Even as they fix offense, Broncos must address talent drain on defense

Veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock, who signed a one-year deal with the Broncos, spent 2017 with the Vikings after playing his first seven NFL seasons with the 49ers. Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the past 12 months, the Denver Broncos have seen three Pro Bowl players exit their defense.

In the past three weeks, Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said he believes the team’s defense can still be among the league’s best. If that is true, the Broncos will need to improve at addition to make up for that roster subtraction.

Denver traded cornerback Aqib Talib to the Los Angeles Rams for a fifth-round pick earlier this month. Talib had been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons with the Broncos.

In September 2017, safety T.J. Ward -- who was named to two Pro Bowls in his three seasons in Denver -- was released just before the start of the regular season to make way for Justin Simmons to start. And in March 2017, DeMarcus Ware officially announced his retirement after being named to two Pro Bowls in his three seasons with the Broncos.

The team’s offseason focus has been on repairing the offense, which started with signing Case Keenum to upgrade the quarterback spot. But Elway believes the defense will also need some work during what remains of free agency as well as in the draft. The Broncos currently have 11 picks, starting with No. 5 overall.

“We’ve got to get better on the offensive side, but we want also to try and be as good or maintain defensively, if not get better,’’ Elway said. “Defensively we were [22nd] in scoring last year. That shows we have a lot of improvement to do on the defensive side, too. Defense has been our base the last four or five years and what we kind of built around.’’

The Broncos made two of those opening moves as they re-signed linebacker Todd Davis to a three-year deal ($15 million) and signed cornerback Tramaine Brock, an eight-year veteran who will turn 30 in August, to a one-year deal that could be worth $4 million. Brock is likely just the first move as the team looks to replace Talib in the lineup.

There is also the matter of defensive end Derek Wolfe, who is coming off neck surgery, and uncertainty surrounding Adam Gotsis after the defensive end was arrested in Georgia for allegedly raping a woman in 2013, when he was at Georgia Tech.

In the end, Denver's defense just wasn’t itself on the field last season and must now face that fact with Talib gone. Ware’s absence in particular loomed large, as an apparent disconnect between the team’s more established players and several of the younger players bubbled beneath the surface.

And the Broncos never quite seemed comfortable with the defensive tweaks coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods were trying. At the scouting combine, Elway said the team needed to improve its personnel, but also said the returning players had to be better.

Here's how Elway put it: “First of all, I don’t think our guys played to their abilities on the defensive side."

That’s because despite having a perennial defensive player of the year candidate in linebacker Von Miller, and three starters in the secondary (Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Darian Stewart) who had played in a Pro Bowl within the previous two seasons, the Broncos still surrendered 29 touchdown passes in 2017. While they did finish No. 3 in total defense, they tied for 22nd in scoring defense, allowing 23.9 points per game.

The Broncos' defense, which stifled offenses in the previous two seasons regardless of field position, also struggled to help the team bounce back from its own mistakes on offense. Opponents scored 142 points on drives that followed Denver turnovers last season.

“That’s when you have to shut people down," Miller said recently. “That’s when I have to make more game-changing plays, when we have to make more game-changing plays. But we have the players we need and [Elway] will bring some in. We can be that kind of defense we know we can be.’’

It will take some dexterity from Elway, however, as he tries to manage the heavy lifting on offense. After signing Keenum, the Broncos don’t have the salary-cap space of other teams around the league, and many top-flight defenders have already been signed during free agency’s early going.

The Broncos will need this year’s draft class -- particularly any picks on defense -- to contribute more as rookies than the past two draft classes. And last year’s second-rounder, DeMarcus Walker, simply has to be ready for a big jump given the uncertainty with Wolfe and Gotsis.

Elway said at the combine he believed Wolfe was “doing really well’’ in his recovery after missing five games last season and ending the year on injured reserve.

“We’re looking at everything,’’ Elway said. “Getting our guys to play better and adding where we need to, that’s where our focus is.’’