Defensive line woes continue for Broncos

Courtney Brown. Gerard Warren. Michael Myers. Ebenezer Ekuban.

Not exactly a quartet, despite the presence of three former first-round choices, including two of whom were among the top three players selected in their respective draft classes, sufficiently menacing enough to cause restless nights for offensive linemen leaguewide.

This isn't a group that should be mistaken for the Fearsome Foursome, the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters, or any other colorfully captioned front-four unit. Heck, these guys, The Four Flops, have authored fewer hits than the Four Tops. In fact, looking for a handle for this frustrating foursome? How about The Rejects or the Retreads?

Or, given that all four of the veteran defensive linemen labored for Cleveland in 2004, perhaps the Brown-outs is most appropriate.

Last season, the quartet averaged 22.5 tackles, 3.3 sacks and 8.3 starts. Yeah, you can justifiably point out those microscopic numbers are skewed downward by the fact Brown was injured and played in only two games. But, hey, Brown, the first player chosen in the 2000 draft, is always injured. It will probably cost Cleveland ownership more to ship his ponderous medical dossier to Denver than it will to forward his equipment. The guy clearly has more X-rays than big plays.

Here's a more ominous statistic: The four linemen have averaged 19.5 games missed to injuries over the course of their NFL careers and more than two surgeries apiece. None has ever registered more than eight sacks in a season. Neither Brown nor Ekuban, both rehabilitating from surgeries, will be able to run full-speed before May. So dubious is the availability of Ekuban for the outset of training camp that Cleveland tossed Myers into a trade earlier this week as a cheap insurance policy.

Want a less than ringing endorsement? With all four linemen on their roster in 2004, the Browns won, yep, all of four games. Cleveland management might have fared better had it simply erected four speed bumps.

None of this dissuaded the Broncos from finding a way to bring all four to Denver.

The Broncos recruited Brown, released by Cleveland on March 14 for cap and casualty reasons, as if he was the second coming of Bruce Smith. Which is precisely what a lot of scouts felt he would be when he departed Penn State in 2000. And before the defensive end began accumulating enough ailments to be held personally accountable for the spiral in medical insurance costs in Ohio during his five-year tenure near Lake Erie.

So the Broncos signed Brown in hopes of resurrecting his flagging career. Three weeks ago, Denver traded a fourth-round pick for Warren, the third overall selection in the '01 draft, and an interior defender possessed of enormous talent, but whose accomplishments are sparse. Warren is one of our favorite players in the league but "Big Money" has been more a penny stock for four seasons. On Tuesday night, the Broncos shipped disgruntled running back Reuben Droughns to the Browns in exchange for Ekuban and Myers.

It's as if the Broncos' football operation has given new connotation to the high component of the Mile High City. Do they suddenly feel that Brown, who finished each of the last four seasons on injured reserve, is going to stumble upon some panacea while wandering some Rocky Mountain trail? That Warren will find motivation, Ekuban stay healthy and Myers suddenly become a playmaker?

Their hardly flattering resumes notwithstanding, the onetime Cleveland linemen each will be counted upon to play major roles in the refurbished Denver defensive front. But why were the Broncos so incredibly desperate to restock? Why was Denver so willing to roll the dice on players whose careers keep coming up snake-eyes?

Well, in large part because the Broncos' organization has been so bad, and suffered such misfortune, in drafting defensive linemen.

Unlike the NFL's best and most stable teams, the Broncos don't grow defensive linemen. And, thus, Denver seems to be forever addressing its defensive line needs in the always dicey free-agent market. That usually means throwing good money after players who are in decline. None of the former Cleveland linemen are getting big deals financially, but all are stop-gaps, not players to develop for the long run.

And that inability, the failure to draft players and successfully raise them up through your own system, has been a glaring Broncos shortcoming.

Of the 10 defensive linemen who appeared in games for Denver in 2004, just three -- ends Reggie Hayward and Trevor Pryce and tackle Monsanto Pope -- originally were Denver draft choices. The Broncos' defensive line was like a halfway house for veteran free-agent players like Marco Coleman, Luther Elliss, Darius Holland, Ellis Johnson, Anton Palepoi and Raylee Johnson. Two of those players were added after the start of the season. If you were a defensive lineman who was released, and you had a pulse, chances were good that the Broncos were going to sign you.

Compare the Denver situation to that of, say, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Pats are loaded with young, viable and vital defensive linemen because coach Bill Belichick has made the position, and depth at it, a priority. New England took defensive linemen in the first round of three of the last four drafts. They also invested a couple of second-round picks on the defensive line during that stretch.

