With Von Miller and Chris Harris, Jr.. on the 2015 All-Pro team, John Elway has held firm to his belief: “We’re not going to draft All-Pros. We’re going to develop them.” Let’s take a look at how that's being carried out on the field.
2012 draftee Danny Trevathan led the team in tackles over two of the last three years. The knock on him in the draft was that he was slow at the NFL Scouting Combine. That was true — but it ignores that he was dealing with an injury at the time. He’d led the SEC in tackles over his junior and senior years, but at 237 pounds, he was deemed ‘too small’ to tackle in the NFL.
In 2013 he had 152 tackles. In 2015 he and Brandon Marshall went back and forth on leading the team’s category until Week 17, when Marshall’s own cumulative injuries caught up to him. Trevathan won, 109-102. Marshall led with 77-73 solo tackles, and had 1.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles — Danny had zeros there. Danny led with two interceptions, and had 6 passes defensed, as Brandon only notched a single INT and one PD.
Both vision and development went into the pair. Danny was drafted in the sixth round and proved to even John Fox that he was a serious player. Marshall was told by Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Mark Duffner that he should find another line of work. Taking it as incentive, Marshall spent 2013 on the scout team. When he called out the exact play that Peyton Manning had just called in the huddle, he was given a chance to move up. He made full use of it in 2014, leading Denver in tackles.
The pair shared the 2015 Ed Block Courage Award for driving each other on to recover from their surgical injuries near the end of last season. Both were remarkable as the starting inside linebackers. I don’t know that there’s been a pair of ILBs who’ve shared that award before.
Marshall has defined courage in his life, as well. He was told by the LB coach in Jacksonville that he should get out of football. Within two years he was leading Denver in tackles. The move to a 3-4 scheme let Marshall and Danny start shoulder to shoulder at ILB. They’ve been stellar.
Sylvester Williams isn’t a name you hear often enough. This year he made 24 tackles, 17 solo and most of them at nose guard. He had a career high three sacks. He likes to collapse pockets for Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson deserve serious attention. From the simple numbers of their cumulative Pro Football Focus scores, Malik led by a tenth of a point at the end, 27.5 - 27.4. It’s obvious that they’re unique players.
Wolfe missed the first four games for one of the league’s stupidest suspensions: The NFL’s document on what you can and can’t take runs 47 pages. If I’m bleary from a virus, haven’t slept and take an OTC med, I’m not pulling out my copy first thing. Upon returning to the lineup, Derek transformed into a Dire Wolfe, racking up 5.5 sacks with 49 tackles in 12 games. 35 tackles were solo.
Malik is as talented as Wolfe, but in different ways. He had 43 tackles, 34 solo, w/ 5.0 sacks. He has extremely long arms which let him bat away passes at the line. He needs work on his decision making.
Going into the year, most fans thought that Denver would keep Malik and let Wolfe go. That’s become less certain. Wolfe had more sacks than Malik in four less games. Keeping both may be hard, but it’s worth hoping for it. In the meantime, fans can debate their relative strengths.
DeMarcus Ware has been a one-man classroom for everyone. He seems to be without ego as far as sharing his knowledge. That’s what development is all about. Ask Shaq Barrett or Shane Ray. Barrett knew a single pass rushing technique when he met Ware. Ware and Von together taught him three or four more.
Both Barrett and Ray are development kings. Shaq lost 10 pounds and picked up 3-4 new pass rushing moves, giving him 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles (PFR has him @ 3 forced and 2 recovered) and 50 tackles, 35 solo this year. It’s his second season. That’s huge development.
It’s Shane Ray’s first season. The rookie took advice from everyone and ended with 20 tackles, 15 solo and four sacks with 1 PD. Not bad for a guy who had to fight his way onto the field. His development took place across his first season. It won’t stop now.
The Denver safeties deserve their own cheering section. I was originally leery of Darian Stewart. I love being wrong on him. He’s been on fire. T.J. Ward has to stop making foolish penalties, but he’s an amazing player.
David Bruton, despite ending the season with a broken fibula (which he played on for over 60 snaps), finally was given more responsibility. He immediately showed that he’d earned it. Bruton had his best game on Week 13 against San Diego with 13 tackles. He added six against Pittsburgh. Shiloh Keo came in for Week 14. With almost no playbook time he has five solo tackles, a PD, and an INT in 4 games.
On offense, the obvious candidates include Jordan Norwood, who’s been offered a futures contract. Exclusive Rights Free Agent Bennie Fowler and 2014 second round draftee Cody Latimer are mostly playing special teams and blocking on the field. That will change in the next two years. Both look to have size and power. Turning it into receiving technique will be their key to playing time.
Both C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have developed substantially in the last three years. Hillman came to the league as the youngest player in the NFL his rookie year. It showed badly. After several serious talks with his coaches and being seated for mistakes, Hillman has become one half of Denver’s two-headed rushing machine.
Brock Osweiler’s been sitting behind Peyton Manning for 3.5 years. When his time came, he had a 4-2 record as a starter, including beating both of the other top-3 AFC seeds in overtime. When asked about his work ethic he said simply, “I haven’t missed a single day.”
It’s not hard to spot developing players on the Broncos roster. I’ve missed some. But that’s the point here — Denver believes in John Elway’s statement. They draft for it. They look for it in free agency. They put in the background work, from the scouts to Elway himself. The players believe in the outcome.
It’s been worth five Divisional titles and an AFC Championship. Over all, I’d say that it’s a rousing success.
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