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Shelby Harris #96 of the Denver Broncos celebrates their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 25, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Training Camp 2020: Previewing the Broncos defensive line

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Is this the season the Broncos get back to their winning ways? Last year, in the first season with Vic Fangio as their head coach, the Broncos finished one game below .500 with a 7-9 record. They did finish the season strong, going 4-1 over the final five games of the regular season. That finish has given fans hope that this team is finally on the right track and can perhaps even make a postseason run – especially with the league expanding the playoffs by one team in each conference.

During the last three years, the Broncos have drafted well, and this roster has talented players on both sides of the ball. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.

This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the offensive line position.

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Starters: Jurrell Casey (DE), Mike Purcell (NT), Shelby Harris (DE)

I love what the Broncos did this offseason when they traded for veteran defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. They missed out on free agent defensive tackles like D.J. Reader, but everyone knew the need was there and the team filled that void by trading for Casey. He’s under contract through the 2022 season, but the guarantees expire after this year.

Entering his age-30 season, Casey has shown little to no signs of slowing down. The Broncos are protected contractually if in fact he starts to show a declining skill set.

Casey can play outside at defensive end, and that’s where he’ll start for the Broncos. He can also move inside to play defensive tackle in sub-packages and will do that for his new team, as well. Casey has averaged 806 snaps per year since 2012 and is a premiere run-stuffer and edge-setter in the NFL today.

He can set the edge as a run-defender and force the play to turn inside him. By keeping containment, Casey ushers the ball-carrier back inside towards the rest of his teammates. Casey is big, strong and tough to move when he establishes his spot. While he can create interior pressure, Casey has averaged 6.0 sacks each year during the last three seasons. He gets to the quarterback with strength and relentless pursuit. Creating pressure is not his forte, but Casey can do it, along with being a great run-defender. Casey gives the team a toughness against the run they haven’t had in some time.

In the middle of the line (in base defense) is Mike Purcell. He came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming with the 49ers – where Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator. Purcell was able to get on the field for 20 games from 2014-16 for the 49ers, but then started bouncing around the league. The 49ers let him go in 2017 and he was with five teams during that season, only bouncing from practice squad to practice squad. In 2018, Purcell was signed to a futures contract with the Chiefs, but didn’t make the 53-man roster.

The Broncos picked him up in 2019, reuniting him with Fangio and taking a chance on a player who played his high school football locally at ThunderRidge. He played 418 snaps in 2019, racking up 48 tackles with eight tackles for a loss. PFF graded him as the league’s single-best interior defender against the run among 121 qualified players.

Purcell was then tendered with a second-round tag for the Broncos this offseason. That second-round tender (meaning any team to sign him would have to surrender a second-round pick) kept every team away from Purcell. He is in line for a long-term extension for the team and should have a good price for both sides. Purcell is a strong nose tackle and has flourished with the Broncos in that role.

Shelby Harris wanted to test the open market this offseason, but there just wasn’t much interest in the veteran despite the career-best numbers he posted in 2019, so he came back to the Broncos. Before the start of free agency, I did hear that the Colts were seriously interested in Harris. Nothing came to fruition between the two sides, but the Colts did upgrade their defensive line by trading a 2020 first-round pick to the 49ers for DeForest Buckner. Instead of signing with a new team, Harris (through multiple agent changes) decided to stay with the Broncos.

Harris got 10 passes batted at the line of scrimmage last year. It’s an incredible number and a feat that can stop drives and frustrate opposing quarterbacks. However, getting more sacks and quarterback hits might be better overall for the defense. Harris is a seasoned veteran and should be a starter on the team again, but he will be pushed for the starting job by Dre’Mont Jones.

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Reserves: Dre’Mont Jones (DE), DeMarcus Walker (DE), McTelvin Agim (DL), Christian Covington (DL), Jonathan Harris (DL)

Fangio loves Dre’Mont Jones, and Broncos fans may soon also fall in love with his game. Coming out of Ohio State in 2019, Jones was one of my top-50 players in that entire draft class. The Broncos were able to get him with the No. 71 overall pick, making him a value pick for the team in my eyes.

