Welcome to part II of Mile High Huddle's “Grading the Denver Broncos” series. If you have not done so yet, be sure to check out part I on running backs. Each player gets graded based off of their on-field performance and the value of their 2014 salary cap hit.
These evaluations are based on what we at MHH see with our own eyes. We know and understand that not everyone will agree with each grade, but you follow us here for our opinions and analysis, which we will give you throughout this series.
To kick off the defensive side of the ball, we will start with the defensive ends. The defensive ends for the Broncos often saw snaps from multiple spots, including defensive tackle and rush linebacker. However, they all saw the majority of their snaps at either the right, or left, defensive end. The performances of this group vary, but they mostly played at a high level.
All salary cap numbers come via Spotrac.com
2014 cap hit: $9,666,666
It has been almost a year since Ware was released from the Dallas Cowboys. When he was dismissed, John Elway jumped on the chance to bring him to Denver, immediately. Not long after arriving in Denver, Ware was a Bronco.
There were multiple reasons behind the Broncos signing Ware, and some of them were because of off-the-field issues. Ware has had a close relationship with Von Miller -- that has been well documented. With Miller’s off-the-field troubles prior to and during the 2013 season, bringing in a mentor for him was crucial, so why not bring in a friend and someone who has tutored Miller before?
The 2014 season was, obviously, Ware’s first in a Broncos uniform. He played a total of 805 snaps on defense, including playoffs, or 68.4% of the defensive snaps. Ware ended up doing a bit of everything for the Broncos, including dropping into coverage (only 18 times). However, the primary on-field reason for signing Ware was to get after the quarterback, which he did 539 times.
According to Pro Football Focus (membership required), Ware racked up 57 total pressures, 11 of them being sacks. However, in the seven games after the loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 11, Ware only managed one sack and 17 total pressures. This has some Broncos fans wondering where he disappeared to down the stretch.
Because of the disappearing act, Ware fell from being ranked No. 11 for 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush productivity, over the first eleven games, to being ranked No. 18, over the whole season and first two rounds of the playoffs. During that seven game stretch, he was ranked No. 27.
For defensive ends who played at least 50% of their team's defensive snaps, Ware was tied for No. 5 in most sacks, tied No. 10 in quarterback hits and No. 18 in quarterback hurries. He was a boost to what the Broncos previously had and performed admirably in his pass rushing responsibilities. Even though that was the primary on-field reason for him being signed, Ware did much more in other phases.
Besides getting after the quarterbacks, Ware tallied 24 tackles, four assisted tackles and 28 stops, but he also missed nine tackles. The 28 stops led to Ware’s 7.1 run stop percentage, which was tied for No. 18 among qualifying 4-3 defensive ends. Unfortunately, those nine missed tackles were seventh-highest among 4-3 defensive ends.
The truth is, Ware was brought in to bolster the Broncos pass rush -- which he did, until the final seven games of the season, where he and the entire pass rush faded. This goes hand-in-hand with the comments made by Elway about the Broncos hitting their peak at the right time. Seeing Ware fade down the stretch suggests that he peaked in the middle of the season and was headed down-hill after that.
Ware made money with the Dallas Cowboys as a 3-4 rush outside linebacker. Some of those years came with the Broncos new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as the head coach, including the season he had his career high in sacks (20). So, for the 2015 season, Ware could have a bigger impact than he did in 2014. However, these grades are based on their 2014 performance and 2014 salary cap hit.
Even though Ware faded down the stretch, he put in a solid year. However, for how much his cap hit was, the financial investment was not fully rewarded.
2014 cap hit: $1,420,036
Wolfe was the Broncos first selection in the 2012 NFL draft. He was selected with the No. 36 overall pick, after the Broncos traded down twice. Wolfe was a defensive linemen from Cincinnati, who was capable of playing on the interior in the 4-3 defense, or as an end in a 3-4 defense. After being drafted by the Broncos, he was used as both.
Primarily, Wolfe plays a 5-tech defensive end in a 4-3 defense. Normally when you see someone play a 5-tech, they are a defensive end in a 3-4 defense. However, Wolfe was playing this in the Broncos 4-3 base look. What being the 5-tech means is, Wolfe was lined up over the offensive tackle and is responsible for the B and C gaps on that side of the formation. With the switch coming to a 3-4 defense, Wolfe will likely stay as a 5-tech defensive end, but his gap assignments may change, due to how Wade Phillips runs his 3-4.
Wolfe has played these roles the entire time he's been in Denver and the 2014 season was no different. This puts him in a position to be a great run defender, which Wolfe was. He ranked No. 9 in run stop percentage for 4-3 defensive ends, with a 9.0%. The biggest reason why Wolfe is effective as a run defender is his discipline.
Discipline is key to being a successful player, but especially so as a run defender. The reason why it is so crucial is because not doing the right thing can lead to a big play. With Wolfe’s B and C gap responsibilities, it is easy to lose discipline and make the wrong play. If Wolfe crashes the B gap, the ball carrier can bounce outside to the C gap, or if Wolfe stays in the C gap, the runner can crash the B gap. Being disciplined is keeping your eyes on the runner and waiting for him to choose which gap and then -- react.
