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Chiefs Pantalones
04-07-2005, 09:38 AM
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.

Courtney Brown
Defensive End
Denver Broncos

Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
2 2 0 0 0 0

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.

By Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com
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