Last year was a glorious year for Wade Phillip’s defense, which topped the league in many statistical categories — total yards given up, yards given up per pass attempt and yards gained per completion — and were in the top five just about everywhere else.

Additionally, the Broncos led the league in sacks, which is no surprise considering they had future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware and No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft Von Miller attacking the quarterback.

Now, everybody knows that sacks are good, but just how important are they to a team’s success? In short, very.

Of the top nine teams in sacks last season, every single one of them made the playoffs. Sacks don’t just represent a loss of yards on one play; they represent consistent pressure, and more often than not, they lead to an alteration in game plan.

Last year, the Broncos racked up 52 total sacks in the regular season and had contributions from 14 players. The four outside linebackers were responsible for the majority of the sacks — Miller (11), Ware (7.5), Shaquil Barrett (5.5) and Shane Ray (4).

Although the Broncos lost their fourth most productive player in terms of total sacks from last year, Malik Jackson, what people are overlooking is the untapped potential that this group of four outside linebackers provides. Even though the group has not changed in terms of personnel, the continued development of Barrett and Ray could bring this group to an even greater level.

At this time last year, Ray was brand new to the league and Barrett was simply trying to make the team.

“I thought I was going to be a majority special-teams guy,” Barrett said on Wednesday.

Now, coming into this season, Barrett has his eyes set on potentially being a starter.

“I think I’m ready if they need me to,” Barrett said. “We’re going to go out there and compete. I know we’ve got me and [OLB] Shane [Ray], we’re going to compete. Whatever happens, happens.”

While last year technically wasn’t Barrett’s rookie season, it was the first full season that he played in the NFL. He doesn’t necessarily think he hit the proverbial “rookie wall” playing in his first full-season, but he knows he has room to grow.

“I’m still trying to get better technique-wise, get my footsteps right on my pass rush, staying low and body language,” said Barrett. “It’s all the same stuff from last year. I got better at it, but I still need to progress on it this year and become as perfect as I can be.”

Barrett also said that he spent this offseason vacationing to the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Grand Turk and St. Thomas. Although there is nothing wrong with taking time off in the offseason, it is the offseason naturally, Ray had a different mentality this offseason.

“I went straight to work,” Ray said. “I probably took a week and a half off and went down to Florida and really just got it in. I wanted to be bigger, faster and stronger and when I came back be able to combine that with the knowledge that I have now.”

His hard work the past three months has definitely paid off too.

“I think I put on almost eight pounds of muscle in this offseason. I combined that with a really strict diet,” said Ray. “My body fat is the lowest it’s ever been. As a player, I feel as big, fast and explosive as I’ve ever felt.”

As a rookie last year, the Broncos had the luxury to not rush Ray and let him develop, only playing him in 31.1 percent of the defensive snaps. However, with Ware primarily shifting to just a third down specialist, Ray will have much more of an opportunity to get on the field.

“My expectation for myself — I set the bar high for myself last year and the bar hasn’t changed. I still want to dominate and be the best I can be for this team,” said Ray.

Ray doesn’t just think the linebackers will be better; he thinks the entire defense will be better.

“Me and [OLB] Shaq [Barrett] coming in we are a lot more experienced and a lot better and we bring more to the table,” said Ray. “I think defensively we’re bringing a lot of guys back and we’re probably bringing in a little bit more firepower.”

Even though Barrett and Ray have the most obvious room for growth, Miller and Ware do as well. Ware missed five regular season games last year with a back injury, and while there is no guarantee he will stay injury free, he isn’t going to be used as much, either, which should allow him stay healthy. If he is able to play the majority of the games, his productivity could increase as well.

And although Miller was the Super Bowl MVP  and many believe he should be the highest-paid defensive player in the league, his regular season was very average for his standards. Of the four years he has played ten or more games, last year was his lowest sack total (11), even lower than his rookie year (11.5). If he has anything close to his previous year’s, or even last year’s Super Bowl run, his sack total will most likely go up as well.

While most of the talk this offseason is about defensive losses and acquisitions, the more impactful story may be looking at the untapped potential still remaining at the Broncos’ most-stacked position.