Scouting the 2012 Broncos: Linebackers

The Broncos defense made great strides last season beyond their 2010 performance, improving in points allowed, from 32nd to 24th, and in yards against, from 32nd to 20th.

Better players, including the return from injury by Elvis Dumervil and the addition of second-overall pick and eventual DROY Von Miller, were significant factors. The coaching of John Fox and Dennis Allen also loomed large, but with Allen having departed for the darker pastures of Oakland, the defense is now in the hands of former Pro Bowl linebacker and ex-longtime Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio.

Like Del Rio, linebackers coach Richard Smith has been a successful coordinator in the past and also coached under Fox with the Panthers.

So far we've examined the team's options at tackle and end; let's look today at the linebackers Fox, Del Rio, and Smith will have at their disposal:

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School
48 Coffey, Elliot 6-0 235 22 R Baylor
49 Franklin, Jerry 6-1 245 24 R Arkansas
56 Irving, Nate 6-1 240 23 2 North Carolina State
57 Johnson, Steven 6-1 237 24 R Kansas
51 Mays, Joe 5-11 250 26 5 North Dakota State
58 Miller, Von 6-3 237 23 2 Texas A&M
53 Mohamed, Mike 6-3 245 24 2 California
59 Trevathan, Danny 6-1 232 22 R Kentucky
55 Williams, D.J. 6-1 242 29 9 Miami (Fla.)
52 Woodyard, Wesley 6-0 229 25 5 Kentucky

Mike (Middle Linebacker)

Denver’s Mike linebackers are Joe Mays, who re-signed for two years after reportedly being pursued by Indianapolis and New Orleans, and second-year player Nate Irving. Irving didn’t stand out last year, but Mays showed that if he can keep his head up, live in the film room and stop biting on fakes, he’s a talented Mike. He’s a powerful tackler when he hits and wraps, and can miss too often when he throws his body, although he still delivers a strong hit if he’s on target. Jack Del Rio commented,

Joe’s an active, aggressive middle linebacker. He packs a punch. He’s got excellent closing speed. I think that he’s a thumper in terms of when he hits, he’s not just a wrap tackler—he delivers a blow.

He also added,

There were a lot of things that I saw on tape that I feel very confident about being able to help elevate him to play even better, and to help the front play even better around him. Some of the holes that he was asked to fill were awfully big. We’re going to try to reduce some of those holes a little bit with our technique up front. I think Joe will play even better when that happens.

Coaches will always say they see things they believe they can help a player with, so one can never really know what’s hot air and what is real. Every QB coach alive seemed to have a two-week fix for Tim Tebow’s throwing issues, for example.

Mays had far too many missed tackles in 2011, and I’m going to be interested to see how Del Rio and Smith handle improving that. Poor tackling has led to far too many longer drives and scoring drives against the Broncos over the past decade. It’s tough to change the habits of a player who has likely been doing things a certain way for many years, but I salute JDR for drawing a line on this one.

Training Mays to run Denver’s system this season is also in line with what Bill Walsh taught and what I believe - that it usually takes two seasons to find out what a player can do at a certain slot: one to learn the system, and the second to learn how to play in it.  I’m going to be interested to see both how he does at not biting on fakes (i.e., getting his reads right) and how they help him out in coverage. He’s also got to minimize the missed tackles, but getting his reads right will help that. If he’s in the right gap, he’s hard to get past. Most of his missed tackles came when he was trying to reestablish position and only got a partial grip on the ballcarrier.

For those of us who’ve waited to hear how Nate Irving is doing, Fox said the following while addressing a group of season-ticket holders:

He’s a growing player. He’s definitely got the athleticism and ability. He played behind middle linebacker Joe Mays last year and I think we’re looking for big things this year. He seems to have done a good job in the meeting rooms as well as in the weight room this offseason. I’d love to hear from him a lot this year.

