Digging Deep for Defensive Depth

Jason Hunter

HUNTER: ... showing promise in his return to DE.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Three quarters of preseason work has been enough to provide a glimpse into what the Broncos’ overhauled first-team defense wants to bring: a speedy edge pass rush, swarm tackling and an aggression that forces mismatches and coaxes foes into attacking the Broncos’ strongest points.

Just as much intrigue, however, may lie in the depth of the defense, an aspect that appeared to be shaky as training camp began.

The depth chart beyond the first unit could be subject to significant change via post-cutdown waiver claims but for now, its reserves are tapped at defensive tackle because of injuries to Ty Warren and Marcus Thomas that leave them sidelined for the preseason — and for Warren, potentially months, if not the entire season.

Inside, the Broncos moved Ryan McBean and Jeremy Jarmon up to the second unit. McBean is familiar; Jarmon is not, and after starting training camp at defensive end, found himself working as a three-technique tackle and making a decent acquittal of himself last Saturday.

Jarmon, whom the Broncos acquired from the Redskins in exchange for wide receiver Jabar Gaffney last month, has become the first example of the “next-man-up” perspective that John Fox and coordinator Dennis Allen have attempted to convey to their defense.

“As long as you’ve got that Denver Bronco on your helmet, you’re held to the same standard as everybody else,” Allen said. “I think as long as people understand that and buy into that, they’re going to have a chance for success.”

It was a mild surprise to observers that Jarmon would work so extensively at tackle. It was no surprise that Jason Hunter would be at defensive end. Even though he started at outside linebacker last year after Elvis Dumervil suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle, Hunter was a defensive end with the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers; his return to the line was a homecoming.

He responded with two sacks against Dallas, propelling him into the league’s preseason sack lead — albeit in a tie with 15 others. More significantly for Hunter’s prospects his year, he’s moved up from the third unit to the second; given how the Broncos would like to keep their defensive linemen as fresh as possible, it seems Hunter may find a role for himself as part of a rotation this year.

“He may be one of our most improved players up front,” Allen said.

“I think the amount of strides he has made has been surprising because moving from an outside linebacker, putting his hand back on the ground, he was a little rusty early in the game,” Allen said. “But, again, he’s focused in on the technique that (defensive line coach) Wayne Nunnely’s teaching him and he’s trying to do that exactly right and that’s giving him a chance to be successful.”

Nothing is guaranteed for Jarmon, Hunter and any of the other backup Bronco defenders who’ve captured attention this month, a list that includes safety Kyle McCarthy, cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn and Syd’Quan Thompson and rookie linebacker Mike Mohamed.

But if they can keep progressing, the Broncos’ defense won’t seem as thin as it might appear at first glance.

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.

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