The defensive lineman developed by Vance Joseph has a down-and-dirty playing style that became highly valued in free agency.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Listening to him answer questions in as few words as possible, you got the impression Zach Allen didn’t mind having to wait 2½ months for his introductory news conference as a Denver Bronco.
A third-round draft pick out of Boston College in 2019 – just as Broncos safety Justin Simmons was three years earlier – Allen in his four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph ascended from a down-and-dirty, injury-plagued, part-time starter to one of the NFL’s more solid 3-4 defensive ends who is always strong in defending the run and occasionally adept at rushing the quarterback.
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The NFL didn’t always value his position and playing style but it does now to where Allen, through the leverage of free agency, received a three-year contract from the Broncos that will pay him a staggering $16.25 million per year, fully guaranteed, over the 2023-24 seasons.
“It definitely was a brand new experience. But it worked out well for everybody involved, and now it’s my time to prove it,” Allen said, and no more.
It’s not that the Broncos’ overpaid. They delivered what was necessary to outbid the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks for the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Allen. Dre’Mont Jones, the former Bronco defensive end who Allen replaces, wound up with the Seahawks on a deal that averages $17.25 million a year.
When Allen arrived at Broncos headquarters for the first time March 15, he wore a nice blue suit with a white dress shirt and light orange tie. But new head coach Sean Payton did not allow a local media news conference for him or any of the team’s notable free-agent signings until Thursday, following the third day of OTAs. By then, Allen greeted his new local press corps while wearing Broncos’ blue workout gear.
Allen allowed that he is a fan of Joseph as a defensive coordinator and person. The Broncos’ head coach in 2017-18, Joseph kept going as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator from 2019-22 – the Allen years — before returning to Denver in February to become Payton’s defensive coordinator. A few weeks later, Allen followed his coach.
“Definitely was a big part,’’ Allen said. “I think Vance is one of the best coaches in the NFL. I was really fortunate to be with him for four years, and if you have a chance to make it five, six, seven, then you’re going to do that. I’m a believer in his stuff and his coaching style, and at this point, he’s a really good friend.”
Here’s how Allen’s football career has journeyed: In high school, he was all that, setting sack records for New Canaan to earn the 2014 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year. At Boston College, he didn’t play much as a freshman in 2015 – when Simmons was a senior – but Allen came on from there, finishing with a three-year dominant run that registered a combined 16.5 sacks and 40.5 tackles-for-loss as a defensive end.
As an NFL rookie for Joseph and the Cardinals in 2019, Allen started his NFL debut in the opener, but then a neck injury in Game 4 sidelined him the rest of the season. He got his first two NFL sacks in 2020, against Jimmy Garoppolo and Jalen Hurts, while starting seven of 13 games, missing three with an ankle injury.
He played on a torn-up ankle through much of 2021, yet still had 4.0 sacks while starting 14 of 15 games. He had ankle surgery after the season, then really emerged last season, posting 5.5 sacks while starting Arizona’s first 13 games before missing the final four – including the Cards’ 24-15 loss at Denver on Dec. 18 – because of a hand injury that required surgery.
The Broncos are counting on Allen to stay healthy in 2023 and beyond, while continuing to stuff the run – his grades were outstanding in this aspect last season – and taking another step as a pass rusher.
“I did that (5.5 sacks) in 13 games, but I definitely think I can improve, watching the film,’’ Allen said. “That’s a reason why I came here. I think there’s a lot of good pieces to help me get there and, you know, help us win some football games.’’
In his final two years with the Cardinals, Allen was mentored by J.J. Watt, the just retired, certain-to-be-a-first-ballot Hall of Famer defensive end. With the Broncos, Allen will join D.J. Jones as an upfront defensive leader.
“I was able to learn a lot from (Watt),’’ Allen said. “I think last year, we had a great opportunity, we had a great on-field and off field chemistry, and I’m still picking him for ideas. He’s helping me pick out furniture right now for my new house.”
Understated as he may be, Allen can afford the best.
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