Do Domata Peko & Zach Kerr Really Upgrade Denver's Run Defense?

The Broncos signed two behemoths to upgrade their defensive line and stop the run. But do the advance metrics show that Peko and Kerr truly are run-stuffers?

The Denver Broncos are serious about upgrading their defensive line. Fans can complain about the quarterback play, the offensive line, and locker room spats as reasons the Broncos missed out on the playoffs for the first time in John Elway's front office administration, but the biggest culprit was their porous run defense. 

The Broncos simply could not stop opposing teams from running on them. Denver finished 2016 ranked No. 28 against the run, allowing a whopping 130.3 yards per game on the ground. 

"Last year was a little bit different for us in terms of how teams attacked us," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said in February, "so right now we’re in the process of going through and looking at what we did last year and the areas that we can improve, and obviously run is one of those areas. We didn’t play that well defensively against the run."

There were a combination of factors that led to Denver's demise in the trenches, but it was mostly due to the loss of personnel. Defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan left via free agency. And the man tapped to replace Jackson in the starting lineup — Vance Walker — went down with a torn ACL in training camp. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1762284-film-room-zach-kerr-s-dom... From there, it was a comedy of errors as the Broncos tried to utilize Jared Crick, Billy Winn, and rookie second-rounder Adam Gotsis to stanch the bleeding, but it was like putting a bandaid over a bullet hole. 

Elway's answer? The Broncos signed 12th-year defensive tackle Domata Peko and fourth-year defensive end Zach Kerr in the first week of free agency. 

Based on the eye test, I believe that Peko — who projects as Denver's starting nose tackle on day one — and Kerr — who projects as the starter opposite of Derek Wolfe — will make a huge difference for the Broncos rushing defense. 

I studied the film from Kerr's game against the Broncos in Week 2 of last season, and came away impressed with his motor and ability to penetrate. Both Kerr and Peko are versatile and can play anywhere along the D-line. 

Still, to get a better picture of what Denver is getting in their two new D-linemen, I reached out to our friends over at Pro Football Focus. I asked specifically about each player's production against the run in 2016. Their advanced metrics surprised me.

But first, we need to understand how PFF defines their Run Stop Percentage

For our Run Stop Percentage Signature Stat, we’ve combined our tackle totals (built from viewing games retrospectively and with the aid of a rewind button, so consider their accuracy a step beyond the inconsistent numbers you’ll find in the unofficial ‘official’ stats), our run defense snap counts, and defensive Stops to produce this worthy look at individual run D production.

Stops are what we judge to be tackles that prevent an offensive success (defined as gaining 40% of required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth) and making more of them per run defense snap will bump you on this list. Note: for safeties, these numbers are also shown in splits for when they’ve lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Domata Peko, 6-foot-3, 322 pounds

Run Stops: 16 (26th out of 75 qualifying DTs)

Run Stop Percentage: 5.7 (53rd out of 75 qualifying DTs)

Run Defense Grade: 42.7 (0-100 scale)

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Now, let me be the first to say that as much as I respect and value what PFF does, I don't always agree with their grading and player assessments. However, the service they provide can give one additional insight into a given player. 

The metrics say that Peko has declined as a run defender. He is 32 years old and heading into his 12th NFL season. For the money Denver paid him (two years, $7.5 million), I think they're getting a return commensurate with their investment. 

Peko is not an All-Pro in his prime. But he is an experienced, savvy player who plays with great physicality and intensity. I see him as a short-term upgrade over Sylvester Williams

Zach Kerr, 6-foot-2, 334 pounds

Run Stops: 12 (26th out of 97 qualifying 3-4 DEs)

Run Stop Percentage: 10.7 (Kerr only played 112 run snaps in 2016, which was not enough to qualify among all 3-4 ends)

Run Defense Grade: 44.6

As we can see, although Kerr didn't play quite enough snaps to be ranked among qualifying 3-4 defensive ends, he did almost double Peko's Run Stop Percentage. In the small amount of Kerr's film that I've studied, I see him as a tremendous upgrade on first and second down over Jared Crick and Adam Gotsis. 

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Kerr is still developing as a player. Pairing him with D-line coach Bill Kollar could have a dramatic effect on his technique and overall ability. 

Kerr is only 26, and still hasn't come close to hitting his ceiling as a pro. I'm confident that working with Kollar and in a defense replete with elite players at each level of the unit, Kerr could take a quantum leap forward. 

Ultimately, the Broncos need to capitalize on the 2017 defensive line draft class. If they want permanent solutions to their D-line issues, this year's draft crop could offer them. In conjunction with the draft, Adam Gotsis needs to take a big step forward between years one and two and prove that he belongs in the NFL and wasn't a wasted draft pick. 

Did the Broncos improve their rushing defense over the last week? Absolutely. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves in crowing either Domata Peko or Zach Kerr. 

I remain optimistic that in Denver's culture and system, both players will shine in their own way. But depth is still a concern for the Broncos D-line. 

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

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