After an offseason that saw a Super Bowl champion on the defensive line depart in free agency, a former draft picks enter free agency, and another player opting out, the Denver Broncos defensive line will have an interesting blend of continuity and new faces at the position going into the 2020 NFL season. Training camp will be a critical time for the Broncos, as they’ll have several players fighting for key snaps this season. As a part of our ongoing series, we will take a look at the most critical training camp storylines and position battles along the Broncos’ defensive line in 2020.
Favored starters on the defensive line for the Broncos
After allowing Derek Wolfe to hit the free-agent market, the Broncos made one of the most impactful trades of the entire NFL offseason when they traded a seventh-round draft pick to the Tennessee Titans for five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. The team also made it a point to retain surprise standout and former AAF lineman Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris, who re-signed on a team-friendly one year deal. Keeping Purcell and Harris for a second season with head coach Vic Fangio keeps the continuity along the defensive front, which will be crucial for this defense’s long-term success. The cherry on top, adding Casey, makes this Broncos defensive line a strong unit.
Jurrell Casey ready for a revenge tour
When the Broncos traded for Casey, Broncos fans weren’t the only people stunned by the deal. Casey was equally shocked, feeling betrayed by the team he had spent nine seasons with. He spoke about the trade with former Titans teammate Jason McCourty and his brother, Devin McCourty, on their podcast in June, saying that he felt like the team threw him away like “a piece of trash.” Casey went on to say:
“…you give so much to them. Especially when you come up on free agency and have opportunities to go play somewhere else. Especially the way it was going when we were there, 2-14, 3-13…those were some rough times.”
While the move saved Tennessee nearly $11 million in cap space, Casey now has an opportunity to show his former team that he was undervalued for his services when the Broncos and Titans face off in Week 1. Casey is likely to be a starter for this defensive line, bringing versatility, tenacity, and veteran leadership to Fangio’s defense, along with a chip on his shoulder.
Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris become household names
Shelby Harris rose to stardom in Denver in 2017 when he recorded 5.5 sacks in his first full season of football. He has been one of the fan favorites in Denver since his arrival, but when it came time for free agency, it appeared as if Harris was going to be on his way out of Denver. However, Harris signed a one-year, team-friendly deal with the team to stay in Denver for another season in Fangio’s defense.
Harris had some issues adjusting to playing nose tackle in Fangio’s system, mainly when the Broncos played the Jaguars in Week 4 of the 2019 season. Those issues faded when Harris was bumped to defensive end and had a career-high six sacks and an incredible nine batted passes.
The most significant difference in Harris’ play came when the Broncos signed former AAF and Niners defensive lineman Purcell, who spent time with Fangio previously in San Francisco. Purcell, who hadn’t played in the NFL since 2016, played in 13 games for the Broncos in 2019 and made a significant impact on the defensive line. Purcell was an instrumental part of holding 2019 NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to only 28 rushing yards, collecting two tackles for loss in that matchup. Purcell is poised to have a big year as Denver’s starting nose tackle for this Broncos defensive line in 2020.
Could Dre’Mont Jones push for a starting job on the defensive line?
When the Broncos selected Dre’Mont Jones out of Ohio State in 2019, it looked like Denver was banking on Jones to take over for either Wolfe or Harris in the near future. With Harris returning and the acquisition of Casey, Jones may have to wait one more season before taking on a starting role at the defensive end position. However, Jones made some impressive plays in his rookie season, showing fans the potential that intrigued the Broncos. Could his play in 2019 be enough for him to steal the starting role from Harris?
It’s unlikely he takes the starting job in 2020, but Jones will likely see an increase in defensive snaps this season. A strong showing could lead him to be the frontrunner for the starting job in 2021, should Harris depart in free agency. In 14 games last season, Jones recorded 3.5 sacks and had an interception against the Chargers in Week 16, which won him the Defensive Player of the Week award.
Jones has the explosiveness and hand-fighting skills that Fangio wants to see, but Jones primarily used passing downs. If Jones can contribute against the run more consistently and show the coaches that he belongs on the field, he’ll likely lock up the starting job in 2021.
Who will be the rotational players for the Broncos on the defensive line?
Behind the anticipated starters on the defensive line, the Broncos are looking to have a healthy mix of youth and veteran players that can bring different skill sets to the table. Jones is a player we could see have a significant impact in his second season, but who will be the other rotational players for the Broncos on the defensive interior this season?
It very well could be the team’s third-round selection from the 2020 NFL Draft, McTelvin Agim, out of Arkansas. Agim will provide the Broncos with versatility and explosiveness on the defensive interior, both as a defensive end or nose tackle in Fangio’s scheme. If the Broncos choose to carry six defensive linemen on the roster, there will likely be three players fighting for that final spot on the final roster.
Solidifying the Broncos’ defensive line depth
With three possible players fighting for one of the remaining spots on the roster, Fangio, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, and defensive line coach Bill Kollar will be looking for a player who can be the most versatile and who can provide the most output on the defensive front. Christian Covington has the veteran experience that Fangio could be looking for and had a decent 2019 season with the Dallas Cowboys, recording 28 tackles, four tackles for a loss, and one sack in 16 games. There’s also Jonathan Harris, who the Broncos signed to a futures contract and could be a natural fit in Fangio’s defense.
Former second-round pick Demarcus Walker is the other player that could be in play for the final spot on the defensive line. After two disappointing seasons, Walker found a resurgence in his career in a breakout season with the Broncos in 2019. He doubled his career total in tackles, had a career-high in sacks with four, and matched his career-high in quarterback hits with five. If Walker can continue to show this level of improvement in his play, he’ll likely be able to beat out Covington and Harris as a depth piece for the Broncos defensive line in 2020.