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If Malik Jackson departs, Broncos' homegrown D-line may face key changes

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open next Tuesday and free agency to follow March 9, today marks the fifth installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Defensive line

Sunday: Linebackers

It’s easy to see the value the Broncos have placed on the defensive line as they went about the business of building a Super Bowl winner.

In executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway’s previous five drafts, the Broncos have used their opening pick on a defensive lineman twice -- Derek Wolfe in the second round in 2012 and Sylvester Williams in the first round in 2013.

In a measured approach to free agency last offseason, the Broncos also chose to sign two veteran defensive linemen in Antonio Smith and Vance Walker. And when the Broncos wanted to try to get a deal or two done with the team’s impending free agents before the end of this past season, Wolfe signed a four-year deal worth $36.7 million.

One of the Broncos' top priorities as free agency approaches this time around is defensive end Malik Jackson, who came into his own in the Broncos' No. 1 defense this past season.

"It’s one of those things that you know what it is," Jackson said. "You have to go out there and be the best player you can because it’s the one chance you have to go out there and do something big for your family and the rest of your life. So for me, I just embrace it. … I embrace the chance to go out there and a chance to show John Elway that I like it here."

In short, the Broncos have expended plenty of draft capital on the position to build and maintain a homegrown unit. They've seen the fruits of those labors with a defense that consistently disrupted opposing quarterbacks en route to a Super Bowl win.

"We know our job is to make it hard on offenses in the middle of the field and keep those guys off Von [Miller] and DeMarcus [Ware] so they can get to the quarterback," Jackson said. "We take a lot of pride in being a big part of the defense."

The Alpha: Consider the job still open. If the Broncos can’t retain Jackson, Wolfe and Williams will have to step forward both in the locker room and in the lineup. Walker is a veteran who has lined up all over the defensive front, but he just finished his first year with the team. Smith was a vocal leader, but he was on a one-year deal. With so many other contracts to address, it’s possible he may not be back.

Salary cap: With his new deal in hand, Wolfe now carries the biggest salary-cap figure for 2016 -- pending any potential deal with Jackson -- at $6.8 million. Walker is $2.25 million against the cap in the coming season, while Williams is at $2.41 million. Kenny Anunike is at $600,834, and Darius Kilgo will count $522,889.

Pending free agents: Jackson is a high-priority player on the Broncos’ offseason to-do list and even as they have tried to work toward a deal with him before free agency opens, Jackson will be a popular target in the open market. Smith, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal for 2015, is an unrestricted free agent.

Who could stay: The Broncos will try hard to keep Jackson because he made the transition from efficient spot-duty player to full-fledged game-wrecker this past season. After Miller and quarterback Brock Osweiler, Jackson has the Broncos’ attention as the bidding is set to begin.

Who could go: With teams looking to end playoff droughts as well as make a splash in free agency, like the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns, Jackson could have the opportunity to secure a deal that the Broncos would be unable to compete with because of other needs they have to address with their available cap space. Also, Smith is a player both defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar like having around, but if Jackson departs the Broncos will have to address the position in the draft and Smith could get caught in the squeeze.

What they like/want: They really like versatile, hard-nosed players like Wolfe and Jackson, who have been defensive ends in their 3-4 work. Both players have shown they also can drop inside in some of the Broncos’ specialty looks.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 3 now because they could use some youth on the depth chart, but it goes to a 4 if they lose Jackson in free agency.