The kind of lopsided and unhealthy reliance on free-agent linemen that Denver has demonstrated of late, magnified again over the past month with the fixation on former Cleveland defenders, can be traced to the draft failures of the past. Ineptitude in the draft, and crucial injuries post-draft, have created a culture of failure. Instead of a unit manned by young talent, nurtured through the Denver system, the Broncos instead have holes that have to be filled by free agents or trade acquisitions plucked from other teams' rosters.

Such an approach, characteristically, is a recipe for failure and salary cap problems. The Broncos, it's fair to say, have suffered plenty of both. Someone noted on another site this week that Denver might yet hit a "home run" with its four Cleveland imports. Truth is, the Broncos wouldn't need a home run if they'd just slugged a few doubles, instead of having so many whiffs, with their defensive line selections over the past decade.

Since the arrival of coach Mike Shanahan in '95, the Broncos have selected 13 defensive linemen in 10 lotteries, and the overall results have pretty much been catastrophic. Think the Broncos have had problems choosing cornerbacks? The defensive line selections have been far worse.

Six of the 13 defensive linemen never played in a single game for the Broncos and another appeared in just nine contests. Denver invested four choices on defensive linemen in 2002 -- Nick Eason, Bryant McNeal, Aaron Hunt and Clint Mitchell -- and none has ever gotten onto the field for a game in a Broncos uniform. Hunt is the only one who remains under contract to the Broncos.

Of the 13, only four played in more than 40 games and Pryce, who will be traded or released before training camp, is the only one to appear in more than 47 contests. He has 105 appearances and the other 12 averaged just 14.8 games in Denver. His 98 starts are nearly double the aggregate starts of the others. While Pryce's departure is pending, end Reggie Hayward, a third-round pick in 2001 and the Broncos' best pass-rush threat the last two seasons, already defected, signing with Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent last month. Last spring, the Broncos also lost a solid pass rusher, Bertrand Berry, in free agency, although it should be noted he wasn't a home-grown player.

The situation, as evidenced by the additions of the four Cleveland linemen, isn't likely to get much better in 2005.

There are currently 15 defensive linemen on the Denver roster who are either signed to contracts or who have been tendered restricted free-agent qualifying offers for 2005 and most likely will return. Of that group, discounting Pryce who was limited to two games in '04 after early-season back surgery, only three are original Broncos signees. That trio has combined for just 31 regular-season starts.

In fairness to Shanahan and the Denver personnel department, the dearth of good, young defensive linemen isn't all a factor of poor draft decisions. There have been injuries to a number of the draftees -- most notably a persistent knee problem that kept defensive end Paul Toviessi, a second-round pick in 2001 and a player who was projected as a double-digit sack man, from ever playing in a game -- that essentially scuttled their careers.

Even with the injuries, however, the Broncos should have plenty more to show for all of their draft forays into the defensive line pool. Such a deficiency has led Denver to make moves out of necessity, even desperation, and most of those gambits have backfired.

The bet here is that bringing in so many defensive linemen from Cleveland, a city known as the "Mistake by the Lake," isn't going to help rectify the errors of the past. In fact, the Broncos' recent shopping spree probably augurs results that, alas, are pretty much the same as those to which Denver has become accustomed.

Around the league
• There are some rumors you chase because, even though you don't believe them, they make a modicum of sense. There are some you chase because the boss tells you to check 'em out. You figure out into which category the rumblings of last weekend, which suggested that the San Diego Chargers were trading second-year quarterback Philip Rivers to San Francisco for the first overall selection in the 2005 draft, really fall. Outside of the musings of some misguided media minds in San Diego, there never was a shred of credence to the Rivers rumors, in part because the 49ers don't feel the former North Carolina State star is as good as the quarterbacks available to them in this year's draft, Aaron Rodgers of California or Utah's Alex Smith.

Sure, there was certainly a money factor, since landing Rivers would have allowed San Francisco to dodge a big signing bonus. But after the Chargers paid Rivers his option bonus of $6.6 million on March 10, why would they want to deal him? It didn't make sense to invest that much money in Rivers and then trade him, not even for the first pick in the draft, a guy who will command a $15 million signing bonus. Yeah, the Chargers have scads of salary-cap room. No, they don't have unlimited funds.

