Denver Broncos: Elite Defense Can Only Get Better In Free Agency

The Denver Broncos have an opportunity to make their best unit — the defense — even better through a deep free agent class…

Oct 30, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe (95) reacts during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 30, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe (95) reacts during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In a season that ran on the fumes of its glorious predecessor, Denver’s 2016 campaign fell on its face in a flash after a rosy 4-0 start. For all their deficiencies as a collective of personnel groupings and coaches, the Broncos’ defense supplied a performance worthy of a Super Bowl repeat nonetheless.

What’s remarkable is how they can feasibly top themselves in 2017 with the right free agent reinforcements along the defensive line.

In 2015, Von Miller and the “No Fly Zone” All-Stars reigned supreme with the league’s top-ranked defense and a world championship forged out of their blood, sweat, and tears. Total regular season points allowed in those halcyon days? 296.

Total regular season points allowed in 2016, the year of the damned? 297 (18.6 points per game).

Denver’s already flawed offense regressed even further last season under two inexperienced quarterbacks and a beleaguered offensive line that produced the NFL’s second-worst conversion rate on third down–among half a dozen other significant ills that routinely brought Riley Dixon onto the field of play. The offense’s issues are written in stone at this point because they’re the team’s weakest link by a mile; so perhaps it’s sexier for the time being to highlight how an already great, championship-caliber defense can go about improving itself in the year ahead.

The No Fly Zone once again handled its business last year by flexing the NFL’s top-ranked unit against the pass. But would you believe that Denver’s run-defense plummeted from 3rd-best in 2015 to 5th-worst in 2016? Oddly enough, the free agent departures of defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan weren’t drastic enough to dissuade Pro Football Focus from rating the team’s front seven as the league’s best entering the season.

The task of stuffing the run to that level became even more challenging with the news of Vance Walker’s season-ending ACL tear at training camp in mid-August. Walker is among Denver’s nine unrestricted free agents this year, and all signs indicate the Broncos wish to resign him. The 6’2, 295 pound veteran earned $2.25 million last season and will turn 29 in late-April.

Getting Walker back in the trenches should help Denver’s cause stopping rushers at the line of scrimmage, but since the Broncos again figure to be aggressive in free agency with approximately $40 million in cap space, it seems inevitable that GM John Elway will be able to land at least one premiere defensive end or tackle when the free agent market opens up on March 9.

It essentially feels like an exercise in childlike fantasy to imagine the Broncos becoming any better on defense. Still, there’s ample room to improve; and the conversation starts and ends on the defensive line when the opposition thinks better of “flying” into Denver’s foreboding airspace.

The Broncos can, and will, improve themselves on defense this offseason. They have the money and the prestige to do so. More importantly, they NEED to improve in any way possible if they intend on challenging those insufferable New England Patriots for AFC supremacy. Denver allowed 15 rushing touchdowns in 2016 to New England’s 6.

John Elway knows this.

So let’s take a look at defensive lineman the Broncos may target in free agency next month.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Andrus Peat (75) blocks for running back Tim Hightower (34) against Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell (93) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Andrus Peat (75) blocks for running back Tim Hightower (34) against Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell (93) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Ends

Calais Campbell (Arizona): 6’8 and 282 pounds; turns 31 on Sept. 1; Denver native and South High School product; 9-year NFL veteran; accustomed to a 3-4 style (which the Broncos again intend to run under new defensive coordinator Joe Woods). 2016 stats: Tied second-highest career sack total (8) and recorded a career-low in solo tackles with 34 in 16 games started. Only missed six games in NFL career; signed 5-year, $55 million contract with the Cardinals in 2012; earned $15.25 million in 2016 as Arizona’s third-highest paid player.

Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants): 6’5 and 278 pounds; 28-years-old; 7-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 7 sacks and 35 solo tackles in 12 games (underwent season-ending sports hernia surgery after Week 12); named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 12; drew consideration for Comeback Player of the Year. Earned $9.4 million in 2016.

Chris Baker (Washington): 6’2 and 298 pounds; turns 30 in October; 7-year NFL veteran (played one game with Denver in 2009). 2016 stats: 4.5 sacks and 30 solo tackles and two forced fumbles. 12.5 career sacks; earned nearly $4.3 million in 2016 and was Washington’s highest-paid defensive lineman.

Mario Addison (Carolina): 6’3 and 298 pounds; turns 30 in September; 6-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 9.5 sacks and 22 solo tackles (not a starter). Earned $1.6 million in 2016.

Jabaal Sheard (New England): 6’2 and 254 pounds; turns 28 in May; 6-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 5 sacks and 20 tackles in 15 games (8 starts); played linebacker and defensive end with Cleveland 2011-14. Earned $6.8 million in 2016.

Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) tackles Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson in the first quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) tackles Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson in the first quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackles

Kawaan Short (Carolina): 6’3 and 299 pounds; 28-years-old; 4-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 6 sacks and 30 solo tackles in 16 games (all starts). Never missed a game; earned $1.4 million in 2016.

Brandon Williams (Baltimore): 6’1 and 335 pounds; turns 28 on Feb. 21; 4-year NFL veteran. 2016: 1 sack and 34 solo tackles. Hasn’t missed a game to injury in three seasons; earned $1.8 million in 2016.

Dontari Poe (KC): 6’3 and 346 pounds; turns 27 in August; 5-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 1.5 sacks and 18 solo tackles. Only missed two games in career; earned $6.1 million in 2016.

Johnathan Hankins (New York Giants): 6’3 and 320 pounds; turns 25 in March; 4-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 3 sacks and 29 solo tackles in 16 starts. Earned nearly $1.3 million in 2016.

Dominique Easley (Los Angeles Rams): 6’2 and 288 pounds; turns 25 on Feb. 24; 3-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 3.5 sacks and 24 solo tackles in 16 games (no starts). Earned $600,000 in 2016.

Bennie Logan (Philadelphia): 6’2 and 309 pounds; 27-years-old; 4-year NFL veteran (all with Philadelphia). 2016 stats: 2.5 sacks and 16 solo tackles in 13 games (all starts). Earned $1.8 million in 2016.

Nick Fairley (New Orleans): 6’5 and 291 pounds; 29-years-old; 6-year NFL veteran. 2016 stats: 6.5 sacks and 29 solo tackles in 16 games (all starts). Earned $1.5 million in 2016.

This article originally appeared on