Despite changes, Broncos' defense believes it can repeat 2015 performance

Even if his now-contentious contract talks get resolved, can Von Miller and the Broncos repeat what they did in 2015? Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have moved through the offseason believing the team's defense, which finished No. 1 overall in the NFL last season and followed with a historical postseason, can do it all again in 2016.

Earlier in the offseason, safety Darian Stewart even went as far as to say: "It's going to be hell for teams this year."

But it was hard to tell where the defense stood at the end of mandatory minicamp last week:

  • Super Bowl MVP Von Miller skipped the offseason program because he is in the middle of negotiations on a long-term deal -- negotiations that have recently become contentious.

  • Pro Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware wasn't on the field because his balky back has acted up, and the Broncos are trying to make sure he's ready for training camp and the regular season.

  • After having foot and finger surgeries during the offseason, linebacker Brandon Marshall has not participated fully in any of the Broncos' on-field work in organized team activities or minicamp.

  • Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib wasn't on the field because of a gunshot wound he suffered in an incident still surrounded by plenty of question marks.

And all that was on top of the free agency losses in March of defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety David Bruton Jr.

The Broncos believe their defense can be one of the league's best again, but they haven't actually seen their first-team defense work as a unit at any point during this offseason. And there is a bit of a leap of faith underway.

"This is a great group," Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "That's why they were successful last year. We had guys that didn't play. We missed guys for games last year. Those kinds of things came up, and we just go forward. Work hard and try do the right things and good things happen for you."

The Broncos' defenders have spent much of the offseason with a look of scorn when public opinion about the 2016 season is the topic of conversation. They have voiced their disdain over what they feel has been one prediction of doom after another for the group and the team.

One particular preseason story in recent weeks -- which suggested the Broncos' 2016 record would be 7-9 -- was of particular notice.

"Seven and nine? We have almost our whole defense back," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "We've got young guys ready to play, we have Coach Wade, we're just going to go to work and get ready to play."

If the Broncos get Miller a long-term deal or he plays under the franchise player tender this season, the Broncos will have nine starters returning from last year's defense. And that doesn't include cornerback Bradley Roby, who Phillips considers a starter since the team plays in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) packages so often.

The Broncos believe outside linebacker Shane Ray, the team's first-round pick in the 2015 draft, is ready to do more as Ware moves into a role as a pass-rush specialist. And they believe the combination of Vance Walker, free-agent signee Jared Crick and rookie Adam Gotsis will more than make up for Jackson's loss in free agency. If they're right about all of that, their defense should be among the league's best.

"Kind of the same thing we thought last year," Phillips said. "Going into OTAs, we felt like we were going to be pretty good and then we start talking about being the best. Now we're still talking about that. That's our goal, to be the best. Certainly last year's team would be hard to repeat. The only thing better than winning the Super Bowl is winning another one. That's what we're looking forward to."

The key continues to be Miller's physical status, in terms of conditioning and readiness for the season after missing the offseason program, as well as his ability to mentally get past the sometimes hard-line negotiations with the Broncos this offseason.

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has said he expects Miller to "be ready to go" when he does return to the team. "I know he's been doing the work," Kubiak said.

But what the Broncos' defense will look and feel like is still in question.

"We'll be ready," Harris said. "The guys we have, we know what it takes, we know what we need to do. We know what we have in our [meeting] room."