The 2016 season was one that left the Denver Broncos scrambling along the defensive line, especially opposite of Derek Wolfe. After Malik Jackson took the money and ran to Jacksonville, it left a void at right defensive end.
The Broncos relied on filling that void with Vance Walker, who subsequently suffered an ACL injury before the season began. They brought in veteran Jared Crick, drafted Adam Gotsis, and added Billy Winn late in the offseason.
This combination of players went on to play in a defense that went from third against the run, to 28th in the league. With Wolfe being the unquestioned leader and stalwart of the defensive line, let's take a look at who could, and more importantly, who should start opposite of him.
Adam Gotsis was (as many believe) a reach when the Broncos took him 63rd overall in last year’s Draft. He was coming off a significant ACL injury and was widely regarded as a middle-to-late round pick.
It has been widely reported that D-line coach Bill Kollar was the man who pushed for the Broncos to take him that early Gostis. Now, just a year later, Kollar has issued a challenge to Gotsis, to get bigger and stronger. According to new Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods, Adam "Little Wolfe” Gotsis is turning into just that in his second year.
Last April the Broncos signed Jared Crick to a two-year deal, which was, at the time, a signing that made a lot of sense. Vance Walker would handle the run stuffing duties, and Jared Crick would rotate in, and rush the passer.
Fast forward three months, and the Broncos lost Vance Walker to injury, ans were trying to mend their newly-acquired second round pick, Adam Gotsis, who was coming off his own ACL injury. This left Jared Crick and Billy Winn as the only healthy defensive ends on the team opposite Derek Wolfe.
Jared Crick’s run defense was questionable at best. Often getting “washed” down the line and simply blown off his spot, Crick showed he was a pass rusher first and a run stuffer a distant second.
Zach Kerr is an interesting case study. He is a “good-at-everything-great-at-nothing” type of player. Head Coach Vance Joseph recently talked about Kerr’s versatility.
“Kerr’s played some nose," Joseph said. "That’s the beauty of having Kerr. He’s played nose, the five[-technique] and the three[-technique]. He’s a big body like that can hold a point at nose, but he’s a quick athlete inside that can rush the passer. He’s a beauty to have inside. He can play nose, five or three. Even on sub-downs, he can rush inside for us. It’s great having a guy like that.”
It’s believed Kerr was not tendered while in Indianapolis because Henry Anderson and Kendall Langford would rebound from their respective injuries, thus pushing Kerr even further down the depth chart. During his limited playing time in 2016, Kerr had 2.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, and six quarterback hits, all while being a limited-snap nose tackle.
Clearly, Kerr has the versatility to play anywhere across the line. Now the only question is, what will he do with an increased role and snap count?
Over the last 4 years few players have been as consistent a college pass rusher as DeMarcus Walker. He was second in the FBS with 16 sacks last year, which garnered him a spot on the All-American team.
One of the reasons he fell in the Draft was his “tweener” position. He was not a bend-the-edge outside linebacker, nor was he projected as an overly powerful 3-technique (lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard).
The Broncos would like to establish Walker's position early in the offseason and put his pass-rushing skills on display.
Billy Winn, last year’s late addition in camp, was brought in on a one-year deal as a big bodied rotational player and he was just that. He totalled 19 solo tackles and was better against the run than was Crick but would have to be rotated off the field on passing downs.
Winn was re-signed this past spring to bolster the depth along the D-line.
GM John Elway and the Broncos would love to find a young and inexpensive defensive end opposite of Derek Wolfe sooner rather than later, but it seems they will rotate and experiment until they find that guy. When asked about this very issue, Vance Joseph focused on the position being handled by a rotation of players.
“First of all, a defensive end position is usually a rotational position," Joseph said. "It’s going to take probably five guys to fill that role. Whoever starts, it won’t matter much, they’ll all play. Right now it’s Crick because he earned that last year, and obviously, Zach Kerr signed. We have Gotsis who’s healthy again. And we’ve got Walker, the Florida State draft pick. We got five guys who can play there. Whoever starts, it doesn’t matter. It’s a rotational group position—by committee I should say.”
From all indications the Broncos do not have a clear cut starter opposite of of Derek Wolfe. We should, however, expect the cream to rise to the top in camp and have a starter emerge.
Colby Valdez is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @colby_valdez.