Broncos Draft Preview, 2016: Part 2 – Defensive Roster and Needs Analysis

As the NFL Draft inches ever closer, I’ll continue to post installments of the Broncos Draft Preview, 2016. Last week I dissected the offensive roster and identified which positions the Broncos need to improve through the draft, and I defined the three categories of needs. This week I’ll dive into the defensive side of the ball, and I’ll throw the specialists in for good measure as well. So let’s get to it.

Base 3-4 Defensive Ends (DE):

Projected Starters: LDE Derek Wolfe, RDE Jared Crick

Depth: Vance Walker, Kenny Anunike

Other: George Uko

I noted last year in my draft preview that the team should push hard to extend Malik Jackson before the start of the 2015 season. I based that largely on the fact that they had only one base 3-4 DE under contract beyond last season (Vance Walker). I’ll forever be curious as to what Jackson might have agreed to, but that ship has now sailed, and what an expensive ship it had become. The Broncos instead extended Derek Wolfe just before the conclusion of the season, and that turned out to be a great move. They locked up Wolfe for four years at a price that proved to be well below market value. So while we said goodbye to a great player in Jackson, we get to keep Wolfe around for four more years.

Vance Walker was the primary backup DE, and he played very well in a rotation with Jackson and Wolfe, as well as subbing in for Sylvester Williams at NT. He may get a chance to start, but the newly acquired Jared Crick may have something to say about that as well. Crick started 31 of 32 games in Houston on a very good defense the last two years. He will fit nicely into the rotation in 2016, whether as a starter or primary backup, and his addition lessens the need for Denver to take a DE early in the draft. That is still a distinct possibility, but now they certainly can afford to wait until day 2 or even day 3 if they choose. Kenny Anunike may also factor into the rotation if he can stay healthy. If the Broncos do choose to add another player at this position in the draft they should have no problem finding someone they like, as this draft class is bursting at the seams with interior defensive linemen. It’s hard to say when exactly they’ll nab one, but there will likely be substantial talent available at this position deep into the draft. Jackson and the departed Antonio Smith were the best interior pass rushers on this defensive line, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos target a guy that can generate some push up the middle on pass plays.

Need Level: Depth

Top Base 3-4 DE Prospects:

Note: This is a large list due to the remarkable depth of interior defensive linemen available, and to the difficulty of projecting which players fit the Broncos defensive scheme. I’ve left a couple of players off this list who strike me as pure NTs (e.g. Andrew Billings), but I included several who may be able to play both DE and NT in the Broncos base defense.

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 DeForest Buckner 6070 291 Oregon Top 5
2 Sheldon Rankins 6011 299 Louisville Top 20
3 Jarran Reed 6027 307 Alabama Top 20
4 A’Shawn Robinson 6035 307 Alabama 1-2
5 Robert Nkemdiche 6034 294 Ole Miss 1-2
6 Vernon Butler 6035 323 Louisiana Tech 1-2
7 Chris Jones 6056 310 Mississippi State 1-2
8 Adolphus Washington 6033 301 Ohio State 2-3
9 Jonathan Bullard 6030 285 Florida 2-3
10 Austin Johnson 6043 314 Penn State 2-3
11 Carl Nassib 6067 277 Penn State 2-3
12 Bronson Kaufusi 6064 285 BYU 3-5
13 Jihad Ward 6051 297 Illinois 3-5
14 Hassan Ridgeway 6033 303 Texas 3-5
15 Shawn Oakman 6075 287 Baylor 3-5
16 Anthony Zettel 6037 277 Penn State 4-6
17 Aziz Shittu 6021 284 Stanford 4-6


Nose Tackles (NT):

Projected Starter: Sylvester Williams

Depth: Phil Taylor, Vance Walker

Other: Darius Kilgo

Sylvester Williams transitioned very nicely into Wade Phillips’s 3-4 one-gap scheme, posting his finest season as a pro. The Broncos will now have a decision to make regarding whether to pick up the 5th year option on Williams’s contract, but one way or another they’ve at least got him through 2016. That’s good news for Broncos’ fans as we can expect another year of good production at the NT position. Phil Taylor is a former first round pick of the Cleveland Browns that has shown he can play well when healthy. I think he was a fantastic addition to the defensive line, and though he has battled injuries of late if he can get healthy he will not only factor in the rotation at NT but may even challenge for a spot in the starting lineup. He also adds a big body to short yardage packages. Darius Kilgo will be entering his second season and rounds out the group nicely, but he will have to show growth to make the team with Taylor now in the mix. The versatile Vance Walker also plays the nose and makes this group even deeper.