It’s reasonable to note that “I’d love to hear from him a lot this year” is a long way from “We’re convinced that he’s our guy of the future.” Let’s hope that Fox is right when he says that they’re looking for good things from Irving - and that they happen. Irving can play the Will as well as the Mike.

Will (Weakside Linebacker)

D.J. Williams is facing a six-game suspension due to one of the strangest examples of why there are problems with the player urinalysis program. Despite multiple problems with collecting the sample, some ‘non-human’ urine was supposedly mixed into it and the league expects D.J. to take responsibility for that, as well as a DUI. Former teammate Ryan McBean made a deal and had his suspension cut to three games, but D.J. is currently fighting the suspension. This is something that could drag out, ala the Star Caps mess, or be solved by September. If D.J. is suspended at all this season, though, which is likely, it could open some interesting doors.

Wesley Woodyard has seemed to outplay D.J. at times ever since he came on as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He and D.J. are close friends, but they’re also fighting for the same jobs. Woodyard has better coverage skills, while D.J. has often been Denver's leading tackler. This could be a chance for WW to step up and show the coaches that he’s capable of taking over the Will position. Fox tends to play veterans if all else is essentially equal (when Von Miller stepped on the field, things weren’t equal at all), but Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan are also potential Wills.

Sam (Strongside Linebacker)

Fox expected great things from Von Miller last season, and the Defensive Rookie of the Year didn’t disappoint. Fox commented,

Von had a superb season. I think he would’ve shattered all the rookie records had he not torn that tendon in his thumb. Really he played one-armed and one-handed the remainder of the season. I thought he had a great rookie season (Defensive ROY seems to agree). I think he’ll build on that. The type of young man he is, he’s very humble, he’s a great teammate and a guy that’s not afraid to work. He looks great. We’ve had the opportunity to see him on the practice field — his thumb’s fine. He’ll be a great, great player for years to come.

A nightmare for offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and offensive lines alike, Von Miller’s basic skills in coverage and run support were also there to be seen last season, even though his pass rushing predominates. It’s understandable that it would - it’s a thing of beauty. I’ve seen very few players over the years who can get as low as Miller can when cornering into the quarterback (and I was surprised at seeing how close Derek Wolfe comes, at times, to the same skill): he can flip outside or roll inside with equal ease, and they can move him wherever they want. That’s probably going to just increase - he’s that good. Del Rio is a very innovative coordinator, and Miller a heck of a trump card to play with.

I thought that this was one of the most frightening quotes I’ve archived, if you’re a quarterback:

Me and Elvis' relationship goes beyond just a third-and-long or a first-and-10. It carries over after hours. We spend a lot of time together and with his competitive nature and my competitive nature, it really makes us both better.

It's definitely a brotherhood and something that I've never had before. I'm looking forward to seeing where it'd go.

My own suspicion is that it’s going to go through the protection like defecation through a goose, and reconverge on the quarterback’s shoulders. As Von develops, he’s going to be a three-way skillset player at the Sam position - effective in run defense and coverage, as well as attacking from wherever they decide to send him. His coaches have made it plain, and he’s embraced this role, that no weaknesses to his game will be allowed by him or by them. Miller doesn’t take plays off and he doesn’t go halfway. He’s trying to put on more muscle, and I’m sure that he will - his work ethic is powerful and he’s played at as much as 252 lb in the past.

Watching Miller is a pleasure. Equally enjoyable is the fact that Miller is a remarkably nice young gentleman - one who still addresses people as Mister, is constantly polite, and wears his styling thick-framed glasses that give him a slightly academic air, as befits a young man who’s as bright, talented and motivated as he is.

Mike Mohamed is another player who currently provides depth but may be able to develop into a starting role over the next couple of years. There’s a legitimate question of how many linebackers, safeties, and corners Denver will keep this season; the Broncos have a lot of talented players at all three positions, with a lot of young guys who will have to battle to make the roster. This will provide yet another great set of camp battles, and they will make the team stronger. No matter who ends up starting and who provides depth, you can see the trend to lighter, faster, more disruptive players among the players that the Broncos have brought in at linebacker.

