Scouting the Broncos: Linebackers

The question of whether the Broncos will run a 4-3 next season has been answered in the affirmative by John Fox, and changes to the linebacking corps will be forthcoming. There will be a few keys to which scheme the team primarily uses - and the choices of which LBs are kept, which are not, and who is brought in will be central to this decision. I’m going to talk in general about the LB corps, listing the current players and noting some thoughts on them today. At this point, most of us are fairly familiar with the basic duties of the LBs in each system (see the last two entries of Fat Camp for a refresher), so I’ll be more specific as to which I like for each and why.

First and foremost, here’s the issue: according to Brian Xanders, Fox wants smaller, faster linebackers, with coverage as well as run-stopping and pass-rushing skills. That’s normal in most 4-3 approaches, but a long way from most of what Denver has accumulated. He wants them to be smaller, faster and more disruptive. This is a good example of the reason that you try to avoid changing coaches in a nutshell: it’s a tall order, it means finding a new kind of player for the team, and at first glance, I didn’t see it happening. After looking over the linebacker player pool carefully, it isn’t going to be easy either, although it’s doable, depending on whether there’s free agency this year, and whether Denver is willing to pay good money. Certainly, as often happens, some fan favorites such as Mario Haggan may not survive the change, although he’s a very possible temporary fill-in. With these general ideas in mind, here are the current players:

Holdovers

Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers - Doom and Ayers both look to be moving to DE. Fox went so far as to say last Wednesday that Doom is an every-down player at DE. It’s that simple. Dumervil is 248 lb with a short, almost squatty build, very long arms and big hands, and a talent for getting under, grabbing and redirecting bigger players, while Ayers is currently 274 lb and he has the frame to build on an additional 10 lb of muscle without sacrificing his quickness. Interestingly, when he was drafted, McD talked about letting Ayers add that weight and sliding him between OLB and DE. Fox will look for him solely at DE, and has already stated that. He rated him as a DE out of Tennessee in the 2009 Draft, and feels that he'll be best at that position. With a 4-3 defense, that's likely to be true - and he’s probably going to work on adding muscular weight.

Wesley Woodyard came on as a CFA out of Kentucky and took the fanbase by storm in 2008. Many, including myself, were calling for him to replace DJ Williams at the Will position during that year - it was probably the first year that the defense was so completely a disaster, although part of that was the fallout from the Bates Lowtel. Woodyard was made a captain of the special teams the following year, a rare honor for a player that young, and he also held that honor in 2010. As a prospect, he ran the 40 in an average of 4.51 and had a 4.48 time at Combine. Although lighter than is common - he’s listed at 222, but is usually around 226, and was continuing to try for 230 last year - Woodyard has better coverage skills than most of the Denver LBs, even though he struggles against larger receivers. He impressed in the final games of 2010 when he was placed at the ILB position next to DJ Williams, and outplayed him substantially.

Joe Mays, 5'11" 245 lb. out of North Dakota State, is relatively slow afoot and timed at an average of 4.87 in 2008. However, his mental quickness at diagnosing plays, the angles that he takes greatly increase his ‘football speed'; that and his hitting ability may keep him on as the MLB, a rotational LB and/or a special teams player. Mays may not be fast, but he is quick with a good closing burst and his attitude and hitting are exceptional. He’s undoubtedly a disruptive player, even though he’s not that experienced at LB and has described himself as a special teams player who plays a little linebacker. That may be underestimating himself.

David Veikune is 6’2 and 257 lb, a second-round pick out of Hawaii by Cleveland in 2009. He ran a 4.79 at Combine and 4.75 at his Pro Day. That's not quick:  it's more at the upper reaches of the LBs for speed. His 10-yard times were 1.58 and 1.59. I don't see him staying on - he's probably more suited to a 3-4 system.

Lee Robinson, is a 6’2, 249 lb CFA from Alcorn State: he has a nice closing burst, but doesn't change direction well in space, which may invalidate him for this defense. There are differing opinions as to whether he diagnoses plays quickly, but he does have some coverage skills. He ran a 4.71 40 at Combine and a 4.78 on his Pro Day, times that don't fit the Fox mold. He doesn’t have any substantial experience at MLB and he’s not fast. Disruptive, yes. Fast, no. Here’s a piece on him in coverage.

Jason Hunter, at 6’4 and 271 lb, was drafted in 2006 by Green Bay out of Appalachian State. He might stay on as a DE - he had 5 sacks for Detroit in 2009 from that position. He's not a starter, but a possible rotational player depending on the draft. He runs a 4.55 forty, which is unusually good for the LB/DE players. That speed could be put to good use in the DE slot.

