Ever since the Broncos’ 2015 Super Bowl run, the identity of the team has been on the defensive side of the ball. John Elway and the rest of Denver’s front office doubled down on this defensive-centric philosophy by hiring defensive maestro Vic Fangio to take over the team in Vance Joseph‘s wake.
With Fangio taking over the defense, one should assume that there will be a shakeup on the depth chart, especially at defensive tackle where the Broncos have struggled to find a replacement for Terrence “Pot Roast” Knighton outside of Domata Peko for two brief seasons.
Let’s take a look at who writers Zach Segars and Rich Kurtzman tab to fill the void following Peko’s departure.
Domata Peko was one of the best free agent signings of the John Elway era in terms of bang-for-the-buck. He quickly became a leader on defense and was the heartbeat of the locker room for much of his tenure. However, as the defensive tackle will turn 35 during the 2019 season, age makes it fairly prohibitive for the Broncos to re-sign him.
Instead, the Broncos will look to lean on Shelby Harris who had a breakout season in 2018 to take over for Peko at defensive tackle, though that stellar performance came at defensive end. While the Broncos are expected to spread the workload across their deep group of defensive lineman, Shelby Harris is the favorite to take the majority of the snaps, as he provides the versatility that Fangio demands from his defensive lineman.
Vic Fangio on Shelby Harris:
"I think he can play anywhere on the d-line for us."
He said he thinks guys in the NFL nowadays have to be able to be interchangeable at all positions up front.
Proof is in the pudding with how he split DL snaps in Chicago.
— Sayre Bedinger (@SayreBedinger) March 26, 2019
After Harris, the Broncos could turn to Zach Kerr or Adam Gotsis who both have experience playing defensive tackle, though Gotsis’ came exclusively in college. In each of his three seasons since being drafted out of Georgia Tech, Gotsis has steadily improved according to Pro Football Focus. He finished his rookie season with a grade of 54.7 and is currently on pace to finish the 2019 season with a grade of 76.9 which would’ve made him the fourth-highest graded Broncos player on the 2018 defense (Min. 50 snaps). The concern with Gotsis would be his size as his 287-pound frame may not hold up at nose tackle over the course of a 16-game season.
Where size is a concern for Gotsis, it certainly isn’t for Zach Kerr. Kerr is the largest man on the Broncos’ entire roster currently at 334 pounds and is also probably the team’s best run-stuffer. Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris were the only other members of the defensive line still on the roster who earned a higher run defense grade from PFF. While Harris provides more upside at defensive tackle, Kerr may be the safer bet for the new staff due to his size and ability to take on multiple blocks.
Once again, Zach nailed it here at defensive tackle, where it’ll be Harris first and Kerr secondly at defensive tackle. Gotsis could play there some, or the Broncos could try out Mike Purcell, a fifth-year professional who played in 25 games with the 49ers recently.
Purcell will be fighting for playing time and trying to impress defensive-oriented coaching staff in Fangio, Ed Donatell and more; his 6’3″ and 328-pound frame should help him do so.
For what it’s worth, the only nose tackle listed on Denver’s official roster is Harris, who flew under the radar as one of the best interior defenders in the entire NFL last season.
Harris’ 90.8 overall grade by Pro Football Focus made him tied as the seventh-best interior defender in the league last season. That’s elite, baby. That’s top-not, cream of the crop stuff.
Harris’ sacks dropped from 5.5 in 2017 to 1.5 last season, but his pressures remained the same while his tackles and run-stuffing only improved. Plus, Shelby Harris picked off Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the end zone to seal the Broncos’ clutch win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last season which kept Denver in the playoff hunt.
Now entering his fifth year, Harris could even improve his stats considering how dominant a coaching Fangio has been on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, the Broncos new head coach’s specialty is with the linebackers, but there’s something special cooking at Dove Valley already and camp has yet to kick off.
In recent years, Peko was a dominant run-stuffer at times, and he generated pressure, too. Harris is an all-around better player, but when he needs a rest, Kerr has to step up to ensure Denver regains its position as one of the best run defense teams in the NFL. That, paired with superb edge pressure and great coverage all added up to Denver’s dominating defense in 2015.