*** UPDATED 10:20 P.M. MST ***
DENVER – Two of the key components of last year’s Broncos free-agent class have been swept away.
Just hours before the end of the league year and looming deadline for negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement, the Broncos released nose tackle Jamal Williams and defensive end/tackle Justin Bannan, casting off two-thirds of last year’s starting defensive line in one fell swoop.
Both Bannan and Williams were due roster bonuses in the coming days. Williams had two years left on his contract; Bannan had four years left on a deal that he signed last year.
The release of Williams was a mild surprise; while he was due a roster bonus, Broncos head coach John Fox indicated last week that the long-time 3-4 nose tackle could contribute in a 4-3 alignment.
“Nose tackle is kind of nose tackle,” Fox said on Feb. 24 when asked about Williams. “It’s actually easier a little bit in the 4-3 because you’re a little bit more shaded. If you can play 3-4 nose tackle, you can do anything.”
Williams made it through the entire 2010 season without major injuries, but was not the force of nature he had been prior to 2009, when he missed 15 of 16 games with a triceps injury.
The decision to cast off Bannan was a major surprise, especially given his ability to contribute in 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. Bannan started throughout the 2010 season at defensive end and was easily the Broncos’ most consistent contributor up front.
Denver is left with just one experienced veteran on the roster who can play defensive tackle in a 4-3: ex-Panthers lineman Louis Leonard. Ryan McBean, a 3-4 defensive end, is a free agent. The team extended a qualifying offer to defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, but he indicated through his agent via KDVR-Ch. 31′s Josina Anderson that he would not sign the offer.
Denver appears reasonably set at defensive end with Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil penciled in as the starters and Jason Hunter as a steady, veteran backup. But the paucity of defensive tackles makes that area of the team the first, most urgent need of the Fox era.
A few hours later, Broncos did something to begin building depth at tackle, re-signing Kevin Vickerson, who played extensively after joining the team in September. Vickerson likely projects on the inside after playing defensive end in the 3-4 alignment last year.
Even if there is no free-agency period because of the labor strife between the NFL and NFL Players Association, the bounty of first-round caliber defensive tackles in this year’s draft means that the Broncos can likely replenish themselves there in short order.
With the release of tight end Daniel Graham a day earlier, the Broncos have now cut three of their most experienced players in a 24-hour span. Graham, Williams and Bannan possessed a combined 31 years of service among them.
Bannan and Williams were part of a 2010 free-agent class that looks nothing short of disastrous for the Broncos. In March and April last year, the Broncos signed Bannan, Williams, linebacker Akin Ayodele, defensive end Jarvis Green and cornerback/safety Nate Jones. They also brought back unrestricted free agent Nick Greisen, who had hurt his knee in the previous training camp.
Of those six players, three didn’t make it out of training camp: Green, Ayodele and Greisen. Only Jones remains with the team.
The defensive linemen who were expected to comprise the starting front — Green, Williams and Bannan — were given contracts that included more than $17 million of guaranteed salary, according to figures compiled by Rotoworld.com.