Jeff Legwold, ESPN Senior Writer 53d

Better, worse or same? A look at the Broncos' changes on defense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If things go as the Denver Broncos hope on defense in whatever becomes of the 2020 season, the two starters they traded draft picks for will have to have a big impact. Better injury luck would help, too.

The Broncos turned a seventh-round pick into former Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, and sent a fourth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for cornerback A.J. Bouye. If cornerback Bryce Callahan and linebacker Bradley Chubb continue on their respective roads to recovery from injuries, the Broncos should have a little more kick on defense. But potential is fickle, as the Broncos found out last season.

Let's take a look at the position groups on defense, one by one, to see where the potential improvements have come -- the list of returnees includes practice-squad players and those who were on injured reserve. We broke down the offense last week.

Defensive line

Additions: DT Jurrell Casey (trade from Tennessee Titans), DT Christian Covington (Dallas Cowboys), DT McTelvin Agim (third-round pick).

Losses: DE Derek Wolfe (Baltimore Ravens), DE Adam Gotsis (unsigned), DE Billy Winn (unsigned).

These guys are back: DE Shelby Harris, DE Dre'Mont Jones, DE DeMarcus Walker, DT Mike Purcell, NT Kyle Peko.

Better, worse or the same: Better.

Even with all of the departures, most notably Wolfe, the Broncos should be better across the front simply by adding Casey. Yes, Casey is 30 years old and entering his 10th season, but even if he doesn't reach the level he played at in the best of his Pro Bowl years, a repeat of his 2019 performance would make him the kind of impact player the Broncos have needed on the interior.

Wolfe is a major loss, especially with his consistent effort and ability to work seamlessly with Von Miller in the rush, but Jones is poised for a big jump in snaps played and output. Harris re-signed in free agency, a slight surprise to some in the league, after having a career-best six sacks last season.

Outside linebackers

Additions: Derrek Tuszka (seventh-round pick).

Losses: None.

These guys are back: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu.

Better, worse or the same: Better.

Chubb's healthy return -- he said earlier this month that he would be ready to participate in training camp and be "full go" for the regular season -- makes this group better, as he played just four games last season before tearing his left ACL. His presence will also give Miller some additional room to work -- Miller's eight sacks last season were his fewest since he had five in 2013.

Reed made the Broncos' roster as an undrafted rookie last summer because of his pass-rush upside, and Tuszka is an intriguing prospect, with a combined 31 tackles for loss and 21 sacks in his last two seasons at North Dakota State.

Miller, Chubb, Reed and Attaochu all recorded sacks last season from this position group, one that was struggling (the Broncos had zero sacks in the first three games) before Chubb's season-ending injury in Week 4.

Inside linebackers

Additions: Justin Strnad (fifth-round pick).

Losses: Corey Nelson (unsigned).

These guys are back: Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Joe Jones, Justin Hollins, Josh Watson.

Better, worse or the same: Same.

The Broncos largely sat out free agency and the draft at this position -- they re-signed Jones and selected Strnad on the draft's third day -- so a lot of the faith in this part of the depth chart comes from Johnson's expected improvement and Davis' ability to maintain his production coming off back-to-back, 110-tackle seasons (114 in '18, 134 in '19).

Hollins still has room to grow into the defense, and his ability to play both inside and outside will benefit him. Strnad should make the roster as a special-teamer, so Jewell and Jones could find themselves battling for one spot, assuming that the Broncos keep five inside linebackers.

Defensive backs

Additions: CB A.J. Bouye (trade with Jacksonville Jaguars), CB Michael Ojemudia (third-round pick), CB Essang Bassey (undrafted rookie).

Losses: CB Chris Harris Jr. (Los Angeles Chargers), S Will Parks (Philadelphia Eagles), S Dymonte Thomas (unsigned).

These guys are back: CB De'Vante Bausby, CB Bryce Callahan, CB/S Kareem Jackson, S Justin Simmons, CB Duke Dawson Jr., CB Davontae Harris, CB Isaac Yiadom, CB Shakial Taylor, S Trey Marshall, S Alijah Holder.

Better, worse or the same: Same.

Make no mistake, there is every chance this group could be worse if neither Bouye nor Callahan match Harris' level of play. Harris is entering his 10th season and was a bit frustrated with his contract situation last year but was consistently a 1,000-snap, Pro Bowl-level player every year for the Broncos.

The group could also be better if Callahan performs the way the Broncos hoped when he signed as a free agent last year before his 2019 season was cratered with a foot injury. Bouye finding his level of play in 2017, when he was named to his only Pro Bowl, would help, too.

In the end, Callahan hasn't played a down for the Broncos yet, and Bouye has played 16 games just once in his seven seasons. Ojemudia -- with his size, speed, savvy and athleticism -- is a significant wild card because he has the potential to play plenty of snaps.

Simmons and Jackson should be a top-tier tandem at safety.

But overall, with Chris Harris Jr.'s guaranteed 1,000 snaps and Parks' versatility now elsewhere, the Broncos have to find somebody -- Bausby, Davontae Harris, Yiadom or Dawson -- who can play roughly 60% of the snaps in a five-defensive-back look in case Ojemudia needs more time or Callahan's foot betrays him.

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