Joe Mays comes from a city that knows a little bit about middle linebackers.
Joseph Lamont Mays was born on July 6, 1985 in Chicago to Renice Mays and Charles Williams, the city that brought the NFL Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. Joe attended the Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago where he began to play football his junior year. Although he’d grown up wanting to be Michael Jordan, it didn’t take him long to realize that he just didn’t have the body type for the NBA game. When asked why he made the move from basketball to football at that time, Mays replied,
I'd say the fact that you could hit somebody and not get in trouble for it -- just letting out some frustration. At that time, I had a little bit of frustration with everything that was going on in my life. Once I got to football, I kind of embraced it and enjoyed it. Then I started to love it and wanted to continue to do it.
Over the past few years, Denver fans have had to look hard to find things to really cheer about on the Broncos. The media has long stood by the abiding principle that if it bleeds, it leads, and that’s led to seemingly endless negative stories about this player and that one, people who make the news by creating negative incidents. One such problem of Denver’s was shipped to Miami in exchange for a couple of second-round picks, and has been little mourned by Broncos fans. Tim Tebow has been both praised and trashed for his desire to share his religion with others. Then there’s Quinton Carter.
If you’re a Broncos fan, you’ve already heard the basics: While still in college, Carter decided to use the platform of his considerable ‘Q’ - his name recognition - and started a non-profit organization called SOUL - which stands for Serving Others through Unity and Leadership. The 501(c)3 non-profit organization he founded, based in both Carter’s hometown of Las Vegas and in Norman, where he attended the University of Oklahoma, works with inner city youths from the ages of 11 to 14 to provide them with football camp training that gives the youths a chance to see the value of teamwork and sportsmanship. That’s laudable, but Carter takes it a long step further than most programs by adding classroom work and lectures about decision-making, nutrition and the value of education.
When it came time for the 45th pick in April's draft, Broncos fans were in general looking for a lineman - preferably a defensive tackle, but a right tackle would have been fine with most of us. When Rahim Moore’s number was called, some fans lapsed into outright stupors - they WHAT? REALLY? What the ….? Others simply threw things at their sets, cats or walls. They didn’t need to have worried.
A little time has passed, and the Broncos' new brain trust has shown some good reasons why they’ve gone the route that they have. Perhaps most interesting to me has been keeping an archive of all the comments made by head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and linebackers coach Richard Smith as the team moves forward. I’ve also kept one on special teams coordinatorJeff Rodgers, who has specifically mentioned his pleasure in gaining two safeties, three linebackers and a couple of TEs who can fly down the field. In the broad strokes that have been drawn up for the fans' benefit, the team has avoided giving too many specifics, but has outlined just what the Broncos want to do to get back into the role of a perennial playoff prospect. Four things headed the list, mostly for the defense:
Like the oil stains on a driveway in which people claim to see the face of the Virgin Mary, or the mold on the front of a refrigerator that others say shows the face of Jesus, Virgil Green seems to be the kind of young player that scouts and pundits can see in whatever they want to. From the performance that he’d given at Nevada, scouting reports ranked him anywhere from a third-round pick to an undrafted free agent. Depending on the source, he’s either a tough blocker with substantial receiving skills, or a half-baked blocker who rounds off his routes, has tight hips and won’t be able to make the jump to the NFL. As is often the case, there are reasons for each of those interpretations. Statistics only tell a limited version of the truth, but looking at Green’s does explain some of the width of the spectrum of opinion on him. I also had some Nevada full game film on hand to watch, and it was revealing.
After redshirting his freshman year, Green became a favorite target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He also spent long hours in the weight room, building his body from the 210-pound frame that he took onto the Wolf Pack’s 2007 team into the 250-pound force that head coach Chris Ault trusted to pave the way for his rushing game. Meanwhile, Green's timely receptions helped the Wolf Pack win the WAC and claim their first victory over Boise State in 10 years.
I kept running into that phrase as I researched Julius Thomas’ draft info and biographies. Everyone from scouts to athletic directors have called Thomas an athletic freak. In this context, being a freak is anything but a bad thing. Cecil Lammey of the NY Times wrote:
He has good ball tracking ability when hauling in a long pass, and is a natural hands catcher. Thomas has a game built on speed and quickness. He knows how to use his big frame to box out defenders, and will square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. This gives his quarterback the biggest target possible to throw to. He’s too fast for linebackers to cover, and too big for safeties to cover effectively. Thomas essentially creates mismatches every time he lines up on the field.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Thomas knows how to box out - he attended Portland State University on a basketball scholarship, and didn’t play a down of high school or college football until PSU's 2009 basketball season had ended. Not seeing an NBA career heading his way, Julius walked into the office of head coach Nigel Burton, who had just replaced former Oilers and Falcons coach Jerry Glanville as the head football coach, and asked if he could walk on to the team that spring.
By now, most of us have heard the basic story about Nate Irving.
