ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Even after an offseason filled with uncertainty, the Denver Broncos believe their defense is due for a performance bump — and a significant one at that.
Predictions for the upcoming season often are filled with sunshine and rainbows: “It’s going to be exciting,” said linebacker Von Miller. “I’m just super excited,” said safety Kareem Jackson. But the Broncos do have reason for optimism.
The team executed two trades — sending a fourth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for cornerback A.J. Bouye and a seventh-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for defensive tackle Jurrell Casey — that yielded walk-in starters at spots where starters were sorely needed.
Bouye has started at least 11 games in four of his seven seasons and was named to one Pro Bowl.
Casey, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who has started at least 14 games in all nine of his previous seasons, is routinely cited by coaches around the league as one of the most proficient, disruptive and headache-inducing players at his position. The Broncos were willing to take on both players’ contracts — the two are among the team’s five biggest salary-cap charges for both the upcoming season as well as 2021 — because they see durable, proven players who were acquired for single draft picks in a year when the Broncos believed they had picks to spare.
Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway has called the trade for Casey “a steal,” and added the team’s draft class was tilted toward offense, especially at the top of the board with two wide receivers as the first two picks, because of the trades for Casey and Bouye.
“That’s why we decided to go that way,” Elway said. “We played good defense last year and we’ll continue to play good defense this coming year.”
The Broncos believe a second year in coach Vic Fangio’s defense would have returned better results even without substantial upgrades. The Broncos finished 10th in scoring defense and first in red zone defense last season despite a turnstile at cornerback — five different cornerbacks started games — a season-ending injury to linebacker Bradley Chubb, a down season from Miller (eight sacks) and their offense rarely getting them a lead.
Chubb’s return — he tore an ACL in Week 4 last season — and the potential for cornerback Bryce Callahan to return, fuels some of the optimism. Callahan, who was signed to a three-year, $21 million deal in March 2019, missed the season with a foot injury, eventually having surgery in November to replace a screw in a previously repaired fracture.
Miller, in particular, says the potential of a pass rush that includes Chubb, Casey, Miller and Shelby Harris (a career-best six sacks last season), should fuel plenty of defensive improvement.
“It’ll be incredible,” Miller said. “I’m looking forward to it. [Casey] is a great player, five-time Pro Bowler. We can do all sorts of things together. He can rush with me, rush with Chubb.”
The Broncos have had a summer of defensive love before, though, only to have things go sour during the season.
Even last year, with a defensive expert in Fangio taking charge, the Broncos didn’t have a sack in the first three games of what became an 0-4 start. Against the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos were manhandled by a combined score of 53-9 in two losses and also let a 20-0 lead get away in what became a 27-23 loss in Minnesota. So what makes 2020 different?
“You think about that Minnesota game when the second half defensively, we just completely lost our minds. So always execution, tackling, everybody just kind of paying attention to the little details and us all being on the same page secondary-wise,” Jackson said. “I feel as though we had decent year in our first year in Coach Fangio’s defense, but it’s all about taking that next step.”