Welcome to part V of Mile High Huddle's “Grading the Denver Broncos” series. Each player gets graded based off their on-field performance and the value of their 2014 salary cap hit.
These evaluations are based on what we at Mile High Huddle see with our own eyes. We know and understand that everyone will agree with each grade, but you follow us at MHH for our opinions and analysis, which will be given throughout this series.
To continue for the grades on the defensive side of the ball, we will take a look at the interior of the defensive line-- the defensive tackles. They were the weak link on the line, but were not on the bad end of the spectrum, by any means. Their snap counts were a lot lower than others' on the defensive line, due to the ends subbing in on the interior and the sub-packages for the Broncos.
All salary cap numbers are from Spotrac.com.
2014 cap hit: $2,750,000
Terrance Knighton was signed by the Broncos in March of 2013. He quickly proved to be well worth the contract, with strong play that season and was instrumental in the Broncos getting to the Super Bowl. He also was one of the few Broncos to actually play well in that Super Bowl, though it meant little, due to the not-so-good performances of those around him.
He played so well that season that it was reported Knighton was looking for a bigger contract from the Broncos. He, obviously, never received an extension and pay raise, but still played out the final year of his original contract in the 2014 season.
For the Broncos, Knighton played nose tackle in their 4-3 defense and he did so incredibly well. He usually lined up as a zero or one technique, which means he was lined up head on the center, or just to the center's shoulder. This put him in charge of the A-gaps, the position between the center and the guard. Normally for a 4-3 defensive front, the tackles play a two or three technique, but it's not unusual to see a true nose tackle in this front.
The thing with the Broncos 4-3 front is that it was more of a 3-4 than most realize. They also ran a 3-4 front in their sub-packages often. This is when Knighton really saw action. Knighton excelled in his role and that is a big reason why re-signing Knighton this off-season can be crucial.
Knighton played his role exceptionally in 2014, just as he did in the 2013 season. His stats are not great, like you see from some interior defensive linemen, but his impact was no less than theirs. His role was vastly different from most of those interior defensive linemen who filled the stat sheet.
Knighton ate up space in the middle for the Broncos and clogged up the running lanes. He is a big reason why the Broncos run defense was so successful. On top of clogging the running lanes, Knighton was able to make the stop himself, as well. He posted a 7.8 run stop percentage, which was tied for No. 13 among all interior defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.
But, like previously mentioned, Knighton clogged the run lanes. He ate up space and took double teams, which allowed the Broncos linebackers to have a big impact in the running game and was a big reason why their linebackers had high run stop percentages themselves.
Knighton also made an impact in the passing game, though not as great of an impact as he had in the running game. He racked up 18 total pressures, including two sacks. Not big numbers, but his main job is not to get big numbers here. It is to eat up space, take on blockers and keep the quarterback from climbing the pocket.
There really are no stats that can show anything close to Knighton’s level of impact. With his low salary cap hit for 2014, he had an excellent season in relation to his cap hit.
2014 cap hit: $1,723,125.
Williams was the Broncos first round draft pick in the 2013 draft. His rookie year, he saw little to no playing time, until late in the season when injuries piled up. He played solidly, but failed to live up to his first round billing. Many attributed that to the steep learning curve of rookie defensive tackles, so when entering the 2014 season, there were high expectations surrounding Williams.
By the end of the season, he failed to meet expectations and saw his snap count go down as the season went on. He again failed to show that he was worth the first round pick. He still has potential, but the window of opportunity is closing fast, if it has not shut already.
Williams saw only 468 snaps, which accounts for 39.8% of the defensive snaps. Part of the problem was how Denver used their sub-packages. They ran them so often and when they went to that set, either Malik Jackson or Derek Wolfe played the other defensive tackle position next to Knighton. Denver also ran sub-packages where Jackson and Wolfe were both on the interior.
In the snaps Williams did get, he racked up only 16 total pressures (no sacks), 16 tackles, four assisted tackles, 3 missed tackles and 12 stops. He also managed to bat one pass down at the line of scrimmage. For the snaps he got, that is not very productive.
