ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Pundits predicted a decline for Denver's defense after Malik Jackson jumped to Jacksonville in free agency.
Jackson's six-year, $90 million contract with the Jaguars dwarfed Derek Wolfe's four year, $37.5 million deal that he'd signed three months earlier to stick around Denver and continue working under coordinator Wade Phillips and renowned D-line coach Bill Kollar.
Yet, Wolfe has emerged as more than just the guy who does all the dirty work as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme so his teammates can get all the sacks and accolades.
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His four sacks so far include a career-best 2+ last week at Tampa and are tied for second in the AFC behind teammate Von Miller's league-leading 5+.
His teammates, coaches and general manager are all calling Wolfe a big reason the Broncos are 4-0 heading into their showdown with the Atlanta Falcons (3-1) Sunday.
In his last 14 games, counting the playoffs, Wolfe has a dozen sacks, all the more impressive given that he has to constantly outrace Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett to the quarterback.
''To me, Derek is a real man,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ''We can count on him every week.''
Miller credits some of his pass rushing prowess to having Wolfe as his wingman.
''It's like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. We just get each other,'' Miller said Thursday, a day after he compared himself and Wolfe to ''Kobe and Shaq.''
''He's just selfless,'' Miller said. ''If this was basketball, he would be a true, dominant center.''
This being football, Wolfe is a dominant D-lineman.
Miller has 72 career sacks, counting playoffs, since GM John Elway spent his first draft pick on him in 2011. Wolfe has 23+ since coming into the league a year later, more than half of which have come since last season.
''It's great to see him get a lot of sacks,'' Miller said. ''About 10 of my sacks that I've gotten throughout my career I've stolen from Derek. So, it's been a great partnership, especially for me.''
Wolfe has benefited, too.
''There have been sacks I've gotten because of him, as well,'' Wolfe said.
Denver's ''No Fly Zone'' secondary gets a lot of kudos but cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said Wolfe is a big reason the Broncos have throttled Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston.
''Wolfe makes everybody's life easier,'' Harris said. ''It's great when you have a guy that can take on two blockers or a guy that can push the quarterback up the middle and make him scramble outside. You've got to have a guy like Wolfe or the quarterback just steps up.''
The Broncos, who doled out $115 million in guarantees to Miller, Brandon Marshall and Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, are glad they were able to keep Wolfe off the market with a deal that included $17.5 million in guarantees.
''He did his contract before the season was over with,'' Miller said. ''He believed in us before we believed in ourselves.''
Wolfe called it a no-brainer, even after watching Jackson get almost triple what he did three months later.
''For me it was about creating a legacy. I had already put in four hard years here. Why would I go somewhere else and start over?'' Wolfe said. ''I'd rather stay here, where I know everybody and the organization had been through rough times with me through a serious (neck) injury (in 2013) and they had my back in that. They took care of me. So, when it came time to sign my contract, I gave them a pretty good discount and decided it was more about the legacy than the money.''
More than half of Wolfe's sacks have come since the arrival last year of Phillips and Kollar, a 28th-year NFL assistant who said tutoring ''a guy who works that hard and wants to be a hell of a player'' keeps him young at heart.
''Why would you ever want to leave that core group, let alone the players that I had here?'' Wolfe said. ''Obviously, I knew that if I took less money, there was a better chance we could keep Von and Brandon and Emmanuel. I just knew that it was the right move.''
Notes: QB Trevor Siemian (bruised left shoulder) returned to practice Thursday. ''I think we took a big step forward today,'' Kubiak said, adding that however Siemian feels Friday will go a long way toward determining whether he'll start over Paxton Lynch this weekend.
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