Want some truth in all of this? Here it is: Long before San Diego deposited the $6.6 million payment into Rivers' bank account, it could have traded him, since there were at least two suitors interested. In fact, San Diego could have dealt him to a team with a very high choice in the first round, and opted not to. The plan remains to keep Rivers and Drew Brees through the '05 season and then make a determination on their respective fates. That has been the formula articulated by general manager A.J. Smith, a guy who has been incredibly candid since moving into the job after the death of longtime friend John Butler, and there is no reason to suggest that the blueprint will be altered. The Chargers' brass wants one more season to analyze Brees, who signed the one-year "franchise" qualifying offer, to determine if he is the real deal or if his brilliant 2004 performance was just an aberration.

• In the ongoing attempt to reach an agreement on an extension to the collective-bargaining agreement, there has already been plenty of posturing. And there figures to be a lot more as the NFL and the NFL Players Association haggle over how to distribute a bigger piece of league revenues to the rank-and-file. Let's face it, not much that comes out of the mouths of commissioner Paul Tagliabue or NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw isn't calculated. You don't think Tagliabue's contention at the league meetings two weeks ago, that the talks had hit a "dead end" wasn't meant to create a headline? It is notable, though, that the union is beginning now to squirrel away contingency funds in case the labor strife of the '80s is revisited. The basic intent is to create a war chest in the event of a strike. But the move was also made to get attention, to create the notion that the NFLPA is taking seriously the possibility that an extension agreement will not be reached.

At their recent annual meeting in Hawaii, the NFLPA's board of player representatives voted not to rebate union dues to the players this year. For the past several years, players have been rebated their $10,000 union dues, about $18 million annually. But the NFLPA won't be mailing back the checks this year. Instead, they will be banked, and earmarked to cover potential strike and legal fees. According to their LM-2 form, an accounting every union must file with the Department of Labor, the NFLPA had assets of $154 million at the conclusion of its 2004 fiscal year. That included nearly $55 million in cash.

• At least in terms of his improved 40-yard time, let's put tailback Maurice Clarett's workout for NFL scouts on Thursday in some context. Yeah, the erstwhile Ohio State star ran better times, between 4.67-4.69, than at the combine. And he looked, despite being a couple pounds heavier, at 236, to be in better shape. But all that the workout really did, probably, was lift Clarett from maybe the sixth round into the fifth. Had he run the same times at the Indianapolis combine in February, instead of the 4.72 and 4.82 clockings that he posted, he still would have been the second-slowest tailback. There were 28 tailbacks at the combine and 21 of them performed in the 40. Of that group, 17 ran times under 4.60 seconds. The only back Clarett would have beaten out, of those who ran at the combine, was T.A. McClendon of North Carolina State, who ran a 4.71. So let's not start looking yet for Clarett on the first day of the draft.

• The guess is that, in terms of a potential trade of standout Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain, someone is going to blink. But there figures to be a pretty lengthy stare-down until someone backs down. The Kansas City Chiefs would prefer to address their cornerback need now, rather than wait for free agent Ty Law to demonstrate that he can run, which might not be until May or June. And about the only way to do so before the draft is to trade for Surtain or to sign unrestricted free agent Andre Dyson of Tennessee.

The Chiefs have demonstrated no interest in the latter course of action but have reached agreement with Surtain, who has been on the trade block for two months, on a long-term contract. The hangup: Dolphins first-year coach Nick Saban, who is seeking a second-round pick in exchange for Surtain, refuses to lower his price. And no one can blame him. Keeping Surtain, still one of the NFL's best cover corners, would strain the Miami budget, but the Dolphins can afford to do so. There's no reason to merely give Surtain away, not for the fourth-round choice Kansas City has been offering, and Saban is more willing to keep the veteran corner than to sacrifice him in a bargain-basement sell-off. The teams seem set in their respective stances for now, but there remains three weeks until the draft, plenty of time for détente and a deal.

• Speaking of Dyson, the former Titans starter might well be the top player remaining in the free-agent pool. That's why it is so inexplicable, particularly given that he plays a premium position, that Dyson hasn't generated big-time interest. Seattle brought him in for a visit but opted to sign Denver restricted free-agent cornerback Kelly Herndon, a guy most scouts feel isn't nearly as accomplished. Dyson isn't as big as the new age prototype corner, but he can cover and knows how to play the game. And his interception numbers compare favorably to those of other unrestricted corners who have signed elsewhere.

Look for the Washington Redskins and perhaps the Tampa Bay Bucs to have Dyson in for a visit, and possibly even a workout, before the draft. But coach Joe Gibbs said this week his team won't make any more major roster moves until after the lottery. That said, it's hard to believe that the 'Skins, who traded Champ Bailey a year ago and lost Fred Smoot in free agency last month, wouldn't be interested in adding Dyson to their diluted cornerback corps.

