Our 2009 Denver Broncos Preview concludes with today's section on the Linebackers. This is, perhaps, the group that has seen the most change from the forgettable performances of the 2008 season. The move to a base 3-4, using an attacking two-gap approach (which several players have indicated that they are learning) and being varied at time in some hybrid form (such as a 4-3 under or over) is about the farthest thing possible from the speed-oriented base 4-3 approach of the Broncos' past. However, it harkens back to a day when Joe Collier pulled the strings on a fierce defense.
In a 3-4 defense, the linebacking corps is broken down into the inside linebackers and the outside linebackers. The naming is different from the 4-3; some 3-4 systems, such as San Diego, refers to the 4th linebacker as the "Mo," while others use terms such as "Jack" and even "elephant." We know that DJ Williams has disclosed that he's playing the 'Jack', but no matter how you talk about them, the inside backers are often used to stuff the run and clog the middle.
Hoosierteacher's take on the 3-4 Inside Linebackers:
This brings me to the ILBs. They can be fast or big or a good mix, much like in the 4-3, but with a twist. Because the DL has one less man (even though 3-4 teams fight to acquire double coverage demanding players), the ILBs tend to have one common trait. Their skill set must include the ability to shed run blockers, or they just won't be an asset.
The first two moves that Denver made to restructure its linebackers (after axing Nate Webster and Jamie Winborn) were to bring in Andra Davis, the great mentor of our future linebacking corps, from Cleveland; the second move was to sit down with DJ Williams and to bring him on board. Davis has played in the 3-4 previously and brings knowledge and expertise in the formation and in the world of the NFL. DJ is moving to yet another position but is doing so with class and enthusiasm. That solidifies the starting ILB. Mario Haggan is a candidate as a backup ILB, but he'll have lots of competition.
Hoosierteacher's take on the 3-4 Outside Linebackers:
Wide alignment is the name of the game. The OLBs are more likely to be in place for wide blitzes than their 4-3 counterparts (though the 4-3 OLBs have more help at the line). They are more likely to be in better position for runs to the outside. They are more likely to have passes come their way for INTs (because the midfield features more LBs and thus more zone potential in that area). In short, the OLBs have more chances for "glory" plays, but the tradeoff is that they are sharing the glory plays with three other LBs instead of two.
It's obvious that we are waiting to see if players like Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers can drop into coverage effectively. If not, they will be exposed quickly and their schemes and situations will be modified. If they can do so - the Broncos can look at a substantial rise in their defensive ranking. There is no shortage of players who can play the outside.
The outside linebacking group is extensive because of where so many candidates came from: many of the players had started at other positions last year. Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss are two familiar names. They are joined by rookie Robert Ayers, Tim Crowder and special teams ace Darrell Reid, creating an OLB option of big, strong, fast players who can rush the QB or stop the run. They will be joined in turn by College Free Agent Lee Robinson and last year's smaller rookie powerhouse Wesley Woodyard, either of whom can play outside or in. The final pieces of the training camp puzzle include backup LB (probably ILB) Spencer Larsen, who will spend time at FB and on special teams as a gunner, and perennial special-teams player Nick Greisen, who could play inside or out.
This is what DJ Williams had to say about the new scheme:
"Williams described it as "swarming," and talked about the fact that the team plans on utilizing the strengths of individual players to be able to dominate matchups all over the field.
"We've got a lot more packages, a lot of disguises, a lot of different things," he said. "We can have a lot of fun and highlight certain players and what they can do."
Here's a brief listing on each of our players, starting with the inside linebackers.
Davis is an eighth-year linebacker who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cleveland, which selected him in the fifth round (141st overall) of the 2002 NFL Draft from the University of Florida. He has played 105 career regular-season games (83 starts), totaling 908 tackles (557 solo), 8.5 sacks (60 yds.), eight interceptions (72 yds.), 28 pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
A 16-game starter three times during his career, Davis has started at least 10 games in each of the previous six seasons with Cleveland. He started all 16 games for the Browns in 2008 and finished second on the club with 134 tackles (72 solo) while posting one interception.
Davis led the Browns with a career-high 207 tackles (119 solo) as a 16-game starter for the club in 2005. His five sacks with Cleveland in 2003 were a personal best and tied for the seventh-highest total among AFC linebackers.
Andra should play LILB.
