Defensive line big offseason area for Broncos
INDIANAPOLIS >> All in all, Vance Joseph is walking into an enviable situation as Denver’s new defensive coordinator.
He’s inheriting perhaps the finest cornerback in the game in Pat Surtain II and a second-team Allpro safety in Justin Simmons as back-end anchors.
He has an experienced middleof-the-field operator in linebacker Josey Jewell. There is a to-do list for the back seven, to be sure, but the questions get larger closer to the line of scrimmage. Whether deciding how far to push the envelope in their efforts to re-sign impending free agent Dre’mont Jones or what draft prospects they like on the edge and up front, the Broncos have fortifying to do while also tailoring to Joseph’s system.
“They’re a little more attacking, a little more aggressive. They get up the field,” general manager George Paton said Tuesday when asked how Joseph wants to play. “I do feel our defensive line fits that mold. We watched a lot of tape with Vance and he has a vision for our defensive line and some of the pieces we have up front. I think our outside ’backers are athletic and they can rush the passer.
“You can ask Vance, but he feels like our defensive front really fits what he does.”
Jones, 26, is the biggest puzzle piece and Paton indicated in a radio interview with KOA that the Broncos will not place the franchise tag on him, meaning he’ll become a free agent March 15.
“He’s going to hit the market. And when these players hit the market, you never know what’s going to happen,” Paton said. “It just takes one team to blow you out of the water, but he’s a valuable piece for us and we’d like to have him back.”
Fellow defensive lineman Deshawn Williams, 30, is also set to be a free agent after his best season as a pro. The duo finished first and fourth on the team in sacks, with Jones leading the way at 6.5 and Williams adding 4.5. When traded edge man Bradley Chubb’s 5.5 are added in, three of Denver’s four top sack finishers could be playing elsewhere in 2023.
Veteran defensive lineman Mike Purcell is under contract for 2023 but has a $3.79 million cap number. Denver could save $3.5 million by cutting him or could extend him to save around $1.5 million.
Injuries and the Chubb trade depleted the Broncos on the edge as 2022 progressed. Denver could stand to add to a group that currently features Baron Browning, oft-injured veteran Randy Gregory, 2022 rookie Nik Bonitto and
role players like Jacob Martin and Aaron Patrick.
That all leaves the defensive front as an area that needs attention.
“When you look at the Broncos and look at the directions that they could be looking to go, I think O-line, D-line obviously would be the places where you start,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a pre-combine conference call. “I think edge rush is actually a pretty good group as well. You know, a KJ Henry from Clemson would be one. Andre Carter from Army. Zach Harrison, Ohio State. Dylan Horton from TCU. Like, those types of guys, those are good players … probably going to be in that third-, fourth-round range.”
Another consideration is how much confidence Paton and new head coach Sean Payton have in 2022 rookies Matt Henningsen and Eyioma Uwazurike, who both gained steam as their first pro seasons progressed. Uwazurike played in six of the final seven games and averaged 23 snaps in those games. Henningsen played in all 17 games and only averaged 14 snaps, but worked his way into regular rotation duties at various times.
Paton would gladly take a repeat performance in the draft this year considering he and his staff took Uwazurike in the fourth round and Henningsen in the sixth. Finding immediate front-line impact players on Day 3 of the draft is rare, but players like that pair or Browning in the third round in 2021 represent the kind of mid-round finds Denver needs to identify.
There’s no guarantee Wisconsin defensive lineman Keeanu Benton will still be available when the Broncos select at No. 67 in April. ESPN has him ranked No. 55, while The Athletic’s ranking (No. 53) is higher than their composite rankings of several other outlets (82.5). But on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, Benton said he had picked his former college teammate Henningsen’s brain about trying to get on the field as a rookie in the NFL.
“He helped me with my whole college (experience),” Benton said. “He knows the playbook of everybody. You could ask him about a DB and he’s going to know. I’m glad I had him in the room and he did excel this year. I talked with him a couple times to see how he was doing mentally and he was basically just letting me know that, as long as you keep doing what you’re doing, it’s going to be all right.”
If the Broncos don’t resign Jones, perhaps they’ll deploy some resources to finding a replacement in free agency, whether that’s Williams and/or somebody from outside the organization. If Jones returns on a long-term extension, Denver could skew younger around him and D.J. Jones.
Regardless, the defensive front is likely an area Paton, Joseph and Payton will be mining in the draft’s middle rounds.