Over at Football Outsiders, Bryan Knowles took a deep dive at 2018 defensive personnel packages, seeing which teams used what proportion of base, nickel, and dime+ (six or more defensive backs) packages. The Broncos stood out in several ways, both in the past and for the future, that helps to explain some of the roster changes that were made this offseason.
The key observation from Knowles on the Broncos are as follows:
Denver clocked in at just under 45 percent, but still led the league in base usage. That 45 percent mark is the lowest number for a league leader we have seen; last year, three teams were up over 50 percent. The Broncos will probably change significantly going forward with Vic Fangio calling the shots; you can see the Bears were nearly the exact opposite of the Broncos in terms of base-nickel splits.
Two other interesting observations is that the #2 team in base defense was the Rams under old friend Wade Phillips, and that the Cardinals were dead last in base and dead first in nickel…yet they hired Vance Joseph as their new defensive coordinator, which could signal significant changes for the defense in Glendale.
Back to the Broncos and Bears, per Knowles, the breakdowns for the two teams in 2018 were as follows:
For a deeper dive into these two teams in particular, let’s look at the top 14 defensive snap count contributors for the two teams in 2018:
|Chris Harris, Jr.
For the Broncos, by looking at just the top 11 contributors you would think that what the Broncos use the most is a big nickel package given the majority presence of three safeties. But Brandon Marshall’s injury riddled season likely skews that, as combining the snap count percentage of he and Josey Jewell clearly equates to two full time linebackers to go with three down linemen and two edge rushers for a traditional front seven.
But the Bears are far more straightforward. The top 11 contributors all had majority snap contribution, and it was very clearly regular nickel in the grand majority, three cornerbacks and two safeties, to go along with two down linemen, two edge rushers, and two linebackers.
Seeing this, what are some takeaways for the 2019 Broncos, both from what we know from offseason acquisitions, and what we don’t yet know during the upcoming season?
Let’s start at cornerback. Signing Bryce Callahan was a move that was easily foreseen given his history with Fangio in Chicago. But with Bradley Roby leaving in free agency, it also helps to explain why the Broncos put such a high priority and financial commitment into Kareem Jackson. Furthermore, given the money invested in Jackson, Callahan, and Chris Harris, Jr., it also signals that the Broncos are not planning on Isaac Yiadom to contribute significantly in 2019. Finally, while the team has been coy about whether Jackson will play cornerback or safety, the snap counts and salaries as described above make me guess that Jackson will be considered more of a cornerback, and if he does get looks at safety it may be largely a moot point if it ends up being closer to a big nickel package along with Justin Simmons and presumably Will Parks. The only plausible way I see Jackson being a true safety is if Yiadom overwhelmingly beats expectations, resulting in Jackson playing alongside Simmons.
Next, seeing the Bears’ snap counts continues to pique my curiosity at what exactly the Broncos’ plan at linebacker is after they declined Marshall’s option, given the grand majority contribution of two players at the position in Roquan Smith and old friend Danny Trevathan. Todd Davis will obviously man one of those spots, but as it stands now expectations will be high on Jewell to man the other. If he does not, and no other linebacker emerges, then sentimentally I wonder if the Broncos would pursue a reunion with Trevathan in 2020, as he’s in the final year of his contract with the Bears.
Finally, we may not see as much contribution from the defensive line as we’ve seen in the recent past with Phillips and Joe Woods running the defense. If so, this may make the Broncos less eager to spend much in 2020 to retain pending free agents on the defensive line, especially if Dre’mont Jones impresses as a rookie or DeMarcus Walker takes a significant step forward in his third season.
And as for edge rusher, I don’t think much needs to be said here. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are the present and future at the position, and it’s expected that they’ll be there at elite levels.