The Denver Broncos are going to have to replace DE Malik Jackson; he signed a $90 million contract to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a huge payday after a terrific season, and it was the type of contract the Broncos simply could not match.
Where do they go from here?
They haven’t made any big moves in free agency, so they’re likely going to draft a DE. If they do it in the first round, it may be to get an instant starter, but they could wait and get a project player. After all, they may already have Jackson’s replacement on the roster: Kenny Anunike.
Anunike starred for the Duke Blue Devils, where he earned the nickname of “Night Train.” He put up 148 tackles and 15 sacks, showing he could rush the passer but could also play the run—that’s exactly what the Broncos need. They already have a lot of pass rushers on this defense, and they need an end who can contribute to that, but he has to be well-rounded. Anunike is, and he could step right into that spot.
He also showed a knack for making big plays, forcing four fumbles.
If you’re wondering why we’re looking at college stats here, the answer is a bit sobering: Anunike simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He’s only been in three pro games. He was on IR last year. That is a very valid concern at this point, as he’s had two years to make a name for himself and injuries have made it impossible.
However, when he is healthy, he’s turned heads. It started in camp his rookie year—this was before Jackson had even established himself as a star, he was still a rotational player. Fighting to make the team after going undrafted, Anunike showed terrific promise and battled his way through camp, making plays repeatedly. He earned that roster spot.
Then, in the last preseason game before the season, he got hurt and was sent to IR.
He was back last year. As Travis Wakeman noted:
“Last season, Anunike was one of the best players on the entire field at camp. Not just on defense, but the entire team. He’s quick for a player his size (6’5″, 276) and has shown, at least in preseason games, that he can defend the run.”
He stood out again in preseason. In the 2015 preseason opener against the Seahawks, he had eight tackles—leading the team—and a sack. He dominated. He also had two quarterback hits.
Everyone saw the value of quarterback hits in this defense. The Broncos hit Tom Brady almost twice as many times as his season high when they met the Patriots in the playoffs. Those hits piled up and really contributed to the win. They did the same thing against Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. Newton hadn’t been hit more than seven times in a game last year, until the Broncos hit him 13 times—10 over his average. They also pressured him 21 times and sacked him seven times.
In short, Anunike’s stats may be few, but the ones he does have shows he plays exactly the type of ball Wade Phillips needs him to play.
There are a lot of similarities between Jackson and Anunike, and one of them is that Jackson had his breakout year, his first as a starter, in a contract year. With everything on the line, he played his heart out, and he was unstoppable.
Anunike is in a contract year this season. He hasn’t been able to show the world what he can do thanks to repeated injuries, dating back to his time at Duke. Now the spot is open and he has a chance to step up and take it.
If he can stay healthy and put together the type of contract-year performance that Jackson did, he could be the ideal solution for the Broncos. He could really be the next Malik Jackson, helping the Broncos’ defense not miss a beat, despite losing a player who is making $90 million.