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Denver’s defense was mediocre in 2019. They were middle of the pack against both run and pass, were among the bottom third in turnovers and tied for 17th with 40 sacks. The team lost some players and added a few to replace them, but all in all, there is nothing that jumps out and says this team will be better in 2020.
After leading the team’s defensive linemen with a career-best seven sacks, Derek Wolfe jumped ship and signed with Baltimore. Denver’s biggest free-agent addition on defense was his replacement, Jurrell Casey. This is the one clear upgrade Denver made. Wolfe had a good run with Denver, he was a solid run defender and recorded 32.5 career sacks over eight seasons. Casey has 50.5 sacks over nine seasons, has a career-best of 9.5, has reached 7 three times, and has not fallen short of 5 since 2012. Casey has been more durable as well, having a handful of games with injury over his career, and is an excellent run defender.
Even with the change of teams, we know what to expect from Casey who is a solid if unspectacular IDP target. His career averages are 36 tackles, 19 assists, and he has averaged 6.5 sacks over the last seven seasons. Casey has reached or exceeded the 40 solo tackle mark three times and fallen short of 30 once. That was in 2019 when he missed a couple of games. Casey played tackle and occasionally lined up as a defensive end when the Titans were running a 4-3. He did not miss a beat moving to end when the team shifted to a 3-4 a couple of years back. Playing with Bradley Chubb and Von Miller on the outside will be a plus for Casey who has never been surrounded by that kind of talent, but 40 tackles, 20 assists, and maybe 8 sacks are about his ceiling. Consider Casey a dependable low-end DL2 or priority DL3.
The Broncos used a lot of players at defensive end last season, with five guys seeing action on at least 225 snaps. Casey is a good bet to log around 750 plays and with both Adam Gotsis and Justin Hollins gone, Shelby Harris could see a similar number opposite him. Harris led the group with 649 snaps in 2019, posting 28 tackles, 21 assists, and 6 sacks. Since he was designated a tackle by many league host sites, those numbers look fairly good at a glance. A closer look reveals just how inconsistent he was though. All six of the sacks came in three games while Harris scored five points or fewer nine times.
Demarcus Walker and Dre’Mont Jones were part of the rotation last season, combining for 21 tackles, 13 assists, and 7 sacks on 520 plays. Walker was a second-round pick of Denver’s in 2017 and Jones was taken in round-three last spring. Both are young players that could push Harris for the starting job. Rookie third-round pick McTelvin Agim is a similar player to both Walker and Jones in that he could eventually challenge for a prominent role. Agim is bigger than Walker or Jones, and could also see snaps at nose tackle as he backup to Mike Purcell.
Purcell is Denver’s biggest defensive lineman and the anchor of the run defense. He moved into the starting lineup at nose tackle last season and did a quality job in a two-down role. Purcell has one career sack in four seasons and comes off the field on third downs, thus there is no IDP help to be found here.
- DE Jurrell Casey – Dependable low-end DL2 or priority Dl3
- DE/NT Shelby Harris – Marginal value expected
- DE/NT McTelvin Agim – Developmental rookie with limited upside
- DE DeMarcus Walker – Sleeper with limited potential
- DE Dre'Mont Jones – Sleeper with limited potential
- DE Christian Covington – No impact expected
- NT Mike Purcell – Depth at best in tackle required leagues.
Denver’s inside linebackers are far from household names, even in IDP circles, but both Todd Davis and A.J. Johnson are better and more productive than many realize. Davis became a three-down starter in 2018. He is not a playmaker in terms of turnovers or sacks but is remarkably consistent in the tackle columns. In 2018 Davis finished with 83 tackles, 29 assists, a sack, and an interception. He missed the first two games last year and was limited in week three, but still managed a mark of 82 tackles and 52 assists. Davis was completely absent from the big-play columns last season. Even so, his 11.5 points per game ranked 22nd among linebackers and he reached double-digit points in 11 of 13 games. His upside is limited but it is hard to find a more consistent third starter.
Lack of experience kept A.J. Johnson off the field early in 2019 as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio elected to go with Corey Nelson to open the season. After watching his defense get run over through the month of September and into October, Fangio finally decided to go with talent over experience and plugged Johnson in as a starter. The response was immediate and impressive.
In his first start, Johnson recorded five solo tackles and three assists while helping to limit a potent Chargers running game to under 40 yards. He also made a game-saving interception in the end and broke up another pass. That started a nine-game stretch during which Johnson totaled 40 tackles, 35 assists, a sack and a half, and 4 turnovers, for an averaged 12.5 points per game.
Most managers will look at Johnson’s overall numbers of 51-42-1.5 and maybe the fact his production declined sharply in December, and slide him way down their draft board. Don’t be one that makes such a mistake. Johnson played the final three games and most of a fourth on a sore knee that bothered him considerably and affected his play. With a full workload, he could easily reach 80 tackles and 50 assists, and unlike his counterpart Davis, Johnson is a playmaker. He is a breakout candidate with high LB2 upside if not better.
Denver’s outside linebackers are household names to pretty much anyone that watches the NFL. When they are both healthy the Broncos have an edge tandem to rival any in the league in Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. When Chubb was a rookie in 2018, he and Miller combined for 26 sacks, forced 6 fumbles, and recovered 4 of them. The Broncos lost Chubb to a torn ACL in week four of the 2019 campaign. Without him to keep opponents honest, Miller turned in the lowest sack count (8) of his career in a non-injury season.
Throw out his injury-shortened 2013 and Miller has double-digit sacks in every season leading up to last. With 25 forced fumbles 9 recoveries, 24 batted passes, and a pair of scores, his big-play production is up there with the best. There have been some seasons when Miller broke the trend of 3-4 outside linebacker lacking enough tackles to be relevant in balanced scoring leagues but unfortunately, he has been wildly inconsistent in that area. In 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017 Miller exceeded 50 solo stops. He reached 60 in 2016. In 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019 he recorded as few as 29 and no more than 42. Miller remains a quality starter in big-play based leagues but is no more than a hit or miss LB4 in balanced formats.
Chubb lacks the long track record of Miller but could end up being even better by the time his career ends. His ACL repair went well and Chubb is ready for the start of training camp. It will be a while before we can see if he is fully recovered but all the reports are positive. Many edge defenders start slowly and put up less than stellar numbers in their first year. Chubb was not one of those players. He totaled 43 tackles, 16 assists, 12 sacks, and 3 turnovers as a rookie. If he gets better with experience as nearly all young players do, this guy could win a sack title or two before he is done. As with all 3-4 outside linebackers, the extent of Chubb’s value depends largely on the scoring system, but he is capable of LB3 value in balanced formats.
The Broncos have dealt with several injuries at the second level in recent years, so depth is an important factor. Josey Jewell started several games before losing his job to A.J. Johnson. Plenty of games for the team to know he is not an NFL starter. Jewell can fill in for a few games if need be but there is a substantial drop off, particularly in coverage.
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