The issues with Wolfe’s play has been his pass rushing, which is something that has never been great. In his three seasons with the Broncos, Wolfe has had 26 QB pressures, 38 pressures and 36 pressures. Those 38 pressures were the best of his career and also came in the only year he did not play a full season.
Part of the reason why Wolfe’s pressures have not been very high is due to the responsibilities he takes in pass rushing. His primary job it to eat up space, keep the quarterback from stepping up and allowing the edge rushers (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) to get after the quarterback. He does this very well, but it reflects badly on him when he doesn’t get the great pass rushing stats (sacks).
Having Wade Phillips changing the defense could help Wolfe a lot. While it is a 3-4 front, it is not the normal two-gap system under Phillips. Instead, Phillips runs more of a one-gap 3-4 defense. This takes some of the responsibility away from the defensive line and adds it to the linebackers.
Wolfe had a relatively low cap hit for the 2014 season. He performed rather well and the money was well spent, even if for his run defense alone.
2014 cap hit: $623,403
Another 2012 pick by the Broncos, Jackson was taken in the fifth round. He, like Wolfe, was a combo defensive linemen, capable of playing inside or outside when entering the draft. In Denver, he has done just that. He has played as a defensive end and moved inside in sub-packages.
Jackson mostly saw action as a defensive tackle early in his career with the Broncos, although it was all in limited action. When the 2013 season came around, Jackson took a leap forward in his play and saw action all around the defensive line, though primarily on the interior.
For the 2014 season, Jackson continued to grow as a player. He got 50 pressures, four more than his 2013 season, although he got three less sacks. He lowered his missed tackles from 2013 to 2014 -- eight down to one. All in all, his level of play was the same, if not better.
The issue with Jackson has been the penalties he draws. He has drawn ten over the last two years, which is not the worst but it isn't great either.
The bigger issue with the penalties is the type of penalties he draws. A lot of them are penalties where he becomes undisciplined. A lot of late hits and other mental mistakes that draw the flags. The talent and ability is there, Jackson just needs to settle down on the yellow laundry.
As for his ability, Jackson led all qualifying 4-3 defensive ends in run stop percentage with 14.1%. He also showed up in pass rushing, with a pass rush productivity of 8.7%, only 0.1 behind DeMarcus Ware. Jackson did all of this on 624 snaps, or 53% of the team's defensive snaps.
With the switch to a 3-4 defense, Jackson will likely take one of the starting defensive end spots opposite Derek Wolfe. Jackson, like Wolfe, has played the 5-tech role that you see from 3-4 defensive ends.
Jackson had a great year, and when you add in how much he cost, he was one of the most cost efficient players not only for the Broncos, but in the NFL.
2014 cap hit: $468,000
Prior to being a fifth round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Smith was leading the nation in sacks in college. Then he tore an ACL and the Western Kentucky prospect plummeted down draft boards. Because of the injury, Smith fell to a place in the draft the Broncos were comfortable drafting him. In his rookie training camp, there were few positives, as he was still rehabbing from injury. In the final preseason game, Smith hurt the same ACL again and was placed on injured reserve, ending his rookie season.
With his actual rookie season being over before it ever began, it made the 2014 season his actual rookie season. However, he was stuck behind three defensive ends and a pass rushing linebacker in the pecking order, so his time on the field was going to be limited. That is evident by his 308 snaps in 15 games played.
Smith saw his most snaps in week 10 against the Oakland Raiders (33/63), which was one of his strongest games on the season. He racked up 1 quarterback hit, 2 hurries, 2 tackles and a stop in that game. In my weekly player grades, Smith pulled a B+ grade for this game, due to him applying pressure on the quarterback and how well he defended the run. His grade for that week was the second highest for the defensive ends.
The 2014 season as a whole, however, did not go as planned for Smith. He saw limited action during the season, missed week 16, then got hurt in the final game and landed on injured reserve. This, along with his performance, has led some to call him a disappointment on the year.
Smith was drafted as a pass rush specialist and failed to bring a consistent presence in that aspect of the game. However, his run defense was considered weak when entering the NFL and as the season went on, he improved in that regard. He grew as a run defender and as an all-around player.
The fact is, Smith was a cheap asset playing in his first season in the NFL. He showed promise, at the very least. However, with the switch to a 3-4 defense coming, Smith may be on the outside looking in. He is not the best fit as a defensive end in a 3-4, or as a rush linebacker, either. The coaches can work with him and coach him up to where he can be an effective player, but only time will tell if he can handle the transition.
As for the 2014 season, Smith was a cheap asset. He did not the meet expectations of many, but those expectations may have been too high for a fifth round first-year player. The fact that Smith was even able to see the field is an accomplishment that most mid-round players don’t see. He came in as a fifth round player, carrying the expectations of a first or second round player.