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Catastrophe or Catalyst? Analyzing How DE Vance Walker's Injury Affects The Denver Broncos

The Broncos lost starting right defensive end Vance Walker for the year to a torn ACL. How will the loss on the D-line affect the Broncos defense?

The injury bug is a part of football—the natural byproduct of a violent game. We come to expect it but when it strikes, it often feels like the player, or the team, or the fans, are being put upon by cruel, maniacal football gods. 

The great football deities in the sky have already began the process of putting the 2016 Denver Broncos through the refiner's fire. More on that in a minute. 

John Elway had a good plan in place when he made the decision to let defensive end Malik Jackson walk via free agency. 

Elway had just paid Derek Wolfe and he had a versatile veteran—and possible diamond in the rough—already on the roster in Vance Walker. The team bolstered the position by signing former Texans DE Jared Crick to a two-year deal and designed a plan to target an impact defensive lineman early in the NFL Draft. 

Georgia Tech's Adam Gotsis was the eventual selection in the second round. But, and it was a big but, the Broncos would have to bring Gotsis along slowly because he was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered on Halloween of the previous fall. With two veteran options secured, the Broncos felt like they had plenty of time to nurse Gotsis back to health, and put him in the pocket of D-line coach Bill Kollar, before eventually unleashing him on the NFL. 

But the injury bug is no respector of persons, and it is certainly no respector of plans—no matter how carefully they are laid. 

Vance Walker tore his ACL Monday at Broncos camp. Denver's starter at right defensive end will miss the entire 2016 season. 

The injury occurred while Walker was engaged with left guard Max Garcia. Walker fell to the ground, clutching his right knee. He would later be carted off the field. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Broncos are back to square one. But Walker's injury could impact their 2016 fortunes in a big way. 

The injury could either haunt the Broncos, or serve as a catalyst to spark the emergence of a player(s) lower on the depth chart. The hope is that it will be the latter. And there's already solid evidence to support that belief. 

Crick will immediately step in as the starting defensive end opposite of Wolfe. In Denver's opening preseason game in Chicago, Crick flashed, notching two tackles, one for a loss, a sack and two QB hits. 

He was a consistent menace during the limited time he was on the field. His initial performance bodes well for the Broncos moving forward. An added bonus, and one of the reasons the Broncos targeted him in free agency, is that Crick has started 32 games in his four-year career. 

Add to that Crick's experience in Wade Phillips's attacking 3-4 scheme and we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. The Broncos have two bona-fide starters but depth at defensive end is the concern. 

“That’s horrible what happened to Vance," Crick said following Monday's practice. "Hopefully he’s going to be alright. My mindset has to stay the same, just come out and try to improve on my game every single day. Wherever guys are on the depth chart, they have to keep the same mindset to get through camp.” 

Even if Adam Gotsis was already firing on all cylinders, that leaves the Broncos a three-man rotation. But he's not. 

Gotsis was far more productive in Chicago than many expected him to be, but he's still far from being a finished product. He tallied one tackle (for a loss), and a QB hit. 

For a big fella not only recovering from an ACL tear, but also acclimating to the thin Mile High air and building up toward "football shape", I was impressed with Gotsis' initial showing. He flashed in run support and in creating interior pressure. 

But the biggest factor was his motor. That motor was one of the big draws for the Broncos. The coaches had high hopes, with albeit tempered expectations, for Gotsis as a rookie, but now the onus has fallen on him. 

The Broncos need him to turn the corner and make an impact now. They can't afford to wait til mid-season. The coming weeks will tell us if he'll be equal to his opportunity. 

Behind Gotsis, the Broncos have a few options on the roster. Following the injury to Phil Taylor, the team signed former Tom Heckart draft pick in Cleveland Billy Winn

Winn is an underrated player—a journeyman of sorts. The Walker injury opens the door for Winn to not only secure a spot on the final roster, but to create a role for himself. 

Mile High Huddle's very own Luc Polglaze is high on Winn. You can hear Luc's thoughts on the player in Episode 7 of the Huddle Up Podcast, embedded below. 

At the very least, Winn gives the Broncos veteran depth at the position. And he's versatile enough to swing inside and play the nose. 

Watch him swim through a block to put the pressure on the Bears QB and bat down the pass. 

The Broncos also have two very intriguing undrafted rookies who could factor in to their future plans at DE in Kyle Peko and David Moala. Moala is more of a nose guard but Peko can play the 5-tech. 

Peko has had a productive training camp and has earned some public praise from Gary Kubiak. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the 53-man roster. 

The Broncos will comb through the street free agents, looking for veterans who can step in and contribute. However, attacking 5-tech's don't grow on trees. But with a roster spot to fill, look for the Broncos to sign a D-lineman. 

Ultimately, Walker's injury will give guys like Crick, Gotsis and Winn the opportunity to grow their respective roles with the team. The Broncos have some solid options in these three guys. 

Can any of them be the next Malik Jackson? Not right away. Although I've been high on the Crick signing from the drop and Gotsis is a physical, if unrefined, beast. Assimilating the mental side will be the rookie's biggest hurdle. 

The Broncos made a habit of overcoming obstacles last year. The team's character truly surfaced in their run through the playoffs. John Elway has consistently stocked the roster with elite depth at a variety of positions. 

Is defensive end one of them? We're about to find out. 

Color me optimistic. 

Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.

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