Oklahoma coaches routinely raved about Jeremy Beal's relentless effort and cerebral film study. Beal didn't possess as much raw talent as some of OU's highly touted recruits, he but finished second in school history in career sacks.
Entering his third season with the Denver Broncos, Beal is still waiting to make his NFL regular-season debut after spending his first year on the practice squad. Last season he suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game and was placed on injured reserve.
But because of two unusual offseason situations, Beal has an opportunity to carve out a key role on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Denver's front seven is one area coaches will monitor closely when the Broncos open preseason play on Thursday night against San Francisco.
Nine-year veteran Shaun Phillips, a former Pro Bowler in San Diego, was signed to a one-year, $1.1 million deal to play a defensive end/linebacker role. Phillips, though, might be forced to play more linebacker early if Von Miller's four-game suspension is upheld. Reports are the suspension wasn't related to drugs. Miller is confident the suspension will be reversed and he won't miss a game. In the meantime, Phillips' role is in limbo.
The Broncos also are replacing former starting defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who was released and signed with Baltimore.
Now there's an opening opposite defensive end Derek Wolfe, a second-round pick who started all 16 games his rookie season. The favorite for the other starting spot is Robert Ayers, a first-round pick four years ago who hasn't lived up to being the 18th overall selection.
Beal's ultimate goal is to seize that starting vacancy, but he is first focusing on making the 53-man roster.
Currently running with the second team, Beal should survive the cut and earn regular playing time ahead of several other young players.
“It really doesn't matter where you are on the depth chart,” Beal said. “The key is to be consistent every day and try to improve every day. If you do that, you're going to make the team. All you can control is what you can do.”
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The Broncos thought they got a seventh-round steal two years ago with the 247th overall pick. Only seven players were drafted after Beal.
“We were definitely excited to see him still there at the bottom,” Broncos general manager Brian Xanders was quoted as saying. “We're surprised he fell that far, probably because of the combine and Senior Bowl stuff. On tape, he was very productive.”
His combine numbers didn't impress anyone, but Beal's consistent college production was impressive. A three-year starter at OU, starting 43 games, Beal recorded 56.5 career tackles for loss. Beal also caused 10 fumbles and batted down 14 passes.
“It's the same as when you put together a staff,” Broncos coach John Fox told the Denver Post, referring to work ethic. “You want players that make plays.”
Beal, the 2010 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, made a ton of plays for the Sooners, highlighted by 29.5 sacks.
The Carrollton, Texas, product had a good shot making the roster a year ago after he recorded two sacks in a preseason game against Chicago. Everything changed the final preseason game, when he injured his left knee just before halftime on a mad-dash play after a receiver fumbled.
“If you hurt your knee you'd rather hurt your MCL than your ACL,” Beal said. “It's only a six-week injury but they decided to put me on IR. It was painful to hear that. That wasn't my goal. I wanted to play, but it is what it is. It was just unfortunate.”
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While watching the Broncos go on a late-season run, Beal used the down time to study film and hit the weight room. When Beal left OU he weighed 265. He now weighs 280 and is stronger and faster.
“My first year here, I put on the weight they wanted me to put on,” Beal said. “I've always been a little undersized, but I'm leaner and quicker. I've dropped my body fat by eight percent. I'm in the best shape I've ever been.”
Film study is Beal's strength. OU teammates swore Beal knew more about his opponents' tendencies than they knew about themselves.
“While I was out, I watched everything,” Beal said. “I studied other teams' offensive lines. I studied the top pass rushers in the league. It's helped me tremendously.”
Denver (13-3) was the AFC's top playoff seed last season. The Broncos were riding an 11-game winning streak entering the playoffs, but lost 38-35 in a double-overtime classic to Baltimore when Denver free safety Rahim Moore was burned late in regulation.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Broncos the preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl. Denver lost some key pieces, but signed Phillips and former Heritage Hall star Wes Welker, an elite slot receiver, another weapon for future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
Can the defense do its part? Will Beal play a key role on that defense?
“We're all excited but we have to work hard every day to still be there in February,” Beal said. “But if we put in the work it's exciting to think we have a chance to be even better than we were last year.”