Derek Wolfe is excited about 2015. Not only is he finally playing what he recently described as his ‘natural position’ but he’s transitioning to it in a contract year. Taken with the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft (second round), he was the Denver Broncos first selection of the draft.
As a rookie, he was immediately plugged in as the team’s closed-side defensive end in their 4-3 defense and he had a fine season, accumulating 40 combined tackles and six sacks. Pro Football Focus credited him with 31 ‘stops’. Here’s how they classify a ‘stop’:
Defensive solo tackle made which constitutes an offensive failure (including sacks).
Wolfe’s future looked bright. Alas, his career momentum was impeded when he suffered a spinal cord injury and was carted off the field in a preseason game in his second season. He ‘recovered’ in time to start the Broncos opening week game, but throughout the season, he wasn’t quite himself. He reportedly lost 20 pounds.
Unfortunately, the effects of Wolfe’s preseason injury persisted in the shadows and eventually revealed itself again in the form of a seizure, which occurred on the team bus on their way to the airport to get on a plane for their Week 13 matchup vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Broncos finally shut Wolfe down for the season, giving him a longer window of time to heal from the strange and lasting effects of his spinal injury. It forced him to confront the very real possibility that he might not be able to continue playing football.
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Fortunately, by the time 2014 training camp rolled around, Wolfe was recovered and feeling more like himself, going on to start every game for the Broncos that season, playing 731 snaps on defense. He bounced back and although he wasn’t as productive in rushing the passer as he would have liked, he was his usual self in stopping the run.
Wolfe is willing to do the dirty work that often leads to another guy getting the credit on the stat sheet. Setting the edge, playing within his assignment, he finds a way to get it done on the grid-iron. He’s not an explosive quick-twitch guy, but his most winning attribute—his motor—has led him to making plenty of plays himself.
In the GIF below, the Broncos were on the road last year in Week 6 vs. the New York Jets. The Broncos are in a 3-4 look, with Wolfe lined up as the right defensive end in a 4-technique. The Jets try some chicanery, faking a Jet-sweep from the Pistol formation, but it’s a handoff—likely designed to go off the ‘A’ gap.
But the Broncos have it well defended. LOLB DeMarcus Ware drives his man into the backfield, effectively setting the edge, while Wolfe and his fellow D-linemen crash down the line of scrimmage toward the flow of the play. Wolfe controls his man (three-time Pro Bowl LT D’Brickshaw Ferguson), then jerks and sheds him, engulfing the ball carrier, who was trying to take it up the backside hole.
Animated images via NFL Rewind.
Wolfe is an excellent run defender. He stayed disciplined here. This play is a drop in the bucket of how he’s helped the Broncos become one of the best run-stopping defenses in the NFL. He works hard to hone his technique and utilizes his understanding of the game and motor to get it done.
In Wade Phillips’ penetrating 3-4 defense, Wolfe’s responsibilities on the field will be simplified and streamlined, which should lead to more production on the stat sheet. He’ll still have his responsibilities within the scheme, but he’ll be freed up more to pick a gap and penetrate, whether it’s in the run game or rushing the passer.
In getting after the quarterback, Wolfe’s no slouch either. Again, he’s not super explosive, but his relentless motor and power can be problematic for opposing offensive linemen. When it’s late in the game, and the big boys in the trenches are starting to get worn down from the physicality of the trench war, Wolfe’s endgame in the grid-iron chess match comes to fruition, as we can see here in a play from Week 11 of the 2013 season vs. Kansas City.
Wolfe rushes the passer from his usual role as the LDE, going against No.1 overall pick Eric Fisher, who had shut down Von Miller all game long. Wolfe gets his hands inside Fisher’s frame and then uses his opponent’s momentum against him, pulling him off balance, which leads him to a tasty sack on Alex Smith. 14-yard loss.
Under Phillips, the Broncos defense are going to be aggressive and allowed to pin their ears back and get after it. We’ve seen countless 5-tech defensive ends in Phillips’ system produce prolific numbers, including Bruce Smith and J.J. Watt.
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I don’t mean to compare Wolfe to those two elite players, but even guys like Antonio Smith have excelled in Phillips’ scheme. Wolfe, and his comrade Malik Jackson, will have a phenomenal opportunity to carve themselves out a nice piece of history within Phillips’ storied scheme.
Derek Wolfe is a ‘Bronco on the Brink’ in a contract year. He might not be the flashiest player, but he's a guy his teammates are grateful to go to battle with. Health willing, we could see him have career highs across the board in 2015 and finally reap the rewards on the stat sheet of his hard-earned efforts—just in time for a payday.