• Last week in this space, we reported that the Oakland Raiders were the latest team to demonstrate interest in acquiring New Orleans "franchise" defensive end Darren Howard in a trade. This week, the Raiders ratcheted up talks by speaking directly with Howard's agent, Gary Wichard, about what it would take to sign his client to a long-term contract.

That doesn't necessarily mean the trade negotiations are significantly further along, only that Oakland remains interested enough to have made the next logical step. Word is that Howard isn't quite as enamored with the prospects of going to Oakland as he was the potential for a trade to Dallas, where he would be reunited with Cowboys tackle La'Roi Glover, a former New Orleans line mate. Translation: It's going to take a little more money to persuade Howard, who is coming off a season in which he tied his career best for sacks (11) despite playing much of the season out of position at tackle, that he wants to commit long-term to the Raiders. How much more? We don't know. But Wichard had proposed to the Cowboys, who remain interested in Howard as well, a six-year deal at $34 million and change, with $16 million of that in bonus money.

Another sticking point is that Saints officials haven't demonstrated much interest in the trade bait the Raiders are dangling, principally "franchise" cornerback Charles Woodson.

What is perhaps most notable about Oakland's flirtation with Howard is that it offers yet more circumstantial evidence that Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is prepared to principally switch to a 4-3 front for 2005. Such a move seems better suited to the personnel on hand, including Warren Sapp, who struggled playing end in the 3-4 last season. The Raiders added an unrestricted free-agent tackle this week, former New Orleans backup Kenny Smith, and he should fit nicely into a rotation that would include Sapp, Ted Washington and Tommy Kelly. An undrafted free agent in 2004, Kelly led the Raiders in sacks last season, with four, and is a youngster who bears watching.

• A low-risk gamble by the Tampa Bay Bucs on Thursday, the bargain-basement signing of unrestricted free-agent defensive tackle Chris Hovan, might be an excellent move for the former Minnesota Vikings first-round draft choice. If Hovan, a top pick in the 2000 draft, is to resurrect his career, Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is probably the man who can best help him do it. Marinelli is a superb coach, a guy who has made solid players out of former castoffs or low-round selections like end Greg Spires and tackles Chartric Darby and Ellis Wyms.

Can he work his magic on Hovan? That remains to be seen. But the Tampa Bay defensive scheme, the emphasis on one-gap techniques for the linemen, should at least provide Hovan a chance to return to the productivity he displayed early in his career. An All-Pro pick by the Associated Press as recently as 2002, Hovan has been in a nosedive ever since. In the last two seasons, he registered just 61 tackles, including a career-worst 20 tackles in 2004, and 1½ sacks. He lost his starting job last season to Spencer Johnson, an undrafted college free agent, and appeared in only 13 games, with nine starts.
Hovan garnered interest from several teams as a free agent the past month, all of them believing they were the right place for him to rehabilitate his floundering career, but Marinelli and the Bucs seem to represent the best chance for him to turn back the clock.

• Had he declined to restructure his contract before a Thursday afternoon deadline, New York Giants safety and former first-round draft pick Shaun Williams certainly would have been released. We have no idea how hard Williams, who was due a roster bonus of $900,000 on Thursday and a base salary of $3 million for 2005, had to swallow. But the last thing you want to be right now is an unemployed safety.

As usual for this juncture in the free-agency market, there is a glut of unsigned players at the position, and most teams will wait now until after the draft to sign safeties to low- or minimum-salary contracts. Even if Williams took a substantial reduction, it's probably still better than what he would have faced a month from now. The contingent of free-agent safeties still includes at least five veterans who were starters in 2004 and all will be jockeying for position when teams start to fill in holes. Williams would have been the best of the bunch, for sure, but that doesn't mean the former UCLA star, a first-round pick in 1998, would have commanded top dollar. Regarded as one of the best athletes to enter the league at safety in recent years, Williams simply isn't a playmaker, and has never really lived up to the hype. In seven seasons, he has just 11 interceptions and has never had more than three pickoffs in a season. He did record double-digit passes defensed in three straight years, 2000-2002, but hasn't been nearly the impact player many predicted he would be.

• The other position at which there is a logjam in free agency is linebacker, especially middle linebacker, where several starting caliber players remain in limbo. Longtime starting middle 'backers such as Ronald McKinnon of Arizona and Indianapolis' Rob Morris are still looking for work but, as is the case with safeties, might have to wait until after the draft to find homes.

