TRAINING CAMP 2024

‘We weren’t up to standard’ … Can Broncos defensive line change that in 2024?

Jul 9, 2024, 3:23 PM

Too often last year, opposing running backs ran wild and free at the expense of the Broncos — and the issues started up front.

With offensive linemen too often able to take care of their business against Denver’s defensive line in one-on-one scenarios, the linebackers had to contend with offensive linemen reaching the second level. The result was a run defense that ranked 30th in the NFL — and dead last in average per carry allowed, as the Broncos yielded 4.97 yards per attempt.

That per-carry average against the Broncos was the second-worst allowed in team history. Only the 2008 defense — 4.98 yards allowed per attempt — was worse.

“We needed to be consistent — against the run, especially,” defensive end Matt Henningsen said. “Being a D-lineman, you need to be consistent against the run. We weren’t up to standard last year with that.”

To that end, Zach Allen and D.J. Jones — the two returning starters — find a position group that is not only altered, but has a simplified scheme instituted by Vance Joseph. This agrees with Allen, who played under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph in Arizona.

“I mean, we play now in attack style. Simple. Only a few calls & that’s all you can ask for, especially as a guy up front,” Allen said.

“My successful years in Arizona with VJ, that’s kind of how we played.”

But tweaking the scheme would only get the Broncos so far.

THE BRONCOS HAVE BIG NEWCOMERS

Malcolm Roach arrived in the first wave of free agency with a reputation as a rising young run stuffer. It took a bit longer to work out the acquisition of John Franklin-Myers from the New York Jets; the trade to acquire him took place on Day 3 of the NFL Draft.

But together, the Broncos hope they are transformative.

“Last year with the rush defense, it wasn’t every game, it was just spotty. I think having those two guys inside to hold a point for us and to change the L.O.S. [line of scrimmage], that’s important. With our run defense, both guys have a history of doing that.”

And then there’s what they bring to the locker room.

“Oh, they’re great,” Henningsen said. “Roach brings a fantastic energy every single day. JFM brings that veteran presence that we also have with Zach, but he’s been around for a while. He knows what he’s doing. He’s done it for a long time.”

And the Broncos hope that both can make life easier for the linebackers.

“They’ve been awesome,” linebacker Alex Singleton said during OTAs. “I’ve know John for a few years now. We trained together a couple of years ago back in southern California. I am excited. The way that they play is fast and physical. They are aggressive dudes.

“It’s been pretty nice having them in front of me.”

Although the Jets traded Franklin-Myers to create cap space, the 27-year-old, 7-year veteran effectively picked his spot. So he picked the brains of people who knew how Sean Payton operated in New Orleans.

“With that whole situation, it was talking to guys. Sheldon Rankins is a good friend of mine and he had nothing bad to say. Then coming here, Joe Vitt (a Broncos assistant) was a coach who was at the Jets with me,” Franklin-Myers said. “I had the chance to talk with him during the process. Hearing him, it’s the honesty, and the passion and willingness to win. I couldn’t pass that up.”

Franklin-Myers should give the Broncos an interior pass-rush presence to complement Allen. Roach had the league’s No. 1 run-stop percentage, per the data collected by Pro Football Focus.

But just as important his the vocal presence.

“I think he loves playing. He really does. He’s effective as a player, and it’s kind of contagious,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a really good teammate and someone that can play multiple positions. There are certain guys that are ‘glue’ guys in a locker room, and he’s one of those guys.

“He had to steal first base. He was an undrafted free agent. He wasn’t born on third base. He had to make it. He’s a guy that appreciates every day, and his teammates quickly—I talked to a few of the others guy that have been here, and very quickly he acclimated himself. I would say he endears himself to his teammates, and I think that’s a good trait.”

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WORKING OUT THE ROTATION

Elijah Garcia parlayed a strong preseason into a roster spot last year — and even recorded his first career sack during one of the three games that he played. But that was it for him, and he finished the season with just 31 snaps. He projects as an interior pass-rushing specialist, but a path to a roster spot could be filled with roadblocks this year.

Third-year defensive lineman Matt Henningsen is in a similar spot in regards to his roster spot. He hasn’t missed a game in his two NFL seasons, but with a sack and two QB hits in 453 career defensive snaps, he knows he must crank up the pass rush in order to maintain his grip on a roster spot.

“I need to improve my pass-rush skills and my pass-rush moves and things like that — become more than a one-dimensional pass-rusher from that perspective,” Henningsen said last month.

Competing with Garcia and Henningsen will be offseason pickup Angelo Blackson and Jordan Jackson.

And then there is the case of Enyi Uwazurike. The 2022 fourth-round pick is eligible to return from injured reserve in time for the start of training camp, but faces an ongoing investigation from Arapahoe County and Colorado authorities into the gambling-related allegations that helped lead to the suspension the league issued last year.

Uwazurike showed some flashes as a rookie, but after a one-year layoff, predicting his role is difficult — especially with having to win over an entirely new coaching staff from the one that was in place as a rookie. If the NFL chooses to end his suspension, he’ll be starting from zero.

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