The Denver Broncos spent the offseason thinking defense. Their first three draft choices were cornerbacks. Coach Mike Shanahan hired Andre Patterson from Cleveland to be the defensive line coach. And Patterson, 45, brought some baggage with him.
Namely, defensive linemen Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Michael Myers and Ebenezer Ekuban are with the Broncos after starting for the Browns for part of last year. They combined for 90 tackles and Cleveland finished 32nd against the run.
"These guys are like my family," Patterson said after one practice.
They certainly seem to be a close group. When Brown dislocated his elbow in practice in early August, Ekuban went with him in the ambulance.
Denver's season hinges on how well those players do. There certainly is talent: Brown was the No. 1 overall pick in 2000. Warren was No. 3 in 2001.
They are important because the Broncos are strong everywhere else on defense. Linebacker D.J. Williams led the team with 114 tackles last year; linebacker Al Wilson was second with 109.
Cornerback Champ Bailey had a team-high three interceptions. His backup, rookie Darrent Williams, had nine tackles and a sack against the Colts in preseason.
"He is a good player, but now we have him communicating and talking," Wilson said of D.J. Williams, who was a rookie last year. "I think he understands the defense a lot better and that helps. That makes it much easier for all of the linebackers and the defensive line, just communicating. Even if we are all wrong, it is always good to be on the same page."
The non-Brown on the defensive line is Trevor Pryce. He had at least seven sacks in every season dating from 1998 before he missed last year with a back injury. He accepted a deal for less money to remain with the Broncos.
That Shanahan traded the team's leading rusher for the second straight year isn't a surprise. The organization believes its running game thrives because of its blocking schemes; the numbers appear to bear this out.
The Broncos have the most rushing yards in the league over the past five seasons, despite having a different player lead them in rushing three times.
One player who won't get a chance is Maurice Clarett. He was released after the third preseason game after he didn't have any carries. Clarett was a third-round pick in the April draft.
The backfield now features Mike Anderson, 31, as the likely starter. He missed last year with a groin injury he suffered in the preseason.
The backups are second-year pro Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999.
Quarterback Jake Plummer set franchise records for passing yards (4,089) and passing touchdowns (27) last year. Wide receivers Ashley Lelie and Rod Smith each had more than 1,000 yards receiving. All that's left is to win a playoff game.
The Broncos haven't won one since John Elway retired following the 1998 season. That includes back-to-back wild-card losses to Peyton Manning and the Colts by a combined score of 90-34.