The 2017 Denver Broncos pass defense was still a top-five unit in the NFL, but there’s been something missing the past two seasons in attacking the pass up front.

Looking at the stats, one area in which Denver wasn’t a top unit was in rushing the passer, where the 33 sacks the ‘D’ generated was only 22nd best in the league. With the addition of Bradley Chubb, and more depth outside, the pass rush unit should be better on the edges, but it’s inside where there are the biggest questions regarding the defenses ability to generate pressure.

To return to the levels of Super Bowl 50 back in 2015, where the defense was dominant, the interior pass rush will need to pick it up. Last season, interior defensive lineman—for the purposes of this piece, non-edge rushers—accounted for 11 sacks. Back in 2015, the interior line accounted for 17, with Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson alone racking up 11 sacks. 

All it takes is going back to watch the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots to see the type of impact the interior rushers were having in that season on Denver’s run to the Lombardi trophy. 

To get back to those levels, a few different things need to occur—which we’ll get to in a bit—but the biggest factor in Denver returning to that type of interior ferocity against the pass will be second-year player DeMarcus Walker having an impact. 

Walker was incredibly productive as a pass rusher in college, totaling 45 tackles for a loss and 28.5 sacks in his career at Florida State,  and winning the award for ACC defensive player of the year as a senior.

Last season, Broncos fans didn’t see that type of player, as Walker seldom played while being miscast as an edge rusher instead of being utilized in his more natural role as an interior rusher. 

Denver won’t need double digit sacks from Walker, but something in the range of 5.5 would be massive for the defense. 

Here’s what needs to occur for the former Seminole star to unlock his potential, become a three-down stud, and how the defensive rotation up front as a whole can improve in creating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks next season. 

Unlocking Walker’s pass rushing skills

Walker was drafted in the second round back in 2017 not because he’s a physical freak or because he’s a complete player who fits perfectly in a 3-4 scheme, he was taken because he had an undeniable knack for getting after the passer.

Walker has a great first step for a bigger defensive lineman and should now be playing back at 270 or even 280 pounds. If the weight gain this offseason hasn’t slowed his 4.76 speed down, he’s a pretty talented athlete vertically and can close on plays in a hurry. 

He’s a real asset beating guards in one-on-one assignments as a three-technique as he’s just too fast for interior linemen to handle. His swim move is quite devastating, and he has a developing arsenal of pass rushing moves, especially if he’s managed to add strength to his frame, where his bull rush could become more of a weapon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walker has strong hands that allow him to stun blockers at the point of attack and free himself. Once he gets into the backfield, he’s a great closer who managed to get a high percentage of sacks for the amount of pressure he’d create.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He also had eight forced fumbles in his college career and can be a pest for quarterbacks as his strong hands also make him a strip-sack artist. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walker remains a question mark as a true 3-4 defensive end, where his shorter frame isn’t a natural fit, but as a three-technique defensive tackle in sub packages, which use four-man fronts, he’s ideally suited. 

That’s the position where the Broncos’ second-year player could really impact the game and upgrade the interior pressure in Denver immediately, even if just in sub packages spot duties.

Walker’s limitations in the run game

Walker’s biggest hurdle in becoming a three-down player and not just a pass-rushing sub-package specialist lies in his ability against the run. In his collegiate tape, where he played a good amount of the time as a 4-3 end, this is an area in which he struggled. Walker was never fast enough to close down runs to the outside and would constantly be attacked on RPO’s to his side.

Aside from his lack of lateral athleticism, he also showed a lack of strength at the point of attack and would be pushed back fairly often. It wasn’t uncommon for Walker to be the only FSU defensive lineman who was pushed five-yards downfield against the run. The former All-American can play too high and can get knocked out of plays if he’s not winning off his first step. His lack of power really stood out as even opposing tight ends could push him around when run blocking. 

Both his strength and functional athleticism were a bit lacking as a college player, and it’ll be interesting to see how he plays against the ground game now that he’s bulked up and playing at 280 pounds. 

Even if Walker’s playing with more power, it’s reasonable to wonder if, in a 3-4, where he’d be asked to take on more double teams, he’ll ever be a gap stuffer who can consistently stop opposing running attacks.

Given all that, Walker’s fit as a 3-4 DE is much less natural than his fit as a nickel DT, where he’d be asked to primarily operate as an interior rusher with one-gap responsibilities. When two-gapping, his lack of length can really hold him back in keeping blockers at bay to pick the right gap to plug.

Walker works off his first step, has to pick a lane and go to wreak havoc in the backfield; stuffing running lanes just isn’t his game.

That might be okay after the past two offseasons in which Denver’s developed and added more bodies to their DL rotation. Linemen like Wolfe and Adam Gotsis are strong against the run and can be relied on in base sets. Zach Kerr, Shelby Harris, and Domata Peko can also factor in as strong run defenders, meaning that even if Walker doesn’t ever blossom into a three-down terror, it’ll be fine in Denver—assuming full health from everyone.

The big priority is for Walker to do what he does best—get after the quarterback an create pressure inside.

