ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil found plenty of welcome sights when he returned to the field this preseason after missing all of 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle. He had a defensive-minded head coach, John Fox, for the first time in his six-year career. He was returning to his preferred spot as a defensive end in the 4-3 defense after spending the previous two years as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Most importantly, he started to see that size really didn't matter that much when it came to playing on the edge of an NFL defensive line.
For years, the 5-foot-11, 260-pound Dumervil had been told directly or indirectly that his diminutive stature would be a hindrance in the league. This season he's finally entering camp with the belief that such questions are actually behind him. Dumervil already had 43 career sacks -- including a career-high 17 in 2009 -- to prove what a little man could do in a big world. Now he has more support than ever from a coaching staff that believes he's at his best with his hand on the ground.
Dumervil doesn't think this is a coincidence, either. It has just as much to do with the success of other small pass-rushers cut from a similar mold.
"Just look at the guys around the league," Dumervil said. "You've got Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Indianapolis. You've got James Harrison in Pittsburgh. We're not the biggest guys in the world, but we know how to play with leverage and handle the run. That's what matters."
What Dumervil knows as well as anybody else is that the smaller you are in this league, the more you generally have to remind people why you belong. That was the case for years with running backs until stars like Tiki Barber and Warrick Dunn proved they could be more than darting, change-of-pace ball carriers. The same was true of linebackers before Pro Bowlers like Ian Gold and Dexter Coakley started making names for themselves. These days, it's the pass-rushing position that is preparing for a makeover, primarily because offenses have changed so dramatically.
Teams are spreading out defenses and capitalizing on rules that favor the passing game more than ever. In turn, players like Dumervil become more vital, and teams become less likely to fret over how smaller ends will hold up against the run.
"You want faster, athletic guys on the defensive line, and we thought that approach really worked with what we already had here," said Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. "What they did in the past was take players who were defensive ends and turn them into outside linebackers. At the end of the day, we're putting people back in their natural positions."
There are plenty of people who would argue that Dumervil did just fine as an outside linebacker after he led the NFL in sacks and made his first Pro Bowl in 2009. What Allen and Fox will tell you is that numbers don't tell the entire story with him.
"Elvis actually played better in the 4-3," Fox said. "That's because he has the speed and the leverage to create problems [as a defensive end]. It used to be that you had to be 6-5 and 280 pounds to play defensive end. That's not the case anymore."
That's welcome news for Dumervil, who has spent most of his career dealing with the frustrations that accompany his size. He wasn't selected until the fourth round of the 2006 draft, even though he dominated as a pass-rusher at Louisville. After proving himself in his first three seasons in Denver, he was dealt another blow after the team hired head coach Josh McDaniels. The Broncos subsequently installed the 3-4 defense, drafted pass-rusher Robert Ayers in the first round of the 2009 draft and essentially told Dumervil he had to fight for his job.
Although Dumervil played well enough to earn a six-year, $61.5 million extension heading into 2010, he feels slighted by his treatment in McDaniels' first season.
"I'd had 8.5 sacks my first season and 12.5 in my second year, but they probably had some doubts after my third year," said Dumervil, who did play as a 4-3 defensive end on passing downs under McDaniels. "I only had five sacks, and they decided to change the whole philosophy. I was sitting behind Ayers on the depth chart when training camp started that year. If he hadn't held out, I might not have had the time to show what I could do."
Those days are over for Dumervil. Although Ayers is still trying to find his way in the league, Dumervil is being hailed as the key to the Broncos' hopes of turning around the league's worst defense in 2010. Denver already has watched three defensive tackles -- Ty Warren, Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley -- suffer preseason injuries. And outside linebacker D.J. Williams could be sidelined for a month with a dislocated right elbow. If Dumervil isn't ready to return to an elite level, the Broncos' rebuilding effort will be moving at a disappointing pace.
Dumervil already has done his part by adding 15 pounds and impressing the Broncos' coaches with his training camp efforts. That may have plenty to do with his appreciation for playing again, but other factors are at play as well. Dumervil finally has returned to a place in his career where size is merely an afterthought. As far as he's concerned, the only thing that matters these days is how big he continues to play.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.