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 or better football.
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, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the defensive tackle position.
Starter: Shelby Harris (NT)
The Broncos only have one defensive tackle listed on the official roster. Shelby Harris is listed as a nose tackle, while all the other non-defensive ends are listed as defensive linemen.
This offseason, Denver purged defensive players as they looked to move in a different direction under new head coach, and defensive guru, Vic Fangio. One of the players they moved on from was veteran defensive tackle Domata Peko, who is still on the open market.
The Broncos felt comfortable letting Peko walk as a free agent so they could see more of Harris. A restricted free agent in 2019, the Broncos slapped a second-round tender on Harris with a price tag of nearly $3.1 million for this season. There were no other teams interested in surrendering a second-round pick for Harris, so the Broncos were able to keep him for one more year.
Harris’ versatility is the first thing to highlight about his game. He can make plays on the inside or the outside of the defensive line. He is strong enough to play inside and not give up ground, but Harris is also athletic enough to work from the edge.
Quick off the line of scrimmage, Harris does a good job of creating interior pressure and getting after the quarterback. Harris does this by using “violent striking hands” against offensive linemen tasked with blocking him. He is a disruptive player who can disengage quickly and get upfield towards the ball in a hurry.
Harris does all of this while also holding stout against the run. He understands leverage and will position himself in a way that is difficult for an opponent to move. Harris knows that “low man wins” in the NFL and does a good job of anchoring as a run defender. He also has the vision to find a ball carrier and the arm strength to tackle him if the opponent is nearby.
A standout player on a part-time basis, Harris has been a great find for the Broncos. A seventh-round pick out of Illinois State for the Oakland Raiders in 2014, Harris signed with the Broncos a couple of years ago and has worked well as a rotational player.
Can he do more with a larger opportunity?
Stamina will be his biggest test in 2019, but it’s one we’ve actually seen from him before in a Broncos uniform. In 2018, Harris played only 391 snaps as a rotational player, but in 2017 he played 516 snaps for Denver. By comparison, Peko started every game for the Broncos in 2017 and 2018 while playing 461 snaps and 522 snaps, respectively. That’s a combined 907 snaps for Harris over two seasons and 983 snaps for Peko during the same time.
Studying the film from those two seasons, I did not identify a time where Harris seemed to wear down. In fact, in 2017, when he played 516 snaps, Harris seemed to be better towards the end of the game and had his most productive season for the Broncos in terms of sacks. In 2017, Harris had 5.5 sacks while last year he had 2.0 sacks. Simply put, more Harris equals more production in my mind.
Yes, one could make the argument that Peko was inside at tackle and Harris was outside at end for those snaps over the past two years, but the fact is Harris did not look winded with playing time that was almost equal to Peko. He should be able to maintain his stamina as the starter for the Broncos at nose tackle, especially since Denver will continue to rotate defensive linemen.
It would not surprise me at all to see Harris start every week at nose tackle yet get some snaps as a defensive end in certain situations and sub-packages. That opens the door for other players to get some reps inside, whether that’s a defensive end like rookie Dre’Mont Jones or one of the “DLs” listed on the depth chart.
Reserves: Billy Winn, Mike Purcell, Deyon Sizer, DeShawn Williams
The reserve defensive tackles are interesting prospects with varying degrees of experience. In this group, the Broncos brought back a seasoned veteran who hasn’t played since 2016, have a local prospect on his seventh NFL roster, have a player who worked his way onto the training camp roster after a tryout and have another player on his second stint with the Broncos.
Let’s start with Billy Winn, long-time NFL veteran and on his second tour with Denver. A sixth-round pick in 2012 for the Cleveland Browns, Winn displayed first-round talent during his college career at Boise State. That great film was tempered by injury and inconsistency, so the Browns were able to get him much later in the draft. Winn spent four seasons with the Browns before being traded to the Colts in 2015.
That season ended with Winn on injured reserve for the Colts, and he hit the open market the next year, when the Broncos scooped him up on a one-year deal. Winn played 313 snaps in 15 games as a rotational player for Denver that season, compiling eight tackles, 10 assists and one fumble recovery. He didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet, but the Broncos liked him enough to bring him back for the 2017 season. He injured his ACL in the first preseason game that year and hasn’t played football since.
Winn is now back with the Broncos, healthy and ready to prove that he can still play at the pro level. His blend of strength and athleticism is what could earn him a spot on the 53-man roster.
Plus, Winn is incredibly versatile, as he’s able to play inside at tackle or outside at end. He’s not going to get fooled by blocking schemes and is known as a smart player and a hard worker.
He just needs to stay healthy, something that has been a problem for him dating back to his days in college.
Mike Purcell is the next player to highlight here. A local prospect and three-star recruit from Highlands Ranch High School, Purcell went on to play his college ball at the University of Wyoming. Undrafted in 2013, Purcell spent three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers working for two seasons under the guidance of Fangio, then the defensive coordinator.
After being released by the 49ers, Purcell bounced to five different teams for the 2017 season. He was with the Kansas City Chiefs for a brief time in 2018 before being released and ended up going to the now-defunct Alliance of American Football to play for the Salt Lake Stallions.When that league went belly up, Purcell reconnected with Fangio in Denver.
Purcell is built like your traditional nose tackle, measuring in at 6-foot-3-inches and 327 pounds. He’s not a disruptive player against the pass and won’t get much pressure on a quarterback.
However, Purcell is strong and moves well laterally. That makes him a fine player when it comes to diagnosing plays and getting to the running back at or near the line of scrimmage. He’s also been known for having a high motor and strong work ethic.
Simply put, he’s the type of player that any team would want as a quality reserve.
Deyon Sizer got this opportunity with the Broncos as a tryout player at rookie minicamp earlier this year. Undrafted out of CSU-Pueblo, Sizer impressed the coaching staff enough as a tryout player to be signed for camp.
Sizer spent the last two years as a starter at nose guard for the ThunderWolves and was a disruptive player on the other side of the line of scrimmage. In addition to getting pressure on the quarterback, Sizer can get up and block kicks from time to time.
Measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, getting a year of seasoning (and size) on the practice squad would not be a bad idea for Sizer
DeShawn Williams has been with the Broncos before. Undrafted out of Clemson in 2015, Williams spent the first three seasons of his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals. Denver signed him in early 2018, and he spent all of the offseason with the team.
Williams didn’t make the 53-man roster that year but did earn a spot on the practice squad … for about a week until the team released him. He bounced to two other teams (Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts) that year before getting another shot with the Broncos in 2019.
Athletic, short and stalky, Williams measures in at 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds. He’s smart and active up front, finding the ball carrier quickly and wrapping up concisely.
However, Williams is not going to generate much in terms of interior pressure. His high motor and run-stuffing ability could earn him a spot as a rotational player.
The Broncos need to be strong in the middle of the defense. They are going to run the ball and play great defense in 2019, but they can only do that if the defensive line is up to the task. Stuffing the run is critical as it allows the players on the outside like Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to pin their ears back and get after the passer.
Harris has earned a larger opportunity with this Denver defense. Signed to a one-year, second-round tender, Harris is basically in a contract year with a lot of earning potential if he proves he can handle being a full-time starter for basically the first time in his career. He’s active, smart and has been a durable player for his NFL career. His stamina will be tested up front in a full-time role, but the Broncos will also rotate in other players to keep him fresh from time to time.
The players behind Harris are interesting for depth, but no starting potential is really there. This all comes down to Harris and how he responds to being a key cog in the Denver defense in 2019.