I debated combining this group with the base 3-4 DEs and referring to the unit as “Interior Defensive Line” like I did with the offensive line, but I chose to keep it separate in this case. While there are guys like Vance Walker that can play both DE and NT in the base front, I believe that’s still the exception rather than the rule. And if the Broncos go after a defensive lineman in the draft, I expect this year it will be a player who can play DE in the base package.

Need Level: None


3-4 Outside Linebackers/Edge Rushers (OLB):

Projected Starters: LOLB Von Miller, ROLB DeMarcus Ware

Depth: Shaquil Barrett, Shane Ray

Other: None

You’d be hard pressed to find a better duo of edge rushers than Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Like many commenters on this site I was convinced Ware would be cut to free up cap space for the upcoming season. Instead he agreed to a pay cut with a chance to earn it back through incentives, much like Peyton Manning in 2015. He will likely be used in a somewhat reduced role, probably mostly as a situational pass rusher, in order to help keep his ailing back healthy. Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray are expected to see increased workloads to spell Ware. Barrett was a very pleasant surprise as he enjoyed a breakout season in 2015. Ray missed some time with a knee injury and suffered growing pains typical of a rookie in somewhat limited action. With so much talent in front of him it is sometimes hard to work him into the mix, but Wade Phillips prefers to keep Miller and Ware fresh, so Barrett and Ray will continue to get plenty of work. The depth of this unit is remarkable, and there’s no need to go shopping for more in the draft. It’s possible they add a late round pick to the mix, but I think it’s more likely they’ll bring in a few undrafted free agents and try to uncover a diamond in the rough.

Need Level: None


3-4 Inside Linebackers (ILB):

Projected Starters: LILB Brandon Marshall, RILB Todd Davis

Depth: Corey Nelson

Other: Zaire Anderson

Both Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan quickly squashed any questions about their ability to transition inside in Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense, turning in outstanding performances all season long. They were, in fact, as good as any inside LB tandem in the league. But as these things go, Danny Trevathan has departed Denver in favor of greener pa$ture$ in Chicago. Todd Davis will be his likely replacement in the starting lineup. Davis has been solid but unspectacular in a reserve role for the Broncos, but he would likely prove to be a serviceable starter. Behind Marshall and Davis is a pair of young LBs with some potential in Corey Nelson and Zaire Anderson. Nelson, a 7th round pick out of Oklahoma, has provided good depth and special teams play for the Broncos in his young career. Anderson, undrafted out of Nebraska, is a smallish LB who coaches praise for his playmaking ability. After spending last season on the Practice Squad, Anderson hopes to make the 53-man roster this fall. In total, this is a decent unit led by a very good player in Brandon Marshall. But behind Marshall the talent level drops quickly, and while Todd Davis is functional, it’s not a stretch to think a better player could be found in the draft.

Need Level: Upgrade

Top 10 3-4 Inside Linebacker Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Myles Jack 6010 245 UCLA Top 10
2 Darron Lee 6006 232 Ohio State Top 20
3 Reggie Ragland 6012 247 Alabama Top 20
4 Jaylon Smith 6020 223 Notre Dame 1-2
5 Su’a Cravens 6006 226 USC 2-3
6 Kentrell Brothers 6003 245 Missouri 2-3
7 Deion Jones 6007 222 LSU 3-5
8 Joshua Perry 6036 254 Ohio State 3-5
9 Nick Kwiatkoski 6020 243 West Virginia 3-5
10 B.J. Goodson 6005 242 Clemson 4-6
11 Antonio Morrison 6010 232 Florida 4-6
12 Scooby Wright 5116 239 Arizona 4-6
13 Dominique Alexander 6002 232 Oklahoma 5-7
14 Tyler Matakevich 6000 238 Temple 5-7


Cornerbacks (CB):

Starters: LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Chris Harris

Depth: Bradley Roby, Kayvon Webster

Other: Lorenzo Doss, Taurean Nixon, B.J. Lowery

As with its OLBs, Denver has perhaps the best group of CBs in the NFL. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are both outstanding, and nickel back Bradley Roby is not far behind. Roby likely would be a starter on most teams in the league, but in Denver he rounds out the best 1-2-3 punch I can recall. Kayvon Webster makes the depth of this unit even more unbelievable, and is a key contributor on special teams as well. It’s hard to say much about Doss and Nixon as they’ve had precious little opportunity to put their skill on display. B.J. Lowery? Well, good luck cracking the roster with the rest of these studs. There is no need to speak of here, but John Elway has said that you can never have too many DBs, so also like the OLB unit you may see a late round addition to the group, but more likely there will be some undrafted free agents brought in as camp fodder.

