Broncos need Wolfe to take a big leap

Way back in 2012, when Derek Wolfe was a rookie, the Denver Broncos gave him a pretty extensive to-do list for a first-year guy.

Or, as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio puts it, “We’re always looking to find roles in the defense for people, ways for people to use their strengths. We ask them to do what they can do, try to do whatever you can as coaches to put them in a position to succeed. Do that enough and we feel like everybody will succeed.

"If you can do a lot of things, we'll ask you to do a lot of things.’’

Which is exactly what the Broncos did after Wolfe arrived last season and they quickly confirmed what was in their pre-draft reports. Wolfe could indeed create match-up problems for an offense no matter where he lined up on the defensive line, whether on the interior, at tackle or on the end.

When the dust settled on last season, Wolfe had played 903 snaps as a rookie -- 84.4 percent of the Broncos’ defensive plays. Only Elvis Dumervil, at 922, played more on the defensive line. Now, after Dumervil’s departure via free agency and with Von Miller suspended six games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, the Broncos may need Wolfe to do even more. And he’s just fine with that.

“Yeah, (last season) I just did my job,’’ Wolfe said. “I made sure I did my job, because Elvis and those guys were kind of like, ‘Hey, just do your job and you’ll be fine.' So this year I get to take more of a leadership role, more of that guy who can make some plays.’’

The Broncos did sign Shaun Phillips during draft weekend to add some pop to the pass rush, and Del Rio has talked of the opportunity, even need, for former first-round pick Robert Ayers to finally show himself to be an impact rusher (he has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons, spent under four different defensive coordinators). But it is Wolfe who just might be the key piece against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night and beyond as the Broncos navigate life without Miller on defense.

For a guy who pushed himself into the top 40 on draft boards around the league -- the Broncos took him 36th overall -- because he could line up at nose tackle and rush end and make things happen, this is exactly the kind of job description Wolfe said he was looking for in Year 2.

“I’m smarter,’’ Wolfe said. “I’m more willing to go outside of the box and do things I’m not comfortable doing to make plays. To not be so stiff and not be like a robot. I’m more open to doing new things and trying new moves.”

Even in the whirlpool of optimism that offseason workouts traditionally are, whenever Broncos coaches and players were asked about who was showing himself to be ready for something more in 2013, Wolfe’s name was almost universally the first to arise. Whether it was Kevin Vickerson talking about Wolfe’s willingness to step forward into a leadership role despite being one of the youngest players in his position group, or his coaches talking about how much better he knew the game, expectations have swirled around Wolfe for much of the spring and summer.

Asked this week if he thought Wolfe was ready for a significant leap this year, Del Rio said, “I think he expects to. We talked about that, the way he came in in camp, he was kind of on a mission. He had a very, very fine rookie year and wants to build on that and be even better.

"Look, anything is possible. I think the way he works at it, his approach, he obviously has some ability -- and I wouldn’t count him out.’’

For Del Rio, who typically keeps such compliments in his pocket, that is tantamount to predicting Pro Bowls. As the suggestions flew that Miller's absence could give Wolfe a breakout opportunity on a Super Bowl contender, Wolfe's response afforded a glimpse into why the Broncos like him so much.

“Sometimes that can make you better, sometimes that can make you worse,’’ Wolfe said. “It just depends on how people handle the pressure.’’