DJ has dealt with near-constant changes in position and done well with each prior to last season. He managed to achieve a team-high 170 tackles the previous season at middle linebacker before being moved yet again to the outside last season. This year DJ takes on a new challenge - moving to the right-inside linebacking slot in the 3-4. When the Broncos utilize an under or over formation, you can bet that he will be manning the Mike position. DJ is stout against the run and also has the skill to penetrate after the QB in the right scheme. He has started at least 14 games per season each year and regularly plays through injuries. He's a strong brick in the front-7 wall and Mike Nolan is looking for big things out of DJ in the 2009 season.
In his 4th season, DJ is going to play his 4th (5th, if you count a change back to WLB) and hopefully last position by starting at RILB. This is what he had to say:
"I'm enjoying what it is so far," he said of his spot on the defense. "Like I said, this is my first day out, but just being in the film rooms and Coach telling me, 'On this play you have this, on this play you have that.' I like that, because 'this' and 'that' is what I like to do."
At 26 years of age, DJ is in the prime of his professional career and the new coaches have approached him and gained his agreement, and apparently, his trust. Look for DJ to give them big things this year.
The undersized Wesley Woodyard brought Broncos fans to their feet last season, averaging 9 tackles per game started. He ranked 6th among rookies last year in total tackles with 55 (his 20 preseason tackles do not count on his NFL stats) and was an effective contributor who was probably underutilized. While there is not an obvious position for Woodyard, who is light yet plays and hits with great power, you can count on him to be near the front on special teams. Mike Nolan is also sure to find a role for the strong, effervescent young player.
While Larsen will also fill in at fullback, he is a ferocious special-teams player who can also back up the starters at ILB. His lack of in-line speed is minimized by the new 3-4 scheme, whichever form it may take. His 19 tackles plus 3 assists (NFL.com) may not seem like much, but his presence on the field seemed to translate to instant effort and he notched 9 more special teams tackles as well as making national highlight reels twice in the first four games. One of the veterans last year noted disdainfully that first-year players 'can't be leaders' since veterans won't listen. With Davis on board, Larsen has a chance to develop as a player and a leader. No matter the role he settles into, you can be sure that he will be a vocal, hardworking team player.
Larsen also provided a unique aspect of the game by being the Broncos' first three-way player (11/16, ATL), playing as a linebacker, fullback and special-teams gunner in a single game. He was the only Denver player in history to start on both sides of the ball. Although he suffered with bumps and multiple bruises without leaving any games, Larsen did miss two games in December of last season with a groin injury. He would come back to play through it at the end of the season (12/28 SD).
When asked about this year, he replied,
"Whatever they have me do, I'm excited about it and I'll do my best with it."
Next, we have the outside linebackers:
Jarvis Moss is perhaps the most intriguing option on the Broncos' 2009 linebacking corps. Moss was drafted 17th in the 1st round by Mike Shanahan, a move that confounded many fans and analysts. He suffered multiple health problems in high school and in college and was injured again (broken leg) in his first season with Denver. Despite his 1st-round expectations, Moss was probably a 3rd- or 4th-round player, one with a great deal of potential in the 3-4 scheme but who was too light and not technically proficient enough to play in the 4-3. As a result of these factors, Moss' career so far has disappointed many.
But he is quick, fast, and has skills both in rushing the quarterback and (so we're told) dropping back into coverage. As a result, he could yet develop into a solid rotational player at the OLB slot. He isn't stout at the point of attack and can be soft against the run, however, so his usage may continue to be situational. He is probably not an every-down player, but he might be able to contribute substantially in the new 3-4 scheme. If not, this could be his last season in Denver.
Haggan was signed on 11/4. He saw action in eight games in 2008 and recorded 20 tackles. Originally selected by Buffalo in the seventh round (228th overall) of the 2003 NFL Draft, Mario Haggan is a big, strong player who is stout at the point of attack.Haggan is like Reid in that he's not fast, but he is big and strong and he has been a standout at special teams.
As I told you last November, Mario Haggan is a happy guy by nature and a good addition to the locker room. Still, it will be tough for him to make the squad. Mario's strengths are his size and power, but he's more quick than fast and doesn't always make great decisions. His lack of speed is countered in part by the scheme, but the Broncos have a lot of good linebackers. He is talented on special teams, however, and will have training camp to make his case to be retained. He could even move to the inside to reduce the issues of speed and coverage.