Need Level: None


Safeties (S):

Projected Starters: FS Darian Stewart, SS T.J. Ward

Depth: None

Other: Ryan Murhpy

Darian Stewart was an absolute steal in free agency last year, surpassing everyone’s expectations by making play after play after play, including a big forced fumble in the Super Bowl. He’s only under contract for one more season, so it might be wise for Elway and company to begin working on an extension. T.J. Ward brings a nasty attitude to an already exceptional defense, and while he does have some limitations in coverage his play against the run and his on-field leadership more than make up for it. Behind those two, though, the cupboard is bare, so depth needs to be added. There’s little doubt the Broncos will add a S in the draft, and with 10 draft picks in hand it wouldn’t be shocking to see them take two.

Need Level: Depth

Top Safety Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Jalen Ramsey 6012 209 Florida State Top 5
2 Vonn Bell 5106 199 Ohio State 2-3
3 Karl Joseph 5095 205 West Virginia 2-3
4 Jeremy Cash 6003 212 Duke 2-3
5 Keanu Neal 6004 211 Florida 2-3
6 Su’a Cravens 6006 226 USC 2-3
7 Darian Thompson 6017 208 Boise State 3-5
9 Jalen Mills 6000 191 LSU 3-5
8 Miles Killebrew 6017 217 Southern Utah 3-5
10 Tyvis Powell 6026 211 Ohio State 4-6
11 Jayron Kearse 6040 216 Clemson 4-6
12 Sean Davis 6010 201 Maryland 5-7
13 KJ Dillon 6003 210 West Virginia 5-7
14 T.J. Green 6024 209 Clemson 5-7
15 Deon Bush 6003 199 Miami 7


Specialists (Kicker, Punter and Long Snapper; K, P, LS):

Projected Starters: K Brandon McManus, P Will Johnson, Casey Kreiter

Looking For a New Job: Britton Colquitt

Brandon McManus eagerly seized the opportunity to win the Broncos kicking job last fall and never looked back. He had an outstanding season, and in doing so furthered my belief that John Fox had panicked in 2014 by pulling the plug on McManus as the team’s FG kicker very prematurely. Now that McManus has established himself as the real deal, it looks like we’ll be watching him kick for the Broncos for quite some time.

Just like last year, the Broncos have brought in some competition at P for Britton Colquitt. This year it’s in the form of Will Johnson. Johnson was in camp last summer with the Texans but failed to make the squad. If he performs consistently in camp he might win the job in Denver. Colquitt’s performance has been up and down (mostly down) over the last few seasons, but he gets paid like he’s one of the best in the business. His saving grace may be his clutch performance in the 2015 postseason, but at his current cap number ($4M) I don’t think it will be enough to keep him around. In fact, the Broncos may choose to part ways with Colquitt before any camp competition gets underway in order to free up more cap space. If they do, it’s quite possible they could either draft or sign an undrafted free agent P to compete with the aforementioned Johnson.

After cutting now-legendary party animal Aaron Brewer the Broncos created a need for themselves at LS. In his place they have signed Casey Kreiter, a former Iowa Hawkeye that has spent the last two preseasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Kreiter has never played in a regular season game in the NFL, but he never botched a snap in college.

Need Level: Upgrade (Punter)

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Drew Kaser 6017 212 Texas A&M 7
2 Riley Dixon 6042 221 Syracuse Und
3 Will Monday 6036 212 Duke Und
4 Nick O’Toole 6033 219 West Virginia Und
5 Eric Enderson 6014 215 Delaware Und


To Recap:

Primary Needs: QB, Interior OL, FB

Depth Needs: S, RB, T, TE, DE

Upgrade Needs: ILB, P

No Needs: WR, CB, OLB, K, NT


Just like we did with the Broncos’ offensive needs I’ll be listing each defensive and specialist position in the comments, and you can weigh in by up-voting the positions you think are the team’s biggest needs. I’ll include a recap of the needs as identified and prioritized by the readers/commenters for offense, defense and special teams in Part 3 of the Draft Preview, which will focus on the first round of the draft.

Thanks for reading, and by all means, let me know what I’m missing. Now that we’ve established what positions the Broncos will be looking to fill at the end of the month we can take a few educated guesses at which players might find themselves in orange and blue following the draft.

Until next time, Go Broncos!