If you don't consider middle linebacker one of Denver’s biggest issues, please raise your hand. There will be men in white coats coming around to take you for a nice car ride soon...
We all know that the Mike has been problematic for Denver ever since Al Wilson went down with a neck injury back in 2006.
There’s been a laundry list of people who stepped in and did their best, but none were truly up to the job. I thought Wesley Woodyard was the best of the group (especially in coverage), but he’s a bit too small to hold up to the runs up the middle. That showed last season.
A first-tier Mike reads plays quickly, covers receiving tight ends, exhibits lateral movement, and turns on his inner monster on the field. He also has to hold up to collisions with the blocking tight ends and fullbacks. Of course, a good fit between the player's skills and the team's defensive scheme is an absolute necessity.
For the Broncos, it’s a matter of finding the right combination of physical and emotional toughness in a single player. They need someone who can stand up to the run up the middle but can drop into man or zone coverage. They need a leader for the defense, and those aren’t easy to find.
Some odd-front defensive advocates believe that the linebacker is more important in that scheme. I take the opposite perspective. Getting guys who can take hits from bigger players and deal them right back out are harder to find. The smaller players in an even-front formation (or a hybrid) tend to be faster and more disruptive. Their speed helps them in both coverage and in lateral movement. The smaller linebackers, such as Woodyard, may lack some of the ability to hold up to the pounding of today’s game with its bigger and stronger players.
One of the greatest areas of change since John Elway returned to Denver has been an ongoing effort to improve the linebackers. For the first time since Larry Coyer left, Denver will have the same defensive scheme for three seasons in a row. That stability, by itself, will be a help.
Before last season, Von Miller shocked me with his laissez-faire attitude. The lack of accountability that led to his six-game suspension was an embarrassment. He'd done so well at showing a more mature side in public, that learning the number of problems he’d created was an unpleasant surprise.
Even so - that should affect the way his next contract should be structured (more incentives, fewer guarantees) far more than it will his work on the field. His return should provide an increased pass-rush presence. My current concern is where he’ll be on the rehab from his knee injury when training camp comes back around.
While Miller was elsewhere, Nate Irving was showing that he’s a solid backup at Sam. Although Nate lacks Miller’s natural gifts, he’s a hardworking player who is a valuable backup and special teamer.
My biggest concern is where Von will be on his knee rehab when training camp comes back around.
Shaun Phillips played both Sam and DE last season, and I hope the Broncos can bring him back for 2014. His ability to move betwixt DE and OLB would enhance with Miller’s return.
Irving was originally chosen for his potential as a Mike, but he’s the backup Sam for now. Steven Johnson, a CFA, was also going to be a backup at Mike, but he only saw 10 reps during the regular season. He was a good special teams player, though, with five tackles and two assists.
Last season, Danny Trevathan played a lot of Will and a lot of nickel LB (he even added four ST tackles in five games). My thought is that it’s easier to find Will linebackers than it is Mikes. I keep hoping that Denver will slide Trevathan over to the middle and put Woodyard back at Will.
A lot of talk has come up about Woodyeard leaving the team, since he's injured too often to play Mike. I think that holding onto a LB who can cover the way he has is just good football.
Trevathan has gotten a lot of well-earned attention of late. You know a guy is playing well when John Elway singles him out for his three-down work. Would he fit in at Mike? You know I think he would, but there are going to be other options better than those Denver had once injuries took over last year.
Woodyard could move on, but I’d rather see him back, taking back over at the Will, which fits his body and skillset better than Mike did. He and Trevathan could continue to play nickel together unless Denver finds a three-down option. If Denver comes out of March without a free agent in place for Mike, I’ll start talking about draft options.
Now that the combine is over, and I have both game and drill film to work with, I'm looking forward to it.
Denver’s linebackers looked good early in 2013. With a few good offseason moves, they can look even better in 2014. Speed, shed technique, tackling, power, and versatility are the keys to playing Mike. There are several good options I’d project in the first three rounds, if it comes to that for Denver.
Trevathan is fast, hits hard, and can pay three downs at Will or Mike as well as starting as a nickel ‘backer. Von can handle three downs at Sam (although one might be in a Joker or DE role), and he’ll be looking to recover his speed. Woodyard is set to hit the open market next week, while Irving and Johnson are special on special teams. It’s a good time for Denver to decide how to take their linebacking to the next level.
Cecil Lammey has suggested that Denver might trade up to get Alabama's C.J. Mosley, which would be great - if the price isn’t too high. Whether they do or not, there are several better options than Paris Lenon gave them in 2013 available in later rounds, from the second to the seventh.
There are solid players like Wisconsin’s Chris Borland. His 5’11.5” stature will scare some teams off, but he’s an excellent player and leader who reads plays well.
There are even throwbacks like Max Bullough of Michigan State, who at 6’3.5” and 249 lb. might not be an elite coverage player, but who can give you quality tackling reps at Mike.
I'll be covering several of them, if Denver doesn’t sign a free agent. Getting a MLB in FA seems likely, though, given John Fox’s preference for veterans at certain positions. Here’s a good opening list of free agent linebackers from Andrew Mason.
The Broncos' linebacking corps is going to be one of my key interests this offseason.
There’s a dropoff after Mosley, but several of the ILBs still show promise for the middle and later rounds.
Although I haven’t covered it here, Denver could also move Trevathan to MLB and try to bring in a top OLB if they prefer. The single advantage to picking late is that there will be several good directions to go in by pick #31 in a draft this deep. We’ll keep you posted on them as they come up.