The Denver Broncos defense is stacked with talent. That is a fact. However, in the last couple of seasons the team has approached greatness only to retreat at the biggest moments. This season should be the turning point and the reason is simple. They can bring the heat from the outside linebacker positions.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s return to the Broncos this spring should put a spring in 10-year veteran, DeMarcus Ware’s legs and the addition of Shane Ray should start a threesome with Von Miller that strikes fear in quarterbacks. The remaining depth of the outside linebackers is nothing to forget either. Take a look at the most exciting piece of the Denver defense.

The veteran starters

It is no secret who the leaders of this defense will be. Sure, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and T.J. Ward are all vocal leaders but this defense is led by Ware and Miller. Ware is the Zen-like, all-knowing confidant and Miller is the explosive talent that leads the charge into Sundays. Both are looking to have enormous years while at far different places in their careers.

Von Miller is not only coming off of a great season in which he looked rejuvenated and as explosive as ever but he is in a contract year. Both prospects should scare the snot out opposing offenses. Add in Phillips’s game-plan for the premier pass rusher and it should give goose bumps to Broncos fans. When asked about Miller’s role in his defense on May 29 Phillips didn’t hesitate and answered with a grin.

“We’re going to let him rush,” Phillip’s said matter-of-factly. The coach went on to say why Miller will play the strong side position. “I’ve had some guys over the years that have played the ‘Will’ linebacker, and I have had a lot of good players play there, and, yeah, they made a lot of sacks, but I have had some ‘Sam’ [linebackers]’—Ricky Jackson for one, was a ‘Sam’ linebacker for us. Bryce Paup was AFC Defensive player of the Year, had 17 sacks, Shawne Merriman had 17 sacks in 12 games. It’s a position that if a guy can rush, you can match up well. That’s why we’ve kept [Miller] there. You’d think he’d be a ‘Will’ linebacker who rushes almost every play, but you can rush the ‘Sam’ linebacker, too, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Miller tallied 14 sacks and was ranked the second-best 4-3 outside linebacker by PFF. He excelled in getting in the backfield and getting tackles for a loss. He looks to be just entering his prime and the sky is the limit in Phillips’s attack-style defense.

He will also be entering free agency at the end of the season. After Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs received an enormous $100-plus million contract there is a lot on the line for Miller. The two premier pass rushers have almost identical careers and Miller’s contract will fetch similar, if not more money.

Ware is at the tail end of a fabulous career but he is in freakish shape and has the mental ability to wear offensive tackles down. Add the fact that he is reuniting with Phillips and this season could be an unforgettable one for No. 94. He said as much on April 13 when asked about Phillips, his former Dallas Cowboys coach.

“I’m very excited. I think when you think about a pass rusher, you always think about how many times you get to rush the passer and in Wade’s defense, I know I’m going to get a lot of opportunities, especially guys like Von, having him now not dropping as much. He’s going to be rushing the passer on the strong side; he’s going to be playing Sam. And it’s just knowing now you’re not going to have a chipper a majority of the time, because if they want to chip, we’re going to bring other guys. And that’s going to help out guys getting one-on-ones and be able to really create some havoc out there.”

Ware started off the 2014-15 season marvelously as he stacked up 10 sacks through week 13. The catch was he finished with 10 sacks on the season. Ware understands fully that his production tapered off and stated in early April, that thanks to the training staff he is feeling more rested and healthy than he has in several years. He will likely get more breaks in the action and won’t reach the 805 snaps he had last season (per Pro Football Focus). Ware simply has to help use his knowledge of the game to help the youth of the team along, while coming up with big plays at big moments. Instead of seeing the team’s first-round draft pick of Shane Ray as a threat in May Ware realized that the Broncos were just adding another special weapon to the arsenal.

“When they drafted him (Ray) in the first round, I just knew that this is a guy that’s coming in here that can really wreak havoc. That’s what I really thought about it. I thought about now instead of having two guys, you have three guys. And then you have Wade (Phillips) here too, so my mentality of them bringing in a third guy is because we’re going to be that type of pressure team that’s going to be able to bring that pressure and make those big plays in key situations with all three of us in the game.”