Rookies

Sixth-round pick Danny Trevathan is another smaller Kentucky linebacker (much like Wesley Woodyard), one whom John Fox described as a ‘tackling machine’. That’s about it, too.  Jack Del Rio said of him,

The guy Coach Fox and I probably received the most emails and texts about is Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC in tackles the last two years. Obviously the SEC is one of the premier football conferences in the country, and he led that conference in tackles the last two years. This guy came to minicamp and showed a lot of that flash right away. He’s an exciting, young football player. So those three guys (along with Derek Wolfe and Omar Bolden) right away grab your attention.

Danny himself commented,

I like to play aggressive, instinctive and just be that motor. I like to play fast and get to the ball and just be a family out there and have fun. It’s all about having fun. It’s a job, but you can’t get bored with your job. You have to learn how to have fun while you’re out there. It doesn’t happen too often where you get an opportunity like this and you have to take full advantage of it. I’m doing this for everybody who’s ever seen me and I keep that with me when I go to the practice field every day.

On this video of the Leesburg, FL native, there is a nice fumble strip by Trevathan at 1:13 and a good open field tackle at 2:20. He’s not that big, but he hit like a truck on the college level and held up well against Georgia here (video). His attitude in the second half of the South Carolina game was detailed here (video). The top tackler over the past two years from the top conference in the country (144 in 2010, 143 in 2011) isn’t a bad acquisition for a sixth-round pickup. 

Look at his tackle at the 0:40 mark of this video. Notice the excellent drive; he prevents the first down and pushes the RB backward on the tackle. That reminds me of Joe Mays’s good side, but he is more careful about sniffing out fakes and staying at home, something that’s hard to teach. Auburn likes to pull, and does it well in the running game. Trevathan seems to do well at knifing between them on the second play with pulling guards, as he did at 1:05. Nice play.

Trevathan wraps up well and has unusually good tackling fundamentals - he’ll grab anything, but he likes to go to the knees, wrap and drop. I love good fundamentals and technique.

Trevathan also appears to have the skillset for Will, although he played his own share of Mike in college and has the understanding of play calling (and attitude) at that level. That additional flexibility is always a benefit. So is knowing that you’re going to start out on special teams, which Danny likes playing:

Oh yeah, I played punt, punt return, kickoff. That’s your ticket. You want to establish yourself in that aspect of the game, especially being a rookie. There are a lot of people in front of you that have needs for their family. By the way of making this team, you have to learn how to play special teams and be accountable and available wherever they need you. [Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Rodgers] had me playing a lot of positions today on special teams and I’m trying to get them all down. I want to be the person that they come to when they need [something].

I can see myself playing whatever they need me to play. I played Will and Mike here. I also can play Sam.

In other words - just give me a chance, Coach.

Trevathan was also Sporting News and Associated Press All-SEC First Team last season, and I’d tend to think they will. Like many, he’s starting on special teams and working from that. To me it’s all about player development, and I like this kid as a prospect.  Since tackling is an area that Del Rio has already identified as one that he expects to see improvement in, picking up Trevathan makes perfect sense. After all, this is a Broncos tradition - as Karl Mecklenburg commented before Super Bowl XXIV,

Defensively, I think it's important for us to tackle.

Jerry Franklin had a promising career at Arkansas as a middle linebacker and appears to have the requisite moderate psychosis for the position. He’s got unusually good lateral skills and is Dan Pompei’s favorite undrafted middle linebacker, for whatever that’s worth. I watched some game film of him, and he’s a tough player who has a ways to go with his technique. He was also All-SEC 2nd Team in 2011. Here’s a draft preview of his work.

