'We don't want to suck': Can the Broncos' defense avoid another slow start in 2024? (2024)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos adjourned for their summer break, linebacker Alex Singleton rolled out a goal for a defense that lived in the extremes of good and bad last season.

"We don't want to suck," Singleton said earlier this month. "I think that's most teams' goal."

While the ongoing quarterback competition and rookie passer Bo Nix's arrival as the team's first-round pick has overwhelmed the public discourse around the team, the Broncos -- behind that camouflage -- spent much of their limited salary-cap capital on their defense. It's a defense that lived the good life for two months last season after a historically bad month-long stretch to kick off the campaign.

Singleton, who led the team in tackles last season with 175, has often referred to that oh-so-bad stretch as "those five weeks." That run over Weeks 1-5 included a 70-point meltdown in Week 3 against the Dolphins, and over those first five weeks, the Broncos surrendered 36.2 points per game and 450.6 yards per game.

Then that same group turned the corner. Denver followed it up with an eight-game run in which it surrendered 16.0 points and 331.6 yards per game. To put that into perspective, the Baltimore Ravens led the league in scoring defense last season at 16.5 points per game, and 331.6 was the league average for yards allowed per game over the course of the season.

Of course, many of the Broncos' raw numbers never really recovered from those opening five weeks. They ultimately finished 29th in total defense, 30th in run defense and 22nd in pass defense. But their offseason work with the group has zeroed in on adding more physicality up front and getting things more settled during training camp to avoid a slow start -- and find their groove much sooner.

"We have to get off to a better start," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said during minicamp. "Obviously coaching better and playing better from Week 1 on. That's obviously our goal. Once we get rolling, it's going to be good."

The Broncos did lose two mainstays in the defensive group, one by choice when they released safety Justin Simmons and one in the free agent market when linebacker Josey Jewell signed with the Carolina Panthers in free agency. They were also limited in their ability to make changes after taking on an $85 million dead-money charge against their salary cap after cutting quarterback Russell Wilson -- including $53 million counting on the cap this season. Per Roster Management, the Broncos currently have a league-high $67.1 million in dead money and just $9 million in cap space.

Simmons was simply one of the team's best players for his eight seasons. He is coming off a sixth straight season with three-plus INTs and 65-plus tackles. And Jewell's reliability and productivity will also be difficult to replace, as the search for the inside linebacker to play alongside Singleton is still underway. Jewell was second in tackles for the Broncos last year to Singleton with 108, and he chipped in three sacks and two forced fumbles. These are both significant question marks the Broncos have waiting for them when they return for training camp.

But Denver moved to sign safety Brandon Jones, defensive tackle Malcolm Roach and defensive lineman Angelo Blackson in free agency. They then added defensive end John Franklin-Myers -- one of the league's most consistent interior defenders -- in a draft weekend trade with the New York Jets. Franklin, who was acquired for a 2026 sixth-round pick, has 52 career starts and 19.5 career sacks on his résumé. The veteran has played at least 15 games in each of his six seasons. Franklin-Myers also agreed to a contract restructure (two years, $15 million) that cut down his cap charge.

"We wanted to be better against the run," general manager George Paton said. "We went and got Roach, then we signed Blackson, obviously another big run-stuffer, then made the trade for JFM. So, they're not only good against the run, they can push the pocket. All these guys play really hard."

Joseph said, "I think having those two guys [in Roach and Franklin-Myers] inside to hold a point for us and to change the line of scrimmage, that's important. ... Tackling was our issue with run defense. So improving our tackling, that's also going to help us. We gave up some big runs, and it wasn't because of gap fits -- it was missed tackles."

The 10-touchdown avalanche in Week 3 -- in which the Dolphins had 726 total yards and 350 rushing yards -- was the low point overall, but the Broncos had multiple bobbles in the run defense even when times were better overall for the defense. They surrendered at least 170 rushing yards in six games last season and finished just below the middle of the league's defensive pack in sacks, tying for 21st with 42.

Denver hopes that the new additions will allow Zach Allen to avoid some of the double-teams he received as the 2023 season wore on. The Broncos struggled to find a rotation up front that consistently held its ground.

"[The new arrivals] have been awesome," Singleton said. "I've known John [Franklin-Myers] for a few years now. We trained together a couple of years ago back in southern California. I am excited. The way that they play is fast and physical. They are aggressive dudes."

Spring and summer optimism is routinely harvested in every NFL outpost, but Singleton said there was a difference this time around in the offseason program. He pointed out that Sean Payton's staff, including Joseph, was in the first year of transitioning from Ejiro Evero's defense to their own last season. And Singleton said the transition felt disjointed as those first five games unfolded. The hope is that it can be avoided this time around.

"It is night and day," Singleton said. "When it's new scheme, you're still learning from square one ... I think that's kind of what happened the first five weeks -- we were trying to do one thing, they were trying to help us, and nothing meshed."

But will things be different in 2024? Joseph knows the second year with the same scheme makes things simpler and believes it will help out of the gates.

"It's going to be easier for the players to grasp the system," he said. "We expect to play better early, and that's the bottom line."

'We don't want to suck': Can the Broncos' defense avoid another slow start in 2024? (2024)

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