Broncos 2022 Training Camp Preview: Defensive linemen
Last year, opponents gashed the Broncos on the ground. Plenty of factors contributed, but above all, it started up front.
“To me, we have to have that run defense,” nose tackle Mike Purcell said during OTAs. “It’s one of the biggest things, depending on the team that you may play [because] it may be a passing offense, but there’s always going to be runs in the game that you have to stop.
“If you don’t stop those runs, then it makes the game easier [for the other team] and cuts the time off.”
Purcell and the Broncos flourished against the run early. In the first six weeks of the season, Denver’s defense ranked 4th in yards per carry allowed (3.74), 4th in rushing yards allowed per game (85.5) and 1st in rushing first-down rate, with just one of every 6.2 attempts moving the chains.
From Week 7 onward, those rankings were 20th, 21st and 18th, respectively. Cleveland mauled the Broncos on the ground in Week 7, and Denver’s front never really recovered.
That is part of why the defensive-line room could look far different by Week 1 than it did last year. Veteran Shelby Harris, last year’s team leader in sacks, went to Seattle in the Drew Lock trade. D.J. Jones, one of the league’s most efficient run stuffers, arrived in free agency to replace him. And with two Day 3 picks jumping aboard, the depth could be transformed, too.
Starters: Dre’Mont Jones, D.J. Jones, Mike Purcell
But “starters” is a term that has less meaning here than it does on, for example, the offensive line. Sub packages could lead to the Broncos using two interior defensive linemen on a frequent basis, which could leave snaps at a premium for Purcell in particular.
Everything starts with the Joneses, and they are a good bet to lead the way in playing time. And while D.J. Jones came to the Broncos as an analytics darling against the run, his work in OTAs and minicamp revealed a disruptive pass-rusher, too.
“In San Francisco, he may not have been the star pass rusher with everyone they have there, but he can [be that in Denver],” Purcell said.
D.J. Jones got his payday this spring. Dre’Mont Jones is at the cusp of his, in part because he has quietly become one of the league’s most effective interior pass rushers. In today’s NFL, that skill gets you paid.
Of the 149 interior defensive linemen with at least 100 pass-rush snaps last year, Jones’ win rate of 14.8 percent ranked 14th, per the data compiled by Pro Football Focus. He didn’t get his first sack until Week 8, but he had a solid pressure rate of one every 12.5 pass-rush snaps in Weeks 1-7, per PFF.
However, that pressure rate did improve from Week 8 onward, to one every 9.4 pass-rush snaps.
“I think I’m consistent with being disruptive,” Dre’Mont Jones said during OTAs. “If you watch film, I’m going to be disruptive every time because I pride myself on that and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Of the three, Purcell’s status is the most tenuous, given the emphasis on sub packages and the fact that the Broncos can save over $3.5 million if they cut him. But he has value — if he can stay healthy. He is a pure nose tackle. And if he can occupy blockers in the base package as he has in the past, he can set Jones up for physical mismatches working as a three-technique tackle.
Purcell also has a background with new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.
“I was with [Evero) in San Francisco under Vic [Fangio] my first two years and then I had the benefit of being with him in L.A. [Rams] after I was in San Francisco,” Purcell said. “It’s a very similar defense to me. A lot of the terminology and the way we play certain blocks, it’s very similar to me and it’s an easy transition.”
Reserves: DeShawn Williams, Jonathan Harris, McTelvin Agim, Enyi Uwazurike, Matt Henningsen, Marquiss Spencer
Williams is the type of rotational defensive lineman every team wants. He can play any spot up front and deliver pass-rush punch in a pinch. Even as the Broncos churn the depth chart, it would come as no surprise if Williams is in the mix once again.
Like Williams, Jonathan Harris just has a habit of making himself valuable. After a late-season cameo in 2019, Harris returned to the lineup late in 2021. Because of COVID-19 absences, he played a career-high 35 snaps in Week 17 at Los Angeles, logging 8 total tackles and a quarterback hit. In the spring, he caught Evero’s eyes.
“There are a lot of guys that have been doing a heck of a job of working their butts off and improving. He’s one of those guys,” Everon said. “I’m really excited to see what he does when he comes back for training camp.”
Agim looked explosive during OTAs. But the third-year veteran has shown flashes on the practice field before. Last year, he had some dominant days during training camp. But opportunities to make it translate to the regular season proved scarce. He had just 61 pass-rush snaps last year — but generated pressure on 10 of them, according to the data compiled by Pro Football Focus.
That rate of one pressure every 6.1 opportunities was better than that of Dre’Mont Jones, although the small sample size is a factor. But Agim must improve against the run to earn more snaps.
Uwazurike, a fourth-round pick, could get a jersey on game days because of his special-teams ability. He blocked two field goals at Iowa State. But Evero acknowledged during rookie minicamp that holding down Uwazurike’s snaps could help him develop. Uwazurike averaged 45.7 snaps per game in his last three seasons at Iowa State.
“The one thing about him is he played so much in college that I think he played so many snaps that he got gassed,” Evero said. “I think playing a little bit less and getting the fundamentals [can help] … and he’ll be just fine.”
That said, Uwazurike felt the extensive work aided him — especially in being conditioned for Colorado’s altitude.
“It definitely helped me a lot,” he said in May. “That came with having good versatility and being able to play all over the line. That was something I had to do and it’s something good to put on my resume. I wasn’t really concerned with all the reps. It’s something you have to train for and take on the chin.
“I really feel like it’s helped a lot and it’s helping in this situation with the altitude.”
Sixth-round pick Matt Henningsen is one of the most intriguing players in the room. A calf injury suffered on the first day of rookie minicamp waylaid Henningsen’s progress. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if he still made the 53-man roster. The motor he displayed at Wisconsin should flash once the pads go on. His combination of athletic measurables and high intelligence made him a roll of the dice worth taking in Round 6.
Those measurables bore out on a monster Pro Day, when Henningsen logged a 37.5-inch vertical jump, a 9-foot, 11-inch broad jump and a 4.29-second short-shuttle time.
“The measurables at the workout just kind of confirmed what we thought,” Broncos GM George Paton said after the draft.
Henningsen also has a background of adapting and adjusting to his level, evidenced by becoming Wisconsin’s first freshman walk-on starter since at least 1990. With patience, the Broncos should have a player who can become — at minimum — a solid rotational piece.
The year-to-year churn could claim 2021 seventh-round pick Marquiss Spencer if he doesn’t flash in training camp. Spencer never made it off the practice squad last year. Even factoring in the practice squad, there may not be room for both Spencer and Henningsen. That will make their progress and battle one to watch on the back end of the depth chart.
The defensive line will go as far as the Joneses take them. Both possess plenty of motivation. For D.J. Jones, it’s proving that the Broncos’ massive investment in him was a wise one. For Dre’Mont Jones, it’s establishing himself as one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. If he does, a massive contract will certainly follow — whether in Denver or elsewhere.
The work of the entire defensive line has already impressed some, like center Lloyd Cushenberry, who faces the unit each day.
“They’re the total package,” he said during OTAs. “They have everything. They have a lot of speed and athleticism.”
But beyond the Joneses and Purcell, the Broncos hope to find out what they have in recent draft picks like Agim, Uwazurike, Henningsen and Spencer.
And with a still-limited stock of draft choices in 2023, Denver needs at least two of those four to show signs of becoming trustworthy rotational pieces. Otherwise, the Broncos may be scouring the waiver wire for help in early September.