I’m not that familiar with Coffey or Johnson: Elliot Coffey is a 6-0, 237 lb rookie out of Baylor, where he was a two-year starter and is the third Baylor player on the Broncos, joining J.D. Walton and Philip Blake. Coffey joined new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett at Baylor and led the Bears as their senior Mike LB with 113 tackles last year. I found some 2011 spring football preview tape that shows him. He earned All-Big 12 honors and was the MVP of the Alamo Bowl after averaging 8.8 tackles per game over the 2011 season. He was responsible for the defensive calls, so he’s had that experience. Here’s a video of the Baylor linebackers including Coffey, who comes across as intelligent, calm and centered. This one is from his Alamo Bowl coverage.

Steve Johnson is a 6-1, 237-pounder out of Kansas. I found a video of him working out, running hills with short tethers on his legs to force him to take small steps, increasing the difficulty of hill climbing. I like to remind people that Walter Payton took hill climbing to an art form, taped his feet to have them in the proper position for the climb, and would destroy everyone on the team who thought they were in shape until they ran it with him, so this approach has a very storied history. LaDainian Tomlinson did the same, and look how long he played. I saw some Kansas film, but not enough on Johnson to make intelligent comments. He’s gotten a lot of favorable press over the year, but I didn’t get to see that much of him.

Starters

Obviously, Von Miller will handle the starting Sam role and will provide pressure on the QB from the left edge (or wherever they place him), while Derek Wolfe will probably be in on passing downs, at least to start - he’s still developing his ability at anchoring against the run. Justin Bannan will be in on at least the first two downs - they may take him out on third down and replace him with a stronger pass rusher. Kevin Vickerson is back up to his higher weight but has dropped his body fat - he’s currently starting at the off-tackle position.

The other DT roles will be earned by any of Ben Garland, Ty Warren (if he shows up, which may be becoming less likely), Mitch Unrein or Sealver Siliga. Elvis Dumervil will be at right defensive end, and Malik Jackson came off both right and left DE (although mostly left) roles at Tennessee, so he could help out at either. Jason Hunter will also be in the mix, and his run-stopping is his greatest strength. I like this group so far. It gives the team a lot of flexibility, lots of options and lots of ways to attack.

The Will linebacker will probably be D.J. Williams for at least part of the season, depending on the outcome of his suspension and DUI issues. Since Irving, Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan, and Mike Mohamed are all potential options at Will, it’s fair to say that Denver isn’t short of options for their front seven. As mentioned, Chris Harris is, to me, also part of the front seven - he was one of the better tackling nickelbacks last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Finding a natural nickelback is always a treat - finding one as an undrafted rookie is highly unusual and very fortunate. Nice one, Denver. Duke Ihenacho also shows potential as a nickel player. He’s talented in short area coverage and run support, and doesn’t handle man or zone coverage as well in open space.

For the most part, I think that this front seven is a stronger, deeper crew than the bunch that started for the Broncos last season. It’s true that I still see room to improve with the defensive tackles, but defensive end looks very good, and the linebackers are a work in progress. With the hiring of Jack Del Rio as defensive coordinator, I think that it’s fair to say that they haven’t lost anything off of the coordinator’s slot. He may even be better than Dennis Allen was, and I loved Allen’s work.

I expect that Del Rio is going to increase backfield pressure constantly and will bring the house whenever it suits him. Run blitzes, safety blitzes, zone dog blitzes, cornerback blitzes - this is a team that can and will bring pressure from all over, while maintaining the ability to slow or stop the run. It’s a sizable change from the team that was still in lockout a year ago and that had to install two offenses and a defense on the fly. This time, it’s the Broncos who are getting ready to let it fly - on their opponents.

I hope you've gotten something positive from this series. I’m working on a piece or two on the defensive backfield and I’m equally excited about them. We’ll talk about the who, why and how of that, but the team did really upgrade that secondary this offseason. I was concerned about the lack of experience last season. This will be a very different year. See you then.

Doc

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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