How Walker fits into the Broncos rotation and scheme in 2018

Chubb is a huge asset in generating more pressure inside, as he can be a sub-package ace himself with a hand in the ground playing as a true end—which is exactly what he did in college.

We’ve analyzed Chubb’s ability to destroy lines on stunts going from the outside to inside and allowing him to create interior pressure. A stunt pairing of Walker and Chubb could really be tough to match up with for opposing attacks, especially when extra blockers need to be sent Von Miller’s way, forcing the two young pass rushers to be blocked by a single lineman.

The addition of Clinton McDonald should also upgrade the interior pass rush as McDonald is coming off of a five-sack season in a mostly limited role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McDonald’s health this offseason’s been a bit worrisome, leading him to restructure his contract, but he could be a perfect mentor to Walker and could spot him in a rotational role, allowing the two of them to stay fresh.

Shelby Harris is the final piece to this puzzle as he, too, had 5.5 sacks last season and seems to be barely scratching the surface of his potential. 

With all those pieces in a Broncos rotation and Walker playing up to his ability, the sky is the limit. If that happens, Denver might just restore the pass rush to those Super Bowl 50 level. 

In conclusion

In the modern NFL, creating interior pressure is a must. Pocket passers like Tom Brady and Drew Brees are a big reason why but there are so many more quarterbacks who operate out the pocket and can too often step up when edge rusher come screaming off the edge.

No matter how many athletic running QBs are added to the league, winning from within the pocket is still how the NFL operates, and because of this, inside pass rushers are more valuable than ever.

This is exactly why Walker was drafted in the top 50 picks back in 2017 and why he needs to have an impact in his second season. 

Andre Simone
Author

Andre B. Simone, was born in Boulder, Colorado raised in Milan, Italy and is the draft and film analyst for BSNDenver.com. Education:  Graduated in communications with an emphasis in media, and double minored in journalism and philosophy at Western State University of Colorado. Career: I got back into media and worked briefly for the NPR affiliate up in Crested Butte, CO. I then starter working on a podcast for an Italian website on American sports which eventually became three weekly shows. We soon became the only podcast that featured player interviews, had prospect endorsements for our draft podcast, and am sure I was the only international media member credentialed at various pro-days I attended. In that period I became one of two media members from Italy to become part of the FWAA. At BSN Denver I started doing film rooms which have since caught on in several sports and got picked up by Bleacher Report and the Denver Broncos website. Our draft coverage has quickly become the standard bearer for the area. I was tasked with launching BSN ATS, in short time ironing out two metrics that have been close to identical to the methodology Las Vegas uses to generate their weekly NFL spreads. I covered the Colorado Rapids’ magical run to the Western Conference playoffs in 2016 after adding maybe the greatest American soccer player of all time in Tim Howard. My career highlight is probably following the Colorado Buffaloes magical 2016 “Rise” to Pac-12 south champions, attending their final five home-games, and following their top NFL prospects throughout the process. That offseason I also discovered Austin Ekeler one of the best stories of that draft and a true revelation as an NFL standout. I was the only media member to go out on a limb and say he was a legitimate NFL prospect, he’s proved me right in a short amount of time. Most memorable sports moment: Seeing the greatest comeback in Nebraska football history in Lincoln while cheering from the visitors side for Ohio State in 2011. The atmosphere in that stadium was beyond anything I’ve ever felt, including European soccer rivalries that can be pretty intense. The finest sports book I’ve ever read: This might have to be a tie between Terry Frei’s '77: Denver, The Broncos, and a Coming of Age. and Our Adrian Dater’s ‘Blood Feud…’ Both books have been crucial in my career path, AD’s book actually planted the seed for me doing this. Those 77 Broncos are an unbelievable team, I love that story and how it connects to the roots of the city. I read both books in a really important developmental period personally, they hold a special place in my heart. One sports movie that I can’t live without: Growing up in Italy any American sports movies in our house where true gold. Remember The Titans, Space Jam, Angles in the Outfield, and Jerry McGuire all were played in the VHS without end at different periods. But I’m not a fiction guy, my favorite sports movies are almost all documentaries now, my favorite being “Once Brothers” the 30-for-30 on Drazen Petrovic’s rise as Yugoslavia fell. It gets me every time as it’s just my movie; with 90’s hoops, Euro basketball, and the right amount of nostalgia. Most memorable experience as a reporter: Sitting down with Austin Ekeler, hearing his journey and knowing right then and there the kind of story I had uncovered was a pretty exhilarating experience. He’d never done that kind of thing before so he was an open book, we talked for an hour, he gave all sorts of insights, we related on many levels, it was a treat to meet someone who loves football that much. The sport that started it all: I played soccer and tennis growing up always following sports obsessively. What really took things to the next level was basketball which I picked up starting high school, I practiced all the time, joined the team, and played all four years. We were terrible but a great group of friends who are still close today. I struggled reading as a youngster and Slam magazine is where my love for reading really took off too. Maybe more than any basket I ever mad that’s the greatest thing hoops gave me