos website as ‘DL’ or defensive linemen, but those players will be covered when I preview the defensive tackles as they only have one true nose tackle (Shelby Harris) on the official roster.
Zach Kerr is the veteran the Broncos decided to bring back this offseason. In fact, he’s one of the few defensive players who had expired contracts to survive Denver’s purge of last year’s roster. About a week into free agency in March, the Broncos signed Kerr to a two-year deal worth $5 million with a $600,000 signing bonus and $600,000 guaranteed.
It’s a good price to pay for a player who can be an important part of a Fangio defense. Last year, Kerr played 394 snaps for the Broncos over 16 games in a rotational role behind Wolfe. Originally an undrafted free agent out of Delaware in 2014, Kerr spent the first three seasons of his pro career as a reserve with the Colts. The Broncos added him to the roster in 2017 and he played in 11 games, while in 2018 he played a full 16-game season.
He finished the 2018 season with 33 tackles (15 solo), two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one pass defensed. Projecting Kerr for a similar snap count and stat line in 2019 is fair. However, he could do more if called upon. If Wolfe or Gotsis get banged up, Kerr has the talent and strength to play a larger role.
DeMarcus Walker was supposed to be better than this – but his lack of production is not all his fault. In fact, one could easily blame the Broncos for knocking off Walker’s career from day one. A second-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Walker was a sack master in college at Florida State. He finished his final collegiate season with the second-most sacks (16) in the FBS.
Walker was a bit of a ‘tweener due to his size as he was too big to play outside linebacker coming out of college but he was also a little light at 280 pounds to play on the defensive line in the pros. Instead of adding 10 pounds to bulk up Walker, the Broncos decided to go the other way and have him drop weight to stand up and play outside linebacker. That move failed as Walker only played 101 snaps in 10 games during his rookie season, racking up a mere seven tackles and 1.0 sack.
Things didn’t get better for him during his second season in 2018, but at least the Broncos had him gain weight to play on the defensive line again. Walker bulked up to get back to his more natural position of defensive end but was a healthy scratch for most of the 2018 season. He played only 21 snaps in three games, compiling just two tackles, 1.0 sack and one fumble recovery.
It’s certainly a make-or-break season for Walker in 2019. If he doesn’t impress the new staff in training camp, then the Broncos could cut him after just two seasons. Walker is not a rangy player up front and won’t chase down plays that go away from him. However, he does have a good swim move and quickly get off at the snap. Walker needs to regain his confidence and improve his stamina in order to play up to his potential in the pros. During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, I did see Walker get early pressure a couple of times – but both times he beat Garrett Bolles. I don’t know if that means Walker is improving or just making plays against a replacement-level left tackle. We’ll see if Walker can do enough just to make the team before we look at what he could be in a rotational role for the Fangio defense.
Dre’Mont Jones was one of my favorite players in the 2019 NFL draft. In fact, he was my No. 50 graded player overall – and the Broncos were able to add him in the third round at No. 71 overall. That makes Jones a potential value pick for the Broncos if he’s able to translate his college skill set to the pros.
Jones didn’t light up the stat sheet for his entire Ohio State career as he had to wait for an opportunity that came in the 2018 season. With teammate Nick Bosa (No. 2-overall pick) banged up at the start of 2018, Jones got his chance to showcase his skills – and he proved that he was not just a backup-caliber player.
Disruption is the name of the game with Jones, and he can be a threat on all three downs. Jones is well built at 6-feet-3-inches and 281 pounds. He’s built to get after the passer, and that’s what he does in a variety of ways. Jones can get around blockers with his quickness and he uses his violent striking hands to disengage from a blocker on his way to the quarterback. One of his biggest assets as a pass-rusher is his motor as Jones is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback. He fights hard from the first snap to the last, and that energy can wear down an opponent tasked with blocking him.
Jones does a good job of staying fluid with his movement and looks like a natural, stacking moves on top of each other. He needs to put on 10 pounds of muscle in the Broncos weight program, and most of the added strength needs to be to his lower body. Jones needs to work on not getting too upright when engaged with power blockers in the pros. So far in OTAs and minicamp, Jones has looked as good as advertised. His trademark quickness is on display, and he should be able to stay fresh as a rotational player for the Broncos defensive line in 2019.
The Broncos are going to have an elite defense in 2019. The defensive line has to hold strong on the edge, so the team’s outside pass-rushers can get to the quarterback.
They have solid starters in Wolfe and Gotsis but expect the team to rotate in talent to keep everyone fresh. This may be the last season for Wolfe and Gotsis, so the Broncos need to get Jones as much playing time as possible and hope he looks like he could make the jump to starting defensive end in 2020.
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