Dominic Douglas was a CFA from Mississippi State who was added in December of 2010, when Denver was scraping for LBs. He weighs between 235 and 240 lb. He was waived, injured, with a hamstring injury after 4 games with St.Louis in 2010 and was picked up by Denver. He runs a middling 4.65, but there's nothing else to indicate that he'll be retained.

Mario Haggan, also hailing from Mississippi State at 6’3” and 267 lb, is a classic 3-4 OLB and may have some late-round trade value in that regard. He had 5 sacks last year and played as well as any LB Denver had - probably the best of the group. While he’s not usually considered suited for the 4-3 due to his lack of speed, Denver may have trouble replacing him quickly. He’s got good skills for Sam, despite his less-than-optimal coverage skills.

We know that Fox wants his LBs smaller, faster and disruptive. Looking above, there isn’t a vast reserve of scheme-appropriate talent. For general information on the position from a viewpoint that overlaps with Fox’s, here’s what Bill Walsh had to say about finding LBs:

In my opinion the most important trait a linebacker has to have is instincts. He has to be able to read quickly while on the move and get to the ball. In most cases, the leading tackler on a defense is a linebacker and while many linebackers have a lot of tackles, you want those tackles to be made at or near the line of scrimmage, not downfield. If a linebacker has a high number of tackles that means he has the ability to shed blocks quickly. To do that he has to have quick hands and great blocker anticipation.

Mays probably is the best at that instinct as to where the play is going, from what we saw of him. Haggan’s speed works against him, as does his size, but his instincts are very good, as are Woodyard’s. I’m less happy with DJ in that area. I supported him for years, but over the past three, I just haven’t seen the kind of fire that a true top LB should be showing, and he’s the most expensive linebacking player on the team.

How about the lynch pin of the LB corps, the Mike or middle linebacker? Walsh had specific ideas on the middle linebacker, which he modeled on the 1980s version of the Landry 4-3 front:

The inside linebacker has to be substantial enough to meet blockers coming from any number of angles and not be knocked around the field easily. Instinct is mandatory at this position. He must be able to watch the ball and read the blocking. It's difficult to describe how to look for instinct, but the guys who find a way to get to the football and make the tackle, they probably have it.

They must be so quick, like Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears. He ...would get off the block, or shed the blocker, and then move to the ball almost without wasting a step.

With all this aggressive contact, the middle linebacker must have an indestructible body...it takes a powerful physique with bone girth that allows you to give and take punishment.

In pass coverage, the middle linebacker can be protected, as was the case often even with the great Dick Butkus. But there are also linebackers who have been outstanding coverage men in a form, such as Mike Curtis when he played with the old Baltimore Colts and, to a degree, Singletary.

What stands out to me here are two options. First, Joe Mays has the attitude, short-area quickness, power and ability to shed blocks that makes him a viable candidate for the Mike slot in a 4-3. Ted has mentioned this, and I loved watching Mays playing the ILB last season. The bad news? He did end the season injured. He isn’t fast, in the conventional, 40-yard dash sense. However, he’s got a lot of lateral quickness and he - well, he more ‘rams’ to the ball than flows to it, but he certainly does get there and he sheds blockers like English sheepdogs do fur. They would have to protect him in the deeper zone coverage that the Cover 2 generally creates for the MLB, but he’s got qualities that aren’t easy to find. He doesn’t have much experience here, and will need to be coached up if he stays for that position.

The second thing that caught my eye is that Wes Woodyard is surprisingly well suited for the MLB slot in Fox’s system if it still holds to Walsh’s theories, for theories they are at this point in time. Yes, he’s small for that position - there’s no real question about that.  At the same time, Fox didn’t have a LB over 238 last season and Mike Singletary played there at 230, if in a different era. Wes hits like a truck for his size, diagnoses plays well and has more coverage skills than anyone else on the roster at LB, even if that’s not a huge compliment. I’ve always looked at him as a Will LB, and he may end up there. If Mays, or whoever they take on goes down, though, WW might be an excellent player to step in at Mike. He, too, dealt with injuries last year. I don’t take Walsh too literally - all players get dinged. The Mike has to play through as much as possible, and lead the team in that regard.

I know that DJ Williams played MLB for Denver in 2007, and he was doing better at it by season’s end. I just don’t see him matching up that well, given Walsh’s discussion of instincts and Fox’s desire for disruption by his players, although Fox may choose to use him there as marking time while developing the more specific variety of players that he wants.

