For the first time in my life as a Denver Broncos fan, the defensive line is not a question mark going into the season. There have been seasons when a patched together line came together and there have been far too many seasons when the defensive line was just terrible. There has not been this much talent since the glory days of the Orange Crush, and that talent goes deep.
It starts in the middle with Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Kevin Vickerson. Knighton came to the Broncos from the Jacksonville Jaguars last season and enjoyed a breakout year in 2013. He is impossible to move off the line and often takes up two blockers.
Knighton had a solid regular season but took off in the playoffs; he was great versus the San Diego Chargers and single handily dominated the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. He has also become one of the leaders on defense and a mentor to the young players on the defensive line.
Williams was the Broncos first-round pick last year and struggled in the beginning, but he really started to show his talent in the second half of the season. Williams has ability that is rarely seen in a man of his size; he is strong enough to shed blockers but quick enough to beat those same blockers with his speed.
Of everyone on the defensive line, Williams has the biggest upside. He has the potential to be a dominating force both versus the run and providing a pass rush up the middle. Williams showed off that athletic ability in training camp on Friday with an interception of Peyton Manning.
The Broncos also get Vickerson back from a hip injury in 2013 and his presence gives the Broncos a three headed monster at defensive tackle. Through the first half of last season, Vickerson was having a great year. He’s still the best run stuffer on the Broncos and can get to the quarterback. When a guy like Vickerson is third in the defensive tackle rotation, you know you are deep at the position.
On the outside, the Broncos are just as talented. DeMarcus Ware comes to the Broncos via free agency with a chip on his shoulder. Ware is still one of the best pass rushers in the league and is fully recovered from an elbow injury that limited him to just six sacks in 2013. The naysayers will tell you that Ware is done and injury prone. They would be wrong though.
Ware did not miss a game last season despite the elbow issues and is fully healthy at the start of camp. Through the first two days of camp, reports are that Ware is explosive and has something to prove. John Elway likes to sign guys with talent who have a chip on their shoulder; that is Ware in 2014.
Derek Wolfe also returns from the injured list and looks great through two days of camp. Wolfe suffered through a lost season in 2013 after a scary neck injury in the preseason. Although he played the first half of the season, Wolfe was never right and eventually landed on injured reserve.
He is now back up to his playing weight and has been one of the better players in the early part of training camp. Wolfe will likely start and play on the outside on early downs, and move inside on obvious passing downs. His versatility makes him so valuable to defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.
Teams are going to double team Ware and Von Miller for obvious reasons, and Wolfe should take advantage.
The unsung name to watch on the defensive line is Malik Jackson. Jackson was a late round pick in 2012 and really started to blossom in 2013. Like Wolfe, Jackson can play both inside and outside and has shown a knack for getting to the quarterback.
In addition to the front line guys, the Broncos also have great depth which is a must up front. Mitch Unrein is a solid defensive tackle who knows his job, and just gets it done. Marvin Austin is another veteran who is solid versus the run and provides another rotational guy.
The one guy that has fans intrigued and excited is second year player, Quanterus Smith. Smith led the NCAA in sacks during his last season at Western Kentucky, including three versus Alabama. Smith spent his rookie season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL late in his college career. Now he is healthy and ready to make an impact.
If Smith can contribute, even as a situational pass rusher, then that’s just a bonus for the Broncos.
Any great defense has to start with the defensive line and pressure on the quarterback, and for the first time in decades; the Broncos have both talent and depth up front.