2019 free agency: Which defensive tackles should the Broncos target?

Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson celebrates after recovering a fumble for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Domata Peko has been an excellent locker room presence for the Broncos since signing in 2017, but now his contract is up and Denver will need to decide if they want to go in a different direction.

Despite his solid play on the field, and leadership abilities off of it, moving on from the 34-year old nose tackle would make sense for the Broncos. Not only is Peko towards the end of his rope, but the gang of available defensive tackles–both in the draft and free agency–is strong.

That’s great news for the Broncos, as fellow free agent class of 2017 member Zach Kerr is also set to hit the market. There are star defensive tackles like Ndamukong Suh and Sheldon Richardson, and even a familiar face in Malik Jackson.

When at his best, few players, let alone defensive tackles, are as good as Ndamukong Suh. His play through the final stretch of the 2018 season was dominant, and throughout the playoffs, he was nearly unblockable.

The problem is, Suh only plays at that level when he’s motivated. It will likely be hard for him to find his motivation on a team that has gone 11-21 over the last two seasons and is just praying to be relevant come December, never mind January. That would be a strong negative change in the locker room from Peko to Suh.

Suh is also a mercenary for hire, and will likely go wherever the check is fattest. It doesn’t make sense for a team with as many holes as the Broncos to invest that much money in an aging defensive tackle like Suhl; especially when Suh may not even be the best defensive tackle available.

That title belongs to Sheldon Richardson, who is coming off a return-to-form season in Minnesota. With the Jets, Richardson was among the elite run-stuffers in the league earning a run defense grade at 88 or above three out of his four seasons there. He is also a talented pass rusher for a defensive tackle, earning a pass rush grade over 70 three times in his career.

Much like Suh, Richardson’s problem areas aren’t on the field. Much like Suh, Richardson has struggled to find his motor at times. While not being quite the negative personality that Suh is, there is certainly a reason why Richardson has been on three different teams over the past three seasons.

However, unlike Suh, Richardson still has quite a bit of tread left on his tires, as he’s only 28. If the Broncos are willing to roll the dice on the journeyman, he could be Vic Fangio‘s new Akiem Hicks, and headline the Broncos’ defensive line for the next three to four years.

John Elway could also take a trip down memory lane with Malik Jackson. Jackson won a championship with the team in 2015 and was among the most valuable pieces of that all-time defense. After Jackson’s departure, the Broncos went from being the third best run defense overall and the best in terms of yards per carry to the 28th run defense overall, and 18th in terms of yards per carry.

As a bonus, unlike Richardson and Suh, Jackson is an excellent locker room presence, as evidenced by Chris Harris Jr. tweeting for him to come back.

Jackson does have age on his side at 29, but it does appear he’s past his prime. He was never able to replicate the success he had in Denver with the Jaguars, and this past season he struggled in his starting role. Over 10 starts in 2018, Jackson earned an average grade of 57.3 from Pro Football Focus. However, that’s not to say that Jackson is done, as he excelled in the second half of the season in a rotational role, earning an average grade of 72.9.

The Broncos should sign Malik Jackson and re-sign Domata Peko. It’ll be hard to fill the void left in the locker room by Peko with any free agent, and his performance in Denver has been strong. After Denver’s run defense bottomed out following Jackson’s departure, Peko was signed and the Broncos’ run defense returned to fifth overall and first in yards per carry. Retaining Peko and adding Jackson would also allow Jackson to continue playing in the rotational role he thrived so well in last year.