A top linebacker from North Carolina State, the now-22-year-old player decided to drive back to school in Raleigh late one June night from his home in Wallace, North Carolina. He fell asleep at the wheel of his truck, which struck two trees on the night of June 28, 2009. It was a life-threatening one-vehicle accident. His injuries included a broken rib, a compound fracture of the tibia, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung. To this day, Irving keeps a picture of the wreck on his cellphone to remind himself of the frailty of human life, and how easily it can be lost. Irving now has a metal rod in one leg, and also bears the tattoo of a cross on the underside of his left forearm, with the date of the accident - 6-28-2009 - perpendicular to the base of the cross. Noted Irving,
I noticed that within a snap of a finger it can all be taken away. I want to go out and play every play as hard as I can, every practice as hard as I can, be at every meeting and do every workout. Just to be out there and take full advantage of it and appreciate the game for what it is really worth.
If you talk about an undersized Broncos defensive end who uses his size and leverage as a tool to defeat blockers, a guy who has played both standing up and with his hand on the ground, who comes to mind? Elvis Dumervil is the obvious choice. Von Miller has many of those qualities - he played the ‘Joker’ position (which is also a pun on his attitude in the locker room) during his senior year at Texas A&M, and played LB/DE, standing and with his hand down. Miller’s speed around the corner and his ability to cut with his body low to the ground make his pass-rushing skills unique. But to complete the list you’d have to add one player, a DE that Denver added at the very end of the 2011 Draft. Jeremy Beal has a lot of similarities to Doom and some to Robert Ayers, and the Broncos are counting on that to ensure the 247th-overall pick some success in the NFL. Some are concerned with his height and weight - 6’2”, 262 lb. I tend to look at his production.
Beal had a total of 29 sacks over his college career in the Big 12 while playing for Oklahoma. He racked up a few awards, too -
What do you look for in a right tackle? It’s a common enough question for fans of the NFL - few players are ‘natural’ RTs, and it’s far more common for a guy who plays LT well in college to be moved to RT in the pros. Ryan Clady is a classic example of what you’re looking for at the LT position - big, light on his feet, mean on the field and incredibly talented with a work ethic to match. While Ryan Harris played exceptionally well in the Broncos' zone-blocking scheme in 2008, injuries and a change of scheme revealed his weaknesses at the position over the two seasons since, and Denver may not retain him. But even if they do, he will probably back up the Broncos' recent pick at 46th overall in the 2011 Draft, Orlando Franklin.
Franklin has quickly become a controversial pick among the fan base. It’s understandable - folks were expecting a defensive tackle, and Franklin played most of his career at left guard, which confuses folks. He’s been accused of being a ‘dirty’ player. He’s better at run blocking than pass blocking, and that’s a reasonable concern. It’s a vast overstatement to say that he can’t pass block, though. When you look at his career, he’s done well in that role. Why don’t we start at the beginning and see where it leads?
Von Miller was born on March 26, 1989, to Von Sr. and Gloria Miller. He grew up in Texas, where high school football is a religious experience. Coached by Dave Meadows at DeSoto High School, Miller quickly made his way into the eyes of District 8-5A, who made him their most valuable player as a senior. As a junior in 2005, Miller had 37 tackles, seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss (TFL) and 12 quarterback hurries, but he improved on that as a senior, notching 76 tackles, six sacks and 14 TFL. The TFL, hurries and sacks were something that would become the norm for him in game situations. From high school on, Von showed that he had a knack for getting into the backfield.
Miller decided to stay in-state and attend Texas A&M, carrying a University studies major with concentrations in life sciences and agriculture. He began playing there as a freshman rather than taking a redshirt season. It was a good choice: Miller was able to post 22 tackles (10 solo), but also had two QB sacks and four TFL. It was enough to gain him being named to the Freshman All-Big 12 team by the Sporting News, partially on the strength of his game against Missouri, where he had five tackles, two of them TFL and one sack.
His early fanfare on limited play worked against him, though - Miller is something of a practical joker, and with his recognition and early fame, he developed a habit of skipping class as well as not producing as well during spring practice. Disgusted, head coach Mike Sherman suspended him for the spring. He went home and told his father the story of the situation, adding that he was thinking of transferring schools. His father didn’t buy it for a moment, telling the younger Von that he’d made a commitment and he was danged well going to keep to it.
As the silly season of mock drafts and GM-speak ratchets up to full gear, it's easy to lose sight of the second and third columns of the depth charts. There's been plenty of chatter about the Broncos potentially drafting Von Miller out of Texas A&M to upgrade their linebacker corps. But for today, let's hop off the rumor/speculation carousel and focus on what Denver actually has in terms of young linebacking talent: Braxton Kelley.
Kelley was introduced to the Broncos as an undersized 6’0”, 226 lb. college free agent in 2009, a player many of us had hoped would turn out to be another Wesley Woodyard. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad and under strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten’s constant tutelage (along with Tuten’s assistants, Greg Saporta and Justin Lovett). Kelley suffered an injury in June of 2010 and was placed on IR, but he's stayed with his training while recovering from his injury and has emerged from the experience as a 242-lb middle linebacker on a team that is in dire need of faster linebackers and talented depth. Kelley’s 40 time leading up to the 2009 Draft was 4.74, with a peak time of 4.65 - he was hardly a burner, but his speed was more than functional since he has an explosive first step and takes great angles to the ball. He was in a classic situation: a player who played much faster on the field than he timed in a straight line 40.