Today, the Denver Broncos announced that starting defensive end Derek Wolfe has been suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season. He’ll miss throwdowns with the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings.
In a statement via the team, Wolfe pled ignorance regarding a medication he took during the offseason that contained a banned substance—one that the NFL considers to be “performance enhancing”.
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What frustrates many fans about this unfortunate piece of news is that it’s so uncharacteristic of what we’ve come to know and understand about Wolfe as a man and as a player. He’s carved himself out a role with the team based on a phenomenal work ethic and stalwart leadership.
Derek’s Wolfe Pack Foundation has helped to ‘tackle underprivileged and at-risk youth disadvantages in Colorado and Ohio’. He’s outgoing and considered to be a high-character guy within the Broncos locker room.
This suspension is so out of character.
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We can bemoan the vagaries of the league’s policy and protocols on the use of performance enhancing substances, but the bottom line is that Wolfe should have known what he was putting in his body. Sure he’s trying to save face in admitting his ignorance, but it doesn’t absolve him of the league discipline, especially when a short conversation with one of the Broncos trainers could have remedied the situation. And entering a contract year, this suspension couldn't have come at a worse time for Wolfe.
Where do the Broncos go from here? They’ll turn to Vance Walker. Although Wolfe’s no slouch when it comes to rushing the passer, his biggest impact on the Broncos defense is in stopping the run. Last season, Walker earned a +6.8 grade in run defense via Pro Football Focus. The leading advanced metrics site credited him with 12 stops.
Wolfe earned a +14.4 grade in run defense, although he played significantly more snaps than Walker. However, it’s clear that Walker knows how to stop the run and has extensive experience playing the 5-tech defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
Then there’s Antonio Smith. In a perfect world, the Broncos would put Walker in on base defense and rotate in Smith in nickel and pass rushing situations. But as it stands, Smith has been dismissed from team activities, pending the resolution of an investigation into him involving sexual abuse allegations.
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The team hoped this situation would be resolved by now, but the investigation out of Texas has continued on. Training camp starts next Friday, July 31st, and you can believe that Smith will want to be in attendance. The Broncos will face a tough decision and depending on Smith’s mindset toward the team, it could turn ugly if they choose to keep him away and he files a grievance.
One guy who stands to benefit immensely from Wolfe’s suspension is Kenny Anunike. Undrafted out of Duke University in 2014, Anunike made waves in training camp last year, but suffered an arm injury in the last preseason game of the season, and was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
However, he’s back, he’s healthy, and he’s added at least 20 pounds to his frame in order to compete for a job at defensive end in the Broncos new 3-4 defense. There was a lot of buzz surrounding Anunike throughout organized team activities and if he can continue that momentum throughout training camp, I can see him making the final 53-man roster.
At the end of the day, the Broncos should do fine for a month without Wolfe. The loss hurts, but Malik Jackson will hold down the fort at DE on the other side of the line and however the rotation shakes out behind Wolfe, the Broncos still have one of the deepest and most talented defensive rosters in the league. And the man pulling the strings, Wade Phillips, will figure out how to get the most out of his guys on the grid-iron.