According to PFF, Williams received a 6.2 run stop percentage, which was No. 55 out of 82 qualifying defensive tackles. But, like Knighton, Williams' role was to eat up space and clog the running lanes. While he did not do this at the level that Knighton did, Williams was not bad in this area. He actually did it quite well.
Where Williams saw his biggest impact was in getting after the quarterback, despite not having a sack. Williams did a good job pushing the interior to keep opposing quarterbacks from stepping up. He also got some pressures, which lead to a 4.8% pass rush productivity rating. He was ranked No. 41 out of 72 qualifying defensive tackles, and rated higher than Knighton in this regard.
Moving forward, Williams' fit in a 3-4 is uncertain. He does not have the prototypical size for a 3-4 nose tackle, nor does he have prototypical size for a defensive end. But, Wade Phillips runs his 3-4 a little bit differently.
It is a one-gap system, which helps the nose tackle. Phillips has also used nose tackles who don’t have prototypical size before with success. Williams may not be a star here, but he may be serviceable, at the very least. If not, he could also see time as a left defensive end in Phillips' system in certain packages. It is also possible Williams will be asked to add or drop weight in order to help him fit the scheme.
As for his impact for the past season in relation to his cap hit, Williams was solid, but not good or great, by any means. He will be kept around, simply because he was a first round pick, but he will need to see a major step forward to avoid being labeled as a bust.
2014 cap hit: $570,000
Austin was drafted in the 2011 NFL draft in the second round by the New York Giants. His time there was cut short because of injuries and he then bounced around the NFL. Before signing with the Broncos, Austin also played for the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys.
Not long after he was signed, many were on the Austin hype train. When training camp started, he showed why the hype surrounded him. He was quick to show what he could do and was consistently one of the players shinning during practices.
When the preseason started, Austin continued to live up to the hype. He was dominate in the snaps he received and led many fans to wonder who would start next to Terrance Knighton -- Sylvester Williams or Marvin Austin? Williams won the job, but Austin was not far behind.
Austin saw 299 snaps, or 26.8% of the defensive snaps. He managed to have a big impact on games when he saw the field. He was so quick off the snap, that he was often causing some kind of disruption on the play. This was even clearer when he was defending the run.
Austin had a 9.1 run stop percentage, which was highest among the Broncos interior defensive linemen. This also placed Austin tied No. 12 out of 82 qualifying defensive tackles around the NFL. This is great, especially considering that he had a similar role as Knighton and Williams when defending the run.
The area of weakness for Austin was in defending the pass. He was not as consistent with his get-off on the snap, and it showed in his inability to generate push. He struggled to keep opposing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket. He managed only six pressures, and a 2.9% pass rush productivity grade. That placed him tied No. 63 out of 72.
Moving forward, Austin shares a similar problem as Williams. He does not have prototypical size for a 3-4 front. He could be asked to add or lose weight and then go from there. He also could get a shot as an undersized nose tackle under Wade Phillips. Whatever happens, Austin will be one to keep an eye on moving forward.
As for his play in relation to his cost, Austin was great. His play against the run alone puts his grade high. However, his pass defense brings it back down some, but does not kill his it.
2014 cap hit: $1,431,000.
Unrein saw very limited action on the 2014 season. He saw only 46 snaps in six games. He was the fourth defensive tackle on the depth chart and often a game-day inactive. When he did play, he saw action on the interior and as a defensive end.
He managed to rack up only one quarterback pressure and one stop against the run. He did not have the best showing, but one thing about Unrein is that he does whatever is asked of him by the coaches. He is a coach's player and is very disciplined.
Moving forward in a 3-4 front, Unrein fits best as a left defensive end, which is a position of need for the Broncos. They have Derek Wolfe at the position, and that is it. So, with Unrein being a free agent, it would make sense to bring him back. They also could have Williams and Austin drop weight and try to make an impact at the position.
Unrein’s future in Denver is in doubt. He had a high cap hit in 2014 and failed to make an impact worth that cost.