Nick may be here to improve our special teams more than anything else. The 8-year pro will have to bring a lot to the table to make this talented squad. In 2008, Greisen totaled five solo tackles on defense and placed fifth on Baltimore with 12 special-teams stops in 14 games (1 start). He also tied for the team lead with three special-teams tackles while appearing in all three of the Ravens' postseason contests.
In 2007, he saw action in 14 games and started two for the Ravens, amassing 38 tackles (22 solo) and a fumble recovery while adding 13 special-teams stops. He paced the club in tackles in each of his two starting assignments. It's possible that Greisen could be placed at the inside. However, with the depth and strength of this year's candidates, I expect Greisen to be hard-pressed to make this squad.
The next few players will probably move from the OLB position to the DE position depending on the down and distance. They are in many ways the pieces that should be mainstays in the new hybrid 3-4/4-3 or 5-2 formations. Each can play with his hand down when required and stand up if that suits the situation.
At 6'2" and 288 lbs, Reid made a career as a special-teams ace (his hit on Chris Henry is YouTube legend) but is being looked at for a brand-new role on this defense. His size, speed and power are equally useful standing or with his hand on the turf. He is in the process of shedding 20+ lbs and aiming for a final weight of about 265 lbs. Although he is big for the usual role of an OLB, Reid is both quick and fast, a fact that should be aided by his attempt to lose weight. It's worth considering that Shawne Merriman plays in a penetrating 3-4 (Phillips variation) and he weighs 274 lb. A lot of fans will be watching this one closely - after watching film of Reid as a gunner on special teams, seeing if he can make the switch from an undersized DE/DT to a big, powerful OLB/DE could be one of the best stories of the 2009 season. He does have a history of character incidents, however, so he's going to have to cleave to the straight and narrow to stay on the Broncos. Reid has also played as a short-yardage and goal-line fullback to add to ST, OLB, DE and DT.
Tim is another cipher on the Broncos' roster. He's entering his third season and he, like Moss, was probably a better fit at the 3-4 OLB than the true 4-3 front. Crowder is finally getting a chance to show his level of skill and versatility. One item of note is that pro-football-reference.com has him listed at 272 lb while the updated Denver Broncos website has him at 260. He may be faster at this new weight. Although rarely used, Crowder has a great deal of skill, as shown by the fact that he had a sack in three consecutive games in 2007, becoming the first Bronco to achieve that in 3 years.
Elvis Dumervil came into the league with the constant chatter of the words, 'Too small, too light' flitting around him, but he brushed them off as easily as he does linemen and tailbacks, quickly showing that he can be a great contributor against the pass. He is smaller, which he uses to his advantage in leverage, but he has long, powerful arms and big hands which he uses effectively to keep tackles, fullbacks and running backs off of himself while his speed can take him around the edge to create pressure on the quarterbacks. He has a surprisingly effective bull rush as well as swim and rip moves that frustrate his foes. He is not as strong against run blocking on the line, taking on tackles, but that should be minimized by using him properly in situations where the DEs tie up the linemen and create opportunities for Doom one-on-one against TEs and running backs. His strengths and weaknesses also add up to a situational player, but one who can be very effective if used right. If he cannot make the change, he'll be a free agent in 2010. If he does well, look for the Broncos to restructure his contract later this season.
Robert Ayers has been touted by some analysts as the Steal of the Draft, a phrase that has traveled around the Denver looker room a great deal this year. Various analysts have used it for Moreno, Ayers and for Smith - I've read one analyst each claiming that about McBath, Quinn and Bruton, while a few have called Fields the Steal of the Offseason. Several commentators have called Ayers the best defensive player in the draft (and another pundit used that on Alphonso Smith). At 6'3" and 274 lbs. he is about 10+ pounds light of being a mainstay 3-4 DE (a weight that many have suggested that he has the frame to carry well), yet he offers both quickness and power, particularly against the run. Hoosierteacher has noted that he is far better against the pass than his sack numbers show; he's a player who consistently penetrates into the backfield and gets pressure on the quarterback. He offers power and versatility on the outside. Ayers has no injury concerns and has not yet signed his contract.
And, we also have a more traditional OLB option in a CFA:
Although he's played mostly at OLB, Robinson can play any of the four LB slots. While his competition will be tough, he's a very strong young player who has decent coverage skills and who brings a nice combination of power and quickness. He's currently a long shot to make the squad, but he reminds me of Wesley Woodyard in his enthusiasm for the game and his hitting.