Jones was a standout player for the Buckeyes because of his quickness and strength off the edge. He knows how to get off the line of scrimmage quickly and he does a good job of anticipating the snap count to help him get to the quarterback quicker. Jones can convert speed to power and has a strong upper body that allows him to rip or swim through blockers.

He is far from a finished product, as Jones needs to learn and perfect more pass-rushing moves. That’s where Fangio comes in. The veteran coach has seemed to take a liking to Jones, and his guidance could help Jones thrive and develop. In fact, there is a chance that Jones could win a starting job on the defensive line for the Broncos in 2020. With no offseason work and an intriguing training camp (to say the least), the experience of Harris might give him the edge for now. However, Jones has much more physical talent than Harris and the veteran may not be able to hold off the second-year pro for much longer.

We’ve seen DeMarcus Walker flash just a bit during his topsy-turvy pro career. I do not blame Walker for the way his career started with the Broncos – in fact, I put the blame on the team. Walker was a second-round pick for the Broncos in the 2017 NFL Draft. He could have easily been a first-round pick after his career at Florida State, where he was one of the most disruptive players in college football. However, Walker was considered by many scouts to be a bit of a ‘tweener, and that notion caused him to fall just a bit in the draft.

I felt the Broncos got a value pick with Walker – if he was playing on the defensive line. Then, the staff told Walker to lose weight, stand up when rushing, and put him at outside linebacker. That move proved to get his career off track, as Walker only snared 1.0 sack and played just 101 snaps in 10 games. The next year, Walker was then told to gain weight back, add more weight, put his hand back in the dirt and play on the defensive line. Walker barely saw the field in 2018, playing just 21 snaps in three games and getting one more sack.

Fangio knew what to do with Walker and he looked good as a reserve player for the Broncos. Walker played in all 16 games in 2019, compiling 225 snaps as a part-time pass-rusher. Walker had 4.0 sacks on the year, but all of those came in the first seven games of the season. We’ll have to see if Walker can keep progressing under Fangio and give this team 4.0 to 5.0 sacks in the final year of his rookie contract.

McTelvin Agim was one of my favorite sleepers in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Broncos were able to pick up the Arkansas product in the third round and he’s got intriguing upside as a prospect. Agim was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and never quite lived up to his potential in college – but that athletic upside and potential remains. If the Broncos can coach him up, Agim has a ton of pass-rushing tools to work with – all while weighing over 300 pounds.

Agim loses leverage as a run-defender as he’ll get too upright, but his pass-rushing moves are the hallmark of his game. The rookie has six different moves to get after the passer and create interior pressure – and most importantly – Agim knows how to stack the moves on top of each other in succession. Agim has a high motor and tremendous athleticism – those traits are what makes him a player to watch in the future – and maybe in 2020 – for the Broncos.

Christian Covington gives the team another veteran at the position for the 2020 season. Covington, formerly of the Cowboys, was signed to a one-year, $1.75 million contract back at the end of April. Covington originally came into the league as a fifth-round pick (Texans) out of Rice in the 2015 NFL Draft. He spent four seasons in Houston, mainly playing as a reserve defensive lineman. With the Cowboys in 2019, Covington played a bit more than some would have expected from the veteran backup. He compiled 28 tackles, three quarterback hits, and one sack across 481 snaps as a six-game starter. Now with the Broncos, Covington should go back to being mostly a reserve/rotational player.

Jonathan Harris was picked off waivers from the Bears last year in late October. Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Lindenwood University in 2019, appeared in 43 games and totaled 183 tackles, 22 sacks, four forced fumbles, one interception and one fumble recovery during his college career. He appeared in two games for the Bears in 2019 and made one tackle. He then appeared in three games for the Broncos towards the end of the 2019 season, compiling seven tackles. He is a long-shot to make the 53-man roster, but Harris has seen the field and that experience could help him in his first training camp with the Broncos.

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Summary

The Broncos defense certainly has some question marks – arguably more than on the offensive side of the ball. However, those questions are not up front on the defensive line. Yes, there are some answers we are searching for during training camp, but those questions are only minor.

No matter whether Harris or Jones wins the starting job opposite of Casey, the Broncos have good options as starters in the base defense. When they move into a nickel defense, they have a quality rotation of talent that can both still stuff the run while also creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.