MOBILE, Ala. – Whoever replaces Dennis Allen as Broncos defensive coordinator has a tough act to follow — and will inherit a defense that is still in the midst of a rebuilding process.
Under Allen’s watch, the Broncos’ defense improved from dead last in the league to 20th, and featured four Pro Bowlers, the most for the Broncos defense since 1996: cornerback Champ Bailey, safety Brian Dawkins, linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
But it’s also a defense with question marks. Dawkins is pondering retirement and has an expiring contract. Both starting defensive tackles (Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas) and two key linebackers (Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard) are set for free agency. Andre’ Goodman’s contract could be in line for renegotiation, as Dawkins’s was last summer.
Further, this was a defense that buckled under early- and late-season injuries. It conceded 41 and 45 points to the Patriots during the last five weeks — although it accounted for just 49 points allowed in the other three games during that span (losses to Buffalo and Kansas City and a playoff win over Pittsburgh).
When the defense’s starters were healthy — as was the case from Week 7-12 — it held opponents below 20 points five times and to an average of 17.7 points per game in that span.
There’s much to like about the defense. Miller’s potential appears boundless. Dumervil is in his prime and appears back to form after missing 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle. Bailey has avoided major injury to this point in his career and remains an elite cornerback. Linebacker D.J. Williams enjoyed a solid 2011, and rookies Quinton Carter and Chris Harris invigorated the secondary.
Overall, this is a plum job. Even though Fox is a defensive coach, he allows his coordinators autonomy to tweak the scheme to their liking.
But who will that be?
Expect the Broncos’ seventh defensive coordinator in as many seasons to be one of these men:
JACK DEL RIO
- CURRENT POSITION: None, most recently Jacksonville’s head coach.
- COORDINATOR EXPERIENCE: 2002, Carolina Panthers.
- FOX CONNECTION: Was his defensive coordinator in 2002 with the Panthers.
- BREAKDOWN: It would be no surprise if the job is his to turn down … Never has a Fox defense played as brilliantly as it did when Del Rio was the defensive coordinator. He jumped aboard Fox’s first staff after serving as the Ravens’ linebackers coach from 1999-2001 and transformed the league’s worst defense into the No. 2-ranked unit a year later … While the selection of Julius Peppers in the 2002 NFL Draft helped, Del Rio also incorporated a slew of previously acquired players such as defensive end Mike Rucker, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, linebacker Dan Morgan and safety Mike Minter. The defense held opponents below 300 total yards eight times that season. … Del Rio parlayed that into a head-coaching job in Jacksonville that lasted eight-plus seasons before he was fired. The fit appears logical; he and Fox worked well together. But Del Rio doesn’t need to coach; he could take a year off and not hurt his reputation or career one iota. However, if Del Rio wants to return to the head-coaching ranks, the Broncos’ promising personnel would seem to offer a perfect springboard.
- CURRENT POSITION: Linebackers coach, Denver Broncos.
- COORDINATOR EXPERIENCE: 2005, Miami Dolphins; 2006-08, Houston Texans.
- FOX CONNECTION: Was his linebackers coach in 2009-10 with the Panthers and followed him to Denver.
- BREAKDOWN: Probably the most logical in-house candidate, given his coordinator experience and his status as one of the Panthers coaches Fox imported to Denver last year … Von Miller frequently gave Smith credit for pushing him to his successful, likely-defensive-rookie-of-the-year campaign … Worked as a linebackers and special teams coach for the Broncos under then-head coach Wade Phillips in 1993-94 and remained with the special teams for Mike Shanahan’s first two years as head coach (1995-96) … During his three years as Texans defensive coordinator, only three teams gave up more touchdowns on defense than Houston’s 120 (Detroit 147, St. Louis 129, Arizona 123).
- CURRENT POSITION: None, most recently St. Louis’s defensive coordinator.
- COORDINATOR EXPERIENCE: 2009-11, St. Louis Rams; 1996-97, University of Nevada; 1995, University of Richmond.
- FOX CONNECTION: Was his linebackers coach in Carolina from 2003-08.
- BREAKDOWN: Appears poised to rejoin his Rams boss, Steve Spagnuolo, as the Saints’ linebackers coach; Spagnuolo was recently appointed as defensive coordinator, replacing Gregg Williams … His defense finished 22nd in the league in 2011 as it was beset by injuries, particularly at cornerback, where 10 players were injured at various points in a doomed 2-14 season.
- CURRENT POSITION: Defensive line coach, Green Bay Packers.
- COORDINATOR EXPERIENCE: 2003-08, Carolina Panthers.
- FOX CONNECTION: Defensive line coach 2002; defensive coordinator 2003-08.
- BREAKDOWN: Fox’s longest-tenured defensive coordinator; he was Fox’s defensive boss for six of the head coach’s 10 seasons … He and the Panthers mutually parted ways when his contract expired at the end of the 2008 season; the Panthers closed that season allowing 30-plus points in five of their last seven games, an average of 29.6 per game. During that span, the Panthers allowed 390 yards per game..
- CURRENT POSITION: Defensive line coach, Dallas Cowboys.
- COORDINATOR EXPERIENCE: 1995, Georgia Tech.
- FOX CONNECTION: Was his defensive line coach in 2009-10.
- BREAKDOWN: Baker fits the mold of Del Rio and Allen — men who were poised to take the next step forward after years as position coaches in the NFL … Has served as a position coach in the NFL for the last 16 seasons, 14 of them spent as defensive line coach and two (2002-03) as a defensive line coach … An intense teacher, but consciously avoids swearing at his players.