Those who have an interest in things draft-oriented may recall the discussions of why the Broncos did not take Brian Orakpo as well as Ayers. Looking at the options of Ayers, Moss, Doom, Crowder, Haggan, Greisen and Reid, not to mention Woodyard and Lee Robinson, you have to take into account the reality of the numbers game. Not all of these players will make the cut, a fact that is troubling emotionally, since we grow attached to the players, but encouraging in that this year we have a long list of men who could play, and play well for us. Since having too many first-year players can hamper production in the early going, another rookie choice in this group would have been of little benefit. We have a versatile, deep and strong squad this year. I would suggest that Davis and Williams will start inside while Reid, Doom, Ayers will start (in any order) on the outside. Woodyard, Larsen, Robinson and Moss would be my choices as backups, but training camp brings many surprises and any of these men could make the team. The continued (and very welcome) emphasis on garnering special teams talent might provide an opportunity for Haggan or Greisen, but both will not stay and it's quite possible that neither will make it.
This year will bring many chances to cheer and to despair, to venerate and excoriate, to have the highest snow-kissed peaks and deepest valleys of fan experience. No team goes through this kind of massive restructuring without challenges, problems and setbacks. We have, however, a far better team than we did last season. I know - it's not yet training camp. How can that be stated so plainly?
It's really simple - in the words of Mark 'Stinky' Schlereth, the 2008 Broncos were filled with what are termed 'street veterans' - those players who, if not playing for Denver, would have been out on the street. Some of them have left football while others remain unemployed. They have been replaced by the likes of Andre' Goodman and Brian Dawkins, by Ron Fields and Correll Buckhalter. Some of the players we brought in are older and some younger, while others are in the prime of their careers. But taken as a whole, from coaching (who among us longs for the days of Jim or Jeremy Bates, or pines for the Schemes of (Bob) Slowik?) to draft choices, I can say equivocally that this team is better and deeper than the team we fielded last season.
I do not consider the job of restructuring the team well-done, but only well-started. The linebacking corp is that change in miniature - from the wisdom and mentoring of Andra Davis to the addition of rookie Robert Ayers, from the second-year rise of Wesley Woodyard to the veteran skills of DJ Williams and to the position changes of Moss, Doom and Reid, we have more leadership, more skill (did the choice between Niko or Webster thrill anyone?) and even more depth than we have in a few seasons. There are questions, yes - there always are when players change position and/or assignments. We are bigger - substantially bigger. We have moved from an essentially-failed attempt to use lighter speed players who ended up getting driven off the ball to stronger players who can be used in myriad ways.
We have more weight on the defensive line as well as at linebacker - the front seven, much debate as it has and will generate, is bigger and more powerful. Our ability to play hardnosed, physical football has increased and we have, much to my delight, an actual scheme. We will be drafting, trading for and acquiring as free agents more players who fit the mold over the next two seasons, but that doesn't take away from the start that has been made. While the Broncos will not be playing for a Super Bowl this season, that goal is coming closer thanks to a total makeover of a team that had sunk into mediocrity.
On offense, we can move from a running attack to a passing attack and from there to the options of a 3-TE set - employing Hillis as a TE in that case - without a single substitution. Will we? I cannot say, but the fact that we can gives credence to the versatility and talent that we can field at any time on offense. On defense, we can switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and from there to a 5-2 front, all with the same players in any number of combinations. That level of versatility will provide a platform on which to build and develop.
It will take time. It will not always be easy, but it's summer - our choices are endless, the competitions will be fierce, the opponents this season will not have been able to scout us i(n many cases) because the options that our coaches have chosen and will implement have not yet revealed themselves. This is a beautiful time, a bon chance. The Chinese character for crisis contains sub-characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity'. This time is both.
I'll close with the words of Ron Fields, which he posted on his website recently:
"I like head coach Josh McDaniels. He is a stand up guy and is up front and to the point. He lets you know what’s on his mind, he’s honest and tells you things straight. He tells you like it is, and doesn’t hold back. I like that. He’s a winner."
That says everything that we really need to hear right now. We have a winner at the helm, more power on the field and an unlimited opportunity to move forward as Broncos Nation. Bring on Training Camp! Go Broncos! Go MHR!