The tapping of the cellphone against a wooden table inside the Broncos' training facility is slow at first. Maybe every other answer. But the longer Elvis Dumervil speaks about returning to the field after missing all of last season with a torn right pectoral muscle—and switching back to defensive end after moving to outside linebacker in 2009—the louder and more frequent the thuds of nervous excitement become. There is a look of serious anticipation on his face.
"When we went to a 3--4 defense [in '09], I just had to deal with it and do what I could for the team," he says. "I ended up having a pretty good year [and leading the league with 17 sacks], but a lot of people don't realize 10 of the sacks came with my hand on the ground. The 3--4 was more of a novelty for me. It was fun at the time because you got to stand up and drop into coverage and feel like you're more athletic. But I only rushed the passer 60 percent of the time. Now I'll get to rush at least 90 percent of the time. And I'm bigger, stronger and in better condition. So I'm extremely excited. I can't wait to get out there."
As they sorted through the quarterback question that had dominated discussion in camp, the Broncos were thrilled to have Dumervil back, and back in a 4--3. His injury, suffered early in training camp, was the first domino in a complete collapse of the Denver defense last year. After a solid showing in '09, the unit had league-worst averages in points (29.4) and yards allowed (390.8), ranked last in sacks (23) and gave up more rushing yards (154.6 per game) than all but one other team.
Such statistics might cause some to run for cover, but they contributed to Brian Dawkins's decision to return for a 16th NFL season. The hard-hitting safety, who joined Denver in 2009 after 13 seasons in Philadelphia, couldn't envision walking away on such a down note, and with Dumervil healthy and rookie Von Miller, taken out of Texas A&M with the second overall pick, arriving as a complementary edge rusher, the Broncos believe a dramatic turnaround is coming.
"We're excited about the opportunity to get that stench off of us," says Dawkins. "What we went through last year as a team, you wouldn't wish that on anybody. It absolutely sticks with you. But if you can learn from the past, it can motivate you to do great things. You definitely should have some pride about yourself when you see that '32' [as in ranked 32 out of 32 teams] behind your defense."
And Broncos fans should definitely feel more confident seeing "92" lining up on the edge. With a healthy Dumervil in 2009, Denver ranked 10th in the league in sacks. Many people thought the Louisville product would struggle with moving from down lineman to stand-up backer, but the transition was smoother than Dumervil's clean-shaven noggin.
After totaling 26 sacks in his first three years as an end, he had 10 through his first six games at linebacker. A 2006 fourth-round pick who'd been a starter since his second NFL season, Dumervil returned stronger and more determined in '10, but after the training-camp injury he was forced to watch one of the worst seasons in Broncos history from the other side of the glass. His inability to assist his teammates gnawed at him, but ultimately he took the long view that the time away would help his body and his game. Dumervil hadn't had such a lengthy break in training since he took up football in sixth grade, so the injury allowed him not only to heal his pec but also to strengthen other parts of his body that he felt he'd neglected over the years. He worked with specialists to grow stronger in his hips and joints and to increase his flexibility. He also added 15 pounds of muscle (he's now 5'11", 260) while reducing his body fat from 15% to 11%.
"Being out for the year is nothing you want to go through, but my legs feel fresh, and I've learned a lot," Dumervil says. "As far as playing defensive end instead of linebacker, I'm way ahead of where I would be. I'm at a position where I feel comfortable and can just go out and play. You're not as assignment-oriented [at end] as you are at linebacker. I don't have to worry about whether there's a two-receiver or three-receiver set. Just put my hand on the ground and let's go."
WITH 2010 STATS