The Cincinnati Bengals are looking for a new starter in the middle but appear to be in no hurry to fill the position. As indicated here last week, the Bengals seem poised to make some type of move with Nate Webster, who they signed last spring to be the starter, but who suffered a patella tendon injury from which he has been slow to recover. The guess here is that Cincinnati eventually will reach an injury settlement with Webster and fill the spot with one of two 2004 draft picks, Landon Johnson or Caleb Miller, or add a veteran run-stuffer.

Two names to watch: Jamie Sharper of Houston and Atlanta's Chris Draft. Both veterans are on the trading block but Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis is more apt to play a waiting game, hoping that one or both of the players will be released after the draft.

• Another solid move by Cleveland first-year general manager Phil Savage this week in acquiring Denver tailback Reuben Droughns in exchange for a couple defensive linemen, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers, who didn't fit into the Browns' plans to switch to a 3-4 front under coach Romeo Crennel.

Yeah, Droughns has only enjoyed one big year, rushing for 1,240 yards in 2004, after he was forced into the starting lineup by a spate of injuries at the position. But the veteran back, who had principally played fullback before last season, is the kind of tough inside runner Crennel wants. And he represents a nice complement to Lee Suggs, a compelling youngster with great facility for getting outside, but who will have to prove to the new coaching staff that he can stay healthy. It's going to take Savage and Crennel a while to nudge the Browns to respectability, but the pair is off to a very impressive start.

Punts: The Ravens are close to a deal to re-sign free agent T.J. Slaughter, who has been penciled in as Baltimore's starting weakside linebacker. ... Two offensive tackle prospects who are rapidly moving up drafts boards are Todd Herremans of Saginaw Valley and Georgia Tech's
Kyle Wallace. Both have established themselves now as solid middle-round choices. ... As indicated in past weeks, youngsters Sean Locklear and Wayne Hunter will battle for the starting right offensive tackle spot in Seattle, where the Seahawks recently released incumbent Chris Terry. But the word we get is that Seattle coaches want Locklear to win the job. ... Several teams already are reviewing video of San Francisco right tackle Scott Gragg, who will be released in July. The 49ers told Gragg, a 10-year veteran and more-than-adequate strongside blocker, not to report for this weekend's minicamp. Even at age 33, Gragg, who will be replaced by former first-round tackle Kwame Harris on the 49ers' revamped unit, still has some good football left. He will generate a pretty decent market when he is released. ... David Greene of Georgia and Auburn's Jason Campbell, the two former SEC quarterbacks recently featured in an ESPN.com piece, are garnering plenty of attention, and have scheduled several private visits with teams. Greene is getting good interest from the New England Patriots. ... One of Greene's favorite targets at Georgia, Reggie Brown, is moving up and, depending on how many wide receivers go off the board early, could sneak into the bottom of the first round. ... We're now under the two-week window for teams to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets. The deadline is April 15. So far, three restricted players have signed offer sheets but just one, cornerback Kelly Herndon, who went from Denver to Seattle, changed teams. Denver tight end Jeb Putzier (with the New York Jets) and Baltimore tailback Chester Taylor (with Cleveland) signed offer sheets that were matched by their incumbent franchises. ... One of the names quietly mentioned as a potential candidate to be the next NFL commissioner, or at least a guy said to be eyeing the job, is Dan Doctoroff. For those who haven't heard of him, Doctoroff is the deputy mayor of New York City, and was a key figure in pushing through the New York Jets' bid for the tract of land that will serve as home to the team's proposed Manhattan stadium. It's a feather in the bonnet of Doctoroff, who is also a major player in the city's bid for the Olympics in 2012. ... Congratulations to ol' buddy Bobby April of the Buffalo Bills, who was named the NFL's top special teams coach for 2004 in a vote by his peers. April, who was fired by the St. Louis Rams a year ago, will be honored next Tuesday at a banquet in Reno, Nev. ... The Bills quietly strengthened their offensive line on Thursday evening, signing guard Bennie Anderson to a three-year, $5.1 million contract. The former Ravens starter is a 345-pound road-grader who provides Buffalo, and tailback Willis McGahee, another physical interior blocker.

The last word: "We ended up scoring. That was the important thing. A couple of plays took too long. But the end result was that we scored a touchdown. We had plenty of time to make it happen after that. We just didn't get it done. We just didn't make it happen." -- Philadelphia coach Andy Reid on criticism of the Eagles' lack of urgency on offense late in Super Bowl XXXIX

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.