Well the Broncos season officially kicks off Friday and much like the beginning of America’s pastime’s season, optimism is plentiful. If you’re looking for some of that stop reading this now. The Broncos quietly have a big problem. The defensive line could dismantle what is a star-studded defense before the regular season even begins.

An already questionable group that has been masked by praise from the new coaching staff this offseason, got thinner last week when Derek Wolfe was slapped with a four-game suspension. The only other true proven veteran, Antonio Smith, has been absent from the team since late May due to an investigation into child abuse claims and Sylvester Williams has yet to show that he can be counted on to start week-in and week-out, let alone be the anchor in the middle of the entire unit. Throw in the not occasional, but expected injuries that come with training camp and this defensive line could sour quickly.

Wolfe was set up to excel this season, a contract season, despite not grabbing headlines with his play since his arrival in 2012. What he has done since being selected 36th overall in the draft, is proven to be a tough run-stopping, physical player that fits in Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense marvelously.

Wolfe has started all 43 regular season games (missed five in 2013 due to injury) he has played in and last season had a wonderful 14.4 rating against the run on Pro Football Focus (PFF) while also recording the second-most snaps of the team’s defensive lineman (731). You pair that with Antonio’s Smith’s ability to get after the quarterback and you could see an interchangeable duo inside that could breed success from the line all the way to the secondary in 2015.

Smith, in his 11th season in the NFL, played in the most snaps among Raiders defensive lineman in 2014 and caused 35 quarterbacks hurries from the interior. His pass-rushing skills and veteran leadership were the reasons the team signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal.

However, Wolfe will now be out a quarter of the regular season and Smith may not play a down for the Broncos. Wolfe’s suspension is due to violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. He stated that it was just a mistake of taking a medication that would not enhance his play on the field but that was on the NFL’s banned substance list. Whether he is telling the truth or not, he made a big mistake and one that will cripple the team for a large portion of the season.

Smith, after being signed April 2, has become a nightmare for the Broncos. Shortly after his arrival, an investigation into child abuse in Texas surfaced and has forced Smith’s absence from the team since they Broncos became aware of it on May 20. Although he has little football left, his prevalence to get to the quarterback from the interior of the line was going to be relied on. It is unclear whether he will report to camp Friday and the case is ongoing. His standing with the team is completely up in the air and The team’s remaining starters and backups offer little to no margin of error in the meantime.

Williams and Malik Jackson are slated as the two remaining starters upfront and one showed enormous promise by the end of last season, while the other continues to wallow in mediocrity.

Jackson has shown a versatile ability to stop the run and get to the passer from multiple positions along the defensive line. According to PFF, Jackson had an incredible 24.2 overall ranking, placing him as the third-best defensive end in a 4-3 system in the entire NFL last season. That came off of the heals of an impressive sophomore season in 2013. With Wolfe out Jackson will have to again, outplay expectations. His fellow starter, Williams, in more career starts, has yet to prove as reliable.

Williams, much like Wolfe, was a high draft pick and as such has been given several opportunities to excel with little to show for it. After two seasons Williams has 17 career regular season starts and yet he has shown no discernible knack to stuff the run, take on double teams or consistently push the pocket on quarterbacks. In 735 career snaps according to PFF, Williams has an overall rating of -6.2 and negative ratings against both the run and pass as well. He has career totals of only 29 tackles and just two sacks. On top of that he is switching from a defensive tackle position to nose.

Despite the low totals and inconsistent play the Broncos have praised his offseason progress and sound like they are content and even excited to see Williams in such a critical role. Terrence Knighton, for all his noted weight issues and contract issues that forced him join the Washington Redskins, got big time results on the field. Williams is by far, the only viable option at nose tackle for the Broncos and that proposition is scary. He will finally have the entire spotlight and it will be become clear quickly if he can handle the pressure. Thus far he has not been up for the task.

Outside of Jackson, the remaining defensive lineman are a hodgepodge of rookie and second-year talents and two journeymen. Marvin Austin Jr., Vance Walker and Kenny Anunike will be the platoon substitutes for the defense and in Wolfe’s absence; one has the opportunity to start.

Austin Jr., on his fourth team in five years, has yet to get a career start but will push Williams for playing time. Walker has bounced around the league as an edge rusher but has only three seasons of multiple starts in six seasons. He may start camp as the favorite for the second end position while Wolfe sits out his suspension. Anunike will be watched closely as well. After an encouraging training camp in his rookie year an elbow injury sidelined him. He has made great progress throughout the offseason while catching the eye of the coaches. It is far from an ideal scenario for the Broncos.

Added to the stress of giving unproven players big roles is the fact that injuries are common place along the line in camp. The Broncos, who are already in a precarious situation along the defensive line, simply must hope the injury bug doesn’t catch another player.

The Broncos boast multiple Pro-Bowlers at every level of the defense, except the defensive line. Not only that but a stupid suspension and a terrible off-the-field allegation have thinned the already maligned group. Last year the team broke through and ranked as a top-three defense against the run and the pass and as the cliché goes, “games are won and lost in the trenches”. The platoon front played well, anchored in the middle by Knighton. The team passed on “Pot Roast” and now might be left with baloney. The glass can be half full in August but if it is sour milk in the glass does it matter? The Broncos have problem, a big one and denying that it exist certainly won’t make it go away. Maybe they can just hope that the talent surrounding the front can mask it until Wolfe returns or a surprise star emerges.

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