This is the NFL offseason, the time between OTAs and training camp, when players flee to exotic landscapes for one last vacation before the hard work continues, and when fans hope and pray they don’t see their favorite player’s name and “arrested” in the same sentence.

We often say that the NFL season never stops, and that’s mostly true, but if it ever did, it would be during these few weeks in June and July.

Fortunately, that gives us some time to regroup, take stock of the Broncos’ draft and free agent class, and look forward to training camp. In the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing positional previews three times a week in preparation for the franchise’s run towards a fourth championship.

As is typical with a team fresh off of a Super Bowl victory, the Broncos lost a few key players in free agency. Defensive end Malik Jackson was one of these players, and he couldn’t wait to sign a massive deal as soon as free agency started. This left a big hole on the Broncos’ dominant front seven, and filling the void became one of general manager John Elway’s top priorities.

This is what the defensive end position looks like for the Broncos going into 2016:

Projected Depth Chart:


Derek Wolfe
Jared Crick


Vance Walker
Adam Gotsis
Kenny Anunike


Shanell Jenkins
Eddie Yarbrough

Biggest Question: Will the Broncos be able to replace Malik Jackson and Antonio Smith without a significant decrease in performance?

After proving to be one of the best free agents in the 2016 class, Jackson signed a lucrative six-year, $90 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Broncos certainly would have loved to keep Jackson, the price tag was just too high and now they are left with a major hole on the defensive line.

It isn’t fair to expect the same level of play out of Jackson’s replacement(s), but general manager John Elway has done a very good job in finding Jackson’s replacement for a fraction of the price. Nearly a month after the start of free agency, Elway added former Houston Texan Jared Crick on a two-year, $4 million deal and then drafted Adam Gotsis in the second round later that month.

Crick comes to the Broncos after playing opposite of J.J. Watt in Houston and looks to be the starter opposite of Wolfe entering the season with the Broncos.

Gotsis, although born and raised in Australia, is very familiar with American football and will not have an adjustment period in terms of learning the game, but will have the normal rookie learning curve. For the 2016 season, the Broncos should not count on Gotsis to have much of an impact, and if he does better than expected, it will be a nice surprise.

Along with the two newly acquired players, the Broncos will rely more on the two players on the team that got significant playing time last season — Derek Wolfe and Vance Walker.

Jackson and Smith, who is currently a free agent, combined to play over half of the snaps of both defensive end positions last year. Jackson led the defensive ends, playing in 75 percent of the total snaps, while Smith played in 33 percent of the snaps.

Last year, with Houston, Crick played in 74.9 percent of the defensive snaps, which is very impressive, while Wolfe and Walker played in 59.2 percent and 34.8 percent of the snaps for the Broncos respectively.

To make up for Jackson and Smith’s absence, look for Wolfe’s snaps to increase to around 70 percent, Crick’s snaps to be between 60 and 70 percent and Walker, Gotsis and Anunike to combine for the remaining 60 to 70 percent of the snaps.

With a five-man rotation and the talent that the Broncos have at defensive end, the Broncos play at defensive end should not fall off too much, even after losing Jackson and Smith.

Most-Important Player: Derek Wolfe

Wolfe signed a big contract in the middle of the season last year and now the toughest assignment of his career is ahead of him: become the leader of the defensive line. Last year, along with Jackson, Wolfe was a great piece on the defensive line, but was never called upon singlehandedly to step up when it mattered the most. Now, with Jackson gone, Wolfe will be the center of attention for the three defensive linemen in defensive coordinator Wade Phillip’s 3-4 scheme.

Although the Broncos will use a five-man rotation for the two defensive end positions, the Broncos will need at least one of these players to be very good and be able to make big plays. Whether this is constant pressure in the middle of the offensive line or creating turnovers, there will need to be a playmaker on the defensive line, much like Jackson was last season.

The most natural place to look for this is in the highest-paid and most-established player, which is Wolfe. If Wolfe can play a very similar role to what Jackson did last season, the other four defensive linemen will just have to be average in order for the defensive end position to be dominant.

Surprise Player: Jared Crick

Although Crick is slated to be one of the two starters, his addition to the team has gone under the radar the entire offseason. Crick has a very similar playing style of his former teammate J.J. Watt, meaning he can be a force in the run game and put pressure on the passer (playing style does not necessarily mean skill level).

With his price tag of only $2 million for this upcoming season, Crick has the opportunity to be one of the best value players on the team. The fact that Crick played nearly the same percentage of snaps last year that Jackson did shows that he isn’t just a placeholder on the defensive line, but an impact player.

Crick has received some criticism throughout his career, both on the collegiate and professional level, for being a weak point on the defensive line. However, this is because he has played alongside tremendous players. At Nebraska, Crick played with Ndamukong Suh and with Watt in all four of his years at Houston.

Naturally, opposing teams would game plan to attack Crick’s side of the line instead of going at Watt or Suh, which then made Crick’s statistics look worse than his play really was. This will be Crick’s first season not playing alongside a superstar on the defensive line, and because of this, Crick could have the best season of his career.

Wolfe may be the face of the defensive line this year, and Gotsis may be the future, but Crick has the opportunity to establish himself as an above-average 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and develop a name of his own.

Grade: B

Even after the departures of two impactful defensive ends from last year, the Broncos still have an above average group thanks to the acquisitions of Crick and Gotsis, along with having five players that will rotate and contribute.

Barring injury or Wolfe playing terribly, this group’s floor shouldn’t be too much lower than a “B-” grade, with their ceiling being as high as an “A-“ if Crick develops and Gotsis can provide some flashes of a second-round pick.

With all of the talent on this great Broncos defense, the defensive ends don’t need to be fantastic for the defensive to have success. If they can be just above average, the rest of the defense has an opportunity to do very well.