ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the second consecutive season the Denver Broncos opened the checkbook before the end of their season to sign one of their impending free agents on defense.
Last year it was cornerback Chris Harris Jr. who was slated for free agency and signed (five years, $42.5 million) before the season was over. Friday, it was defensive end Derek Wolfe who signed a four-year, $36.7 million deal before he was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
The deal does carry at least some risk for the Broncos, given Wolfe was suspended for the first four games of the season for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Wolfe still finished the year sixth on the team in tackles with 49 and tied for third in sacks at 5.5.
Wolfe’s 49 tackles led all of the Broncos’ defensive linemen.
In a statement Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway called Wolfe “a very talented and hard-working player who has improved every season since we drafted him in 2012" and added that Wolfe has “developed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in football."
Wolfe, who was a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, was on a long list of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents for Denver. On defense alone linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Omar Bolden -- all Broncos draft picks -- are scheduled to hit the open market.
Miller is among the league’s elite at his position -- he led the Broncos with 11 sacks this season -- Jackson has been one of the team’s most productive players in terms of impact in relation to snaps played and Trevathan has led the team in tackles in two of the past three years, a total that includes his team-leading 110 tackles this year.
The Broncos, after signing wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to a five-year, $70 million deal this past July, do have the franchise tag to use on Miller if they wish.