The player to watch

Shane Ray is the x-factor in all of this. As a rookie not much should be expected of him but the talent he posses could surprise a lot of people. While he is undersized for an edge rusher, his speed and motor can wear opposing tackles down and he showed that at the University of Missouri. Before his pre-draft run in with the police he was slated to be a top-ten pick. To the good fortune of the Broncos he dropped to No. 23.

“I find myself as a steal. All the teams that passed on me that were in the top 10, I feel like they made a huge mistake,” Ray said to the Denver media just moments after being drafted. “And as a Denver Bronco, I plan to show them about the mistake they made. Like I said, I’m so grateful to the Denver Broncos for giving me the opportunity, and I can’t wait to learn from guys like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and just be a force.”

By all accounts he has been vigorously learning the defense while recovering from a toe injury that sidelined him for the NFL combine. He was very limited on the field for organized team activities and mini-camp but should be ready to show fans at training camp why he was projected so high over the offseason. If Ray progresses quickly at camp he will be used to help Ware get rest throughout the season but the idea of all Miller, Ware and Ray on the field at the same time is something Phillips is already thinking about.

“We’ll put our best players on the field, like I’ve said before. I don’t know if you remember at San Diego, we had three outside backers that could really play, and we played them a lot on third downs, all three of them. At different places I’ve been it’s, ‘Get your best players out there, your best rushers out there in third-down situations’,” Phillips said May 29.

Ray will be under a microscope throughout his career due to his first-round draft status and the nature of his entry into the NFL. For starters he must recover fully from the turf-toe injury and simply absorb what Miller and Ware can teach him. If he does that this threesome could be fun to watch. Ray is certainly excited for the challenge and ready to show people his skill set starting July 31.

“I think everyone who thinks I’m a one-trick pony should go back and watch some more film. I’m more than capable of doing everything that the Broncos require of me, especially in the run game, more so in the pass game. There are things I can improve at. I don’t have any issue dropping into coverage. There’s no question about that at all. I think I’m more than capable of doing anything that the Broncos ask for me to do, including being the best pass-rusher in this draft.”

Down the depth chart

Miller, Ware and Ray certainly grab the attention for the outside linebacker group but don’t dismiss the youth on the roster. Several players had great training camps last season and turned some heads throughout the season during limited opportunities on the field. While the team has its headliners there is always a need for depth. Two players in particular have the potential to see the field if camp goes well for them.

Larentee McCray, in his second season in the NFL, saw some playing time on the defense. As Miller’s backup he displayed a knack for getting after the quarterback and saw 20-plus snaps, per PFF, in a few games, including the divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. He suited up for 13 games last season and will be relied on to be a special teams contributor but will also have a shot on defense when Miller needs rest. His skill set is perfect for the 3-4 defense.

Shaquil Barrett, a Colorado State Ram product, snuck into the practice squad last season after having a great training camp. He will once again have tough road to making the roster but his work ethic stands out from the pack. As a leader and tackling machine in college, Barrett displayed that he can be relied on against the run and the pass. It will be an uphill battle but he certainly will be a fan favorite at Dove Valley in August.

Rounding out the group is Gerald Rivers, Chase Vaughn and Danny Mason. All three have very limited experience. Mason enters camp as a rookie and Vaughn and Rivers have barely saw the field as practice squad members last season. In Phillips’s defense it will be vital for these players to show the explosiveness that the guys ahead of them posses while absorbing the schemes. The tough part will be making an impression with very limited opportunities.

This group is exciting and in the top-five talent pool in the NFL. Their progress as a whole will be the key at training camp and Phillips believes that he has the teachers to help, not only the starters but the backups learn the system and excel when the season comes around.

“DeMarcus is great at it. Von Miller is helping the young guys. Those two guys are certainly helping our young guys. I told them if they can coach the position, and they have the talent they have, they can play. I can coach the position, but I can’t play. If they can coach the position and watch their position, they’re going to get better, and I think that’s what they’ve done.”

Phillips and the staff will be looking closely at who can adapt and learn. Luckily, for the fans they can see for themselves, as training camp will once again be open to the public in one short week.

Email Sam at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SamCowhick.