Onto the defense as we look at the major offseason questions for each of the Broncos’ position groups:
Will it be a priority? Last year I was convinced the Broncos were going to hit the defensive line hard in free agency and the draft. Then they made one mid-level free agent signing (Ronald Fields) and didn’t use one draft pick on a lineman. So, going into another offseason in which defensive line appears to be a top priority, it’s tough to predict if the Broncos will invest in the defensive line this year. Their philosophy last year was to be wary of 4-3 college linemen, because Josh McDaniels wanted players that could come in and contribute quickly. If that’s the philosophy again, it will cut down the talent pool because most colleges use a 4-3. If the Broncos do use their first pick on a lineman that could switch to the 3-4, Tennessee’s Dan Williams might be a possibility (and remember, the Broncos used a first-round pick on Tennessee linebacker/end Robert Ayers last year, and their other first-round pick on Knowshon Moreno, another SEC player).
How did they do? Although the Broncos gambled by not making any major acquisitions along the defensive line last year, the line probably exceeded expectations. They seemed to wear down late in the season, which is probably one reason the coaches relied more heavily on the rotation as the year went on. Fields was a good pickup, Kenny Peterson had his moments and Ryan McBean was solid as well. Four of the Broncos’ top six defensive linemen are under contract for 2010 (Le Kevin Smith will be a restricted free agent if there is no new collective-bargaining agreement and Vonnie Holliday will be a free agent), so there might not be a massive overhaul of this group, even though there could be some additions.
Did anyone stand out? Judging 3-4 linemen can be difficult – their entire job revolves around taking up blocks and letting others make plays, so stats don’t tell much of a story. One young player and one veteran were pleasant surprises, however. McBean started all year, except games he missed due to a knee injury. Pittsburgh – which knows about 3-4 linemen – used a fourth-round pick on him in 2007 but he didn’t pan out there. Coaches say he is still raw, which means he could have a lot of room to improve after a solid first season as a starter. Also, Holliday played well. He is a free agent but is a good leader in the locker room, was statistically Denver’s best pass-rushing lineman despite limited playing time and there isn’t any reason for the Broncos not to bring him back for another year as part of the rotation.