Can Vic Fangio bring back the Orange Crush era in 2020?

Kareem Jackson, Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson celebrate Johnson's huge interception with teammates. Credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports.
Kareem Jackson, Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson celebrate Johnson's huge interception with teammates. Credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports.

When the Broncos hired Vic Fangio, it was in part because they were hoping he could bring a dominant defense to the Mile High City with him.

In his first year as head coach, the Broncos were a top-15 defense, but now after adding Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye to the team, they have a chance to be one of the elite units in the league.

Will this be the year the Orange Crush returns to Denver?

Defensive Line

Projected starters: Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris.

Depth: Dre’Mont Jones, Demarcus Walker, McTelvin Agim, Christian Covington, Jonathan Harris.

Overview: For as much hype surrounds John Elway’s work rebuilding the offense, his work maintaining Denver’s defensive line this offseason is arguably even more impressive.

The Broncos entered the offseason with four of their five most utilized (in terms of snap count) defensive lineman primed to become free agents, and yet the Broncos were able to retain two of them.

Among those two was one of their most valuable defensive contributors of the last two seasons, Shelby Harris, who the Broncos brought back on a steal of a contract. The only starter Elway wasn’t able to keep on the line, was fan-favorite Derek Wolfe, but the Broncos found not just a replacement, but an upgrade, in Jurrell Casey.

Biggest question: How will the Broncos work their youth and depth into their loaded defensive line rotation?

The combo of Harris and Casey gives Denver one of the best 3-4 defensive end tandems in the league, and Purcell proved to be a more-than-capable nose tackle next season, so how will Walker, Jones, and Agim find their way onto the field?

Each has serious talent and potential, giving the Broncos reason to be excited for the future after Harris and Casey move on, but those young players each will need playing time to realize said potential.

Edge Rushers

Projected starters: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb.

Depth: Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu, Justin Hollins, Derreck Tuszka, Malik Carney.

Overview: Denver’s stable of edge rushers is incredibly impressive from top to bottom. Obviously, you have the two double-digit sack artists leading the pack in Miller and Chubb, but don’t sleep on what the Broncos have behind them.

Malik Reed proved to be an incredible find as an undrafted free agent last season, racking up 14 total pressures, three of which went for sacks. Attaochu may have been an even more impressive bargain-bin find, with how he closed the season.

And behind those two, the Broncos have freak athlete Justin Hollins, who should also get some looks at inside linebacker, and seventh-round pick Derreck Tuszka, whose photo you can find in your Merriam-Webster dictionary under “determination”, “motor”, and “production.”

Biggest question: Can Von Miller and Bradley Chubb return to their elite form?

The most hyped-up position group heading into last season was the edge rushers, because of the incredible talent the Broncos had at the position and Vic Fangio’s prior work with edge defenders.

Unfortunately, the results didn’t measure up, as the Broncos went three-and-a-half games before registering their first sack, lost Bradley Chubb to an ACL injury, and saw Von Miller have arguably the worst season of his career.

That unit has to return to form in 2020 to compensate for a dangerously-shallow secondary.

Linebackers

Projected starters: Alexander Johnson, Todd Davis.

Depth: Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Joe Jones, Josh Watson, Tre Crawford.

Overview: The Broncos have struggled at inside linebacker for a long time, but that might finally be changing with the emergence of Alexander Johnson.

Despite playing very little football over the past four years, Johnson quickly exploded onto the scene as one of the league’s better inside linebackers, and earned Pro Football Focus’ award for Defensive Player of the Month in October.

Behind him, the waters get murky, but the Broncos have an impressive array of rotational linebackers that can positively impact special teams with Todd Davis, Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Joe Jones, and Josh Watson, who was a pleasant surprise in his own right last year.

Biggest question: How long does Todd Davis last as the Broncos’ No. 2?

The Broncos have been looking to move on from him for a while, but haven’t stumbled across a better option yet. It was fairly obvious that was their goal with drafting Jewell, but he hasn’t been able to supplant Davis so far.

Enter Justin Strnad, a linebacker built for the league’s future, as opposed to Davis, a linebacker built for the league’s past. Strnad has abilities in coverage and twitchy speed the Broncos just don’t have in the linebacker room otherwise, meaning he could take over for Davis and Jewell sooner than expected.

Cornerbacks

Projected starters: A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, De’Vante Bausby.

Depth: Duke Dawson, Michael Ojemudia, Davontae Harris, Isaac Yiadom, Shakial Taylor, Essang Bassey.

Overview: Denver’s bunch of cornerbacks is the most glaring weakness on the team, even more so than the offensive line. Fangio has always been able to make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what in the defensive backfield, and he’ll have to do it again in 2020 to make Denver’s defense competitive.

Bouye and Callahan offer some security at the position, but Bouye is coming off a disappointing 2019 showing, and Callahan might not be the same player after nursing a foot injury all of last year.

The Broncos need those two to return to their formerly elite form because behind them they have almost nothing.

Biggest question: Who is lining up on the outside, opposite of Bouye?

Bouye is certainly a starter on the perimeter, but who lines up on the other side is a complete enigma.

Callahan is the next-most talented corner on the team, but his size probably relegates him to the slot, and Duke Dawson is more of a slot cornerback as well.

That leaves the team with Isaac Yiadom, De’Vante Bausby, Davontae Harris, and raw rookie Michael Ojemudia battling it out for the final starting spot.

Safeties

Projected starters: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson.

Depth: Trey Marshall, Alijah Holder, Douglas Coleman, P.J. Locke, Kahlani Smith.

Overview: Considering this was arguably the best unit on Denver’s entire roster last season, the front office made very few changes and will be running it back with the same group more-or-less.

Justin Simmons should continue to cement his place as one of the league’s premier safeties, and Kareem Jackson should be even better as he gets more comfortable in his new position and scheme.

Behind those two, the Broncos really like Trey Marshall as a rotational safety, but have a bevy of undrafted free agents otherwise that are relative longshots to make the final roster.

Biggest question: Who is replacing Will Parks?

Will Parks played a minor but important role for Denver’s defense ever since his rookie 2016 season. He could rotate with either of the two starting safeties, and could even play some cornerback in case of emergency.

Trey Marshall did some of that for the Broncos last season, but he’s nowhere near as talented or as versatile as Parks.

Michael Ojemudia is one name to watch as a potential Parks replacement, but Denver’s glaring need at cornerback might prevent him from rotating to safety.

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