ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos appeared Saturday to have dodged a huge hit to their battered defensive line: Derek Wolfe's right ankle injury apparently isn't as serious as first thought.
"Great news," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "I was praying as soon as it happened that it was just a sprain and nothing serious."
The sixth-year defensive end was carted off the field after he got tangled up with right tackle Menelik Watson on the second snap of team drills. Watson got up on his own, uninjured, while a cart was summoned for Wolfe.
Coach Vance Joseph said after practice it was a lower ankle injury.
"We're not sure how bad. We're kind of assuming it's not that bad," Joseph said . "At first look it wasn't serious, but we'll know more tomorrow."
A sprain would be a big relief to the Broncos, who are counting on Wolfe to serve as the fulcrum of their star-studded defense by leading a run-stuffing resurgence.
"If we plan on stopping the run, we'd better have Wolfe in there. He's our energy up front," Talib said. "He brings all our tenacity, starting with that D-line. So, man, he's super valuable to our defense."
The Broncos' biggest bugaboo last season was a porous D-line — they were 28th in the league against the run, No. 1 against the pass — and that disparity defanged their strengths: Von Miller wrecking game plans with Talib and Chris Harris Jr. shutting down receivers.
"Good," Harris said when told Wolfe's injury didn't seem serious. "We've got to be able to stop the run. That was our problem last year. And teams are going to check us to see if we can stop that and come out and try to run goal-line offense, pound us until we stop it. So, we need Derek Wolfe. He's our best run defender. He's our leader up front. So, you've got to have a guy like him to be able to anchor us."
A festive crowd enjoying the final day of public practices grew quiet as Wolfe lay on the field for several minutes, cheering him when he sat up and hopped onto the cart. Wolfe couldn't put any weight on his right leg as he was helped inside and then sent for an MRI.
"That definitely was scary for us," linebacker Todd Davis said. "He's a big key for our defense and also a good friend of mine. I hope he's all right."
Wolfe's injury is the latest on the Broncos' defensive front, coming on the same day Billy Winn was placed on injured reserve after tearing his right ACL in Denver's preseason opener at Chicago on Thursday night. He was replaced on the roster by rookie defensive lineman Nelson Adams of Mississippi State.
Also sidelined are nose tackle Kyle Peko (foot) and outside linebackers Shane Ray (wrist) and Shaq Barrett (hip). None will be back until September.
The Broncos will practice twice with the 49ers this week in advance of their exhibition game on Saturday, so second-year end Adam Gotsis will move up and take Wolfe's workload with the front-line defenders.
"Just from a leader standpoint, we're lucky that we've got (Domata Peko) in the room, Big Peck. So, we still have an older guy in there that's played some ball," Gotsis said.
Wolfe, a sixth-year pro, appears primed for a bounce-back season after dealing with a sore neck much of last year and missing two games. He bulked up over the summer, saying he added 20 pounds of muscle because "I was like 285 last year and it was a little too light holding the point."
He also had vowed to become a more vocal presence in the locker room following the retirement of DeMarcus Ware. Wolfe suggested he hadn't spoken up enough last season when the Broncos missed the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl.
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