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Broncos' model could help draft stock of defensive linemen, edge rushers

"I feel like I can play in any system, whether it's a 4-3 or 3-4," said Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner. AP Photo/Ryan Kang

INDIANAPOLIS -- It is often said that the NFL is a copycat league, what works is duplicated until something else works better. And as a deep, talented pool of defensive front-seven players gathered at the NFL's scouting combine in recent days, it was clear those players would be happy to be a part of it.

“Here’s what I’m going to say, it’s an old axiom, it’s ancient, and I believe it: offense scores points and defensive wins championships," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “It wasn’t an accident two of the best defenses in the league were in the Super Bowl. That’s the way it works ... good defense travels well and I believe that."

The Denver Broncos rode their No. 1 defense first to home-field advantage in the AFC and then to a Super Bowl win -- 24-10 over the Carolina Panthers in Levi’s Stadium earlier this month. And in the aftermath, personnel executives around the league find themselves closely evaluating draft hopefuls in a year that is one of the deepest in some time for defensive linemen and edge rushers.

“Everybody saw what the Broncos did," Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry said.

The best of the best at those positions, who were invited to Lucas Oil Stadium this past week, could certainly benefit from that interest in the April draft.

Stony Brook’s Victor Ochi, who measured in at 6-foot-1 1/8-inches tall and 246 pounds, even arrived in Indianapolis with a player in mind he hoped to replicate at the combine -- Broncos linebacker Von Miller.

“The MVP of the Super Bowl," Ochi said. “I say I like all types of pass rushers when I’m watching games ... but Von Miller, he knows how to beat the snap counts, get the edge. I think he was about the same size as me when he came to the combine ... I just think he knows how to use all of his size and speed."

Miller’s combine performance in 2011 was a rare one in that at 6-foot-2 5/8, 246 pounds, Miller ran a blistering 4.53 40-yard dash (he improved that to 4.49 at his pro day) to go with a 37-inch vertical leap and a 10-6 standing broad jump. So, it would be difficult for Ochi, or any of the NFL hopefuls, to duplicate that.

Miller was John Elway's first No. 1 pick as the Broncos’ top football decision-maker and overall Elway has used the team’s opening pick in each of the last five drafts on a defensive player, with four of those -- Miller, defensive end Derek Wolfe, nose tackle Sylvester Williams and outside linebacker Shane Ray -- being either a defensive lineman or edge rusher.

And given two of the last three Super Bowl winners -- the Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos -- featured the league’s No. 1 defense, and the draft board for every team in the league will be loaded with quality interior defensive linemen and pass rushers, many who worked out at the combine Sunday won’t have to wait long for their names to be called during the draft weekend.

And they’re confident about it.

“I feel like I can play in any system, whether it’s a 4-3 or 3-4," said Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner, likely the top-rated interior defensive lineman in this draft. “I feel like I can play in any type of system because I’ve played all types of techniques before ... (I feel) that I’m one of the best D-linemen in this draft. I played in every technique possible, from nose and rushing outside at end. I can do everything. I can stop the run. I can also rush the passer."

Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, who has a chance to be the draft's No. 1 selection, said this week, “I feel like I’m the best player in this draft."

ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have both said that as many as 14 defensive linemen and edge rushers combined could be selected in the first round of the draft. A player like Lowry, who isn’t in that first-round mix but has the kind of versatility teams are looking for, said he thinks it’s clear plenty of teams are looking for impact.

Lowry played in a 4-3 defense at Northwestern, but the Broncos met with him in Indianapolis as they look at the potential of having to replace free-agent defensive end Malik Jackson if Jackson signs elsewhere after free agency opens March 9.

“You want teams to see your versatility, maybe that you can play in a 4-3 or a 3-4," Lowry said. "... Could be they’re looking defense. A lot of defensive guys get drafted every year, but when everybody sees it win Super Bowls maybe it’s different. I hope it helps me; we all probably do."