How about the Will and Sam options? The cabinet isn’t bare, but it’s far from full, either. He’s what Walsh said, followed by what I see:

...weak outside linebacker would be a combination of a lateral pursuit guy against running plays and man or zone pass coverage. You need an excellent pass coverage and pursuit man. Because he is on the weak side and is not primarily a pass rusher, he must be able to function in space. Yet when he does pursue he can't get knocked around by blockers. He has to have enough strength to go across the face of a lineman to get to the ball.

On the so-called weak side, there are two distinct categories -- the pass rusher and the pursuit-coverage linebacker. The pass rush type was best defined by Lawrence Taylor during his great years with the New York Giants. He was the greatest.

The only guy Denver currently has that fits this is Doom, and he’s moving to DE. Texas A&M's Von Miller is a heck of a pass rusher, though. In modern times, much of the pass rush comes from the weak side, although it’s best coming from both. Also from Walsh:

The pass rush combination guy is going to be primarily a pass rusher and then a run defender. He is a zone drop defender. Rarely will he cover man to man because coaches should not ask him to. That profile is of the quickest, fastest, large enough man to play this position. He can sell out as long as he works in relationship with the defensive end in combination.

These pass rushing outside linebackers must have natural gifts, or instincts for dealing with offensive tackles who are up to 100 pounds heavier. Quickness is only part of it. They must know how to use leverage, how to get underneath the larger man's pads and work back toward the quarterback. And he must be strong enough to bounce off blocks and still make the play.

Doom fits that now, and Miller would. Haggan has that ability, but is very big for the position.

The other type of weak outside linebacker would be a combination of a lateral pursuit guy against running plays and man or zone pass coverage. You need an excellent pass coverage and pursuit man. Because he is on the weak side and is not primarily a pass rusher, he must be able to function in space. Yet when he does pursue he can't get knocked around by blockers. He has to have enough strength to go across the face of a lineman to get to the ball.

Who does Denver have that fits this bill? Von Miller could very well handle it, if Denver takes him. If you accept Walsh’s concept, the Will isn’t necessarily a pass rusher but that’s changed in modern times. I thought that Woodyard put excellent pressure on the QB up the middle in the last games of 2010 as a 3-4 ILB, but that hasn’t been his predominant skill to date, with only a single career sack. He’s decent at shedding blockers, if not top tier. He's good in lateral pursuit and can handle zone or man coverage in degree - not so much against larger receivers.

How about the Sam LB?

Now we also have the strong side linebacker, who plays opposite the tight end. He should be larger than the weak side outside linebacker, about 6-4, 250. He must have the hands and the range to hold up the tight end and to wade through the fullback, or whoever is blocking, to get to the ball. This strong side linebacker must be able to hold the edge of the defense.

He must be able to hold up the tight end. He can meet the fullback's block. He can blitz effectively against running backs attempting to pass protect him. And he can meet the off tackle play of the fullback or the pulling guard.

Even with the changes in philosophy, teams are flopping their outside linebackers. They have a pursuit linebacker and a run defender.

Now we’re really looking at a very bare cupboard. If he isn’t used at Mike, Mays is an option. Mario Haggan is a run defender, and a good one. He’s not fast - neither is Mays -  but he’s been consistently disruptive and he managed 87 tackles and 5 sacks last year. If Denver doesn’t draft for the position (again, Miller could play here and be a huge upgrade) or bring in a free agent, Haggan may be the best option they have at this slot. His weakness is coverage, and that’s a problem almost across the board with Denver’s current crew. It isn’t easy to find bigger 3-4 guys with good coverage skills, but Josh McDaniels left that part almost completely out of the equation, and that wasn’t hard to see as the season dragged on. If you look at Walsh’s ‘run defender’ and ‘pursuit defender’ approach, Haggan is the run defender. Actually, since Haggan managed 5 sacks last season, and played on both sides as an OLB, he’s got some versatility. He could, although it’s counterintuitive, even be moved to Will. I didn’t think that the games I saw him at ILB were his better performances, nor did the position seem to fit him well. He did look good during a brief turn at Mike in 2008, but that wasn’t that hard, considering that he was being compared to old Nate ‘The Helmet’ Webster.

Conclusions and Options

The first conclusion is that while Brian Xanders may say that Denver feels good about where they are with the defense, it’s easy to say and obviously much harder to achieve. One thing that stands out to me is that Denver has to be depending on the next FA period to fill out and upgrade the roster. Xanders has mentioned that Denver has been over the available free agents as part of ‘feeling good’ about the situation, and there are a lot of quality ones out there. But many will not leave the teams they are on now, so Denver will need to be quick and willing with money. If the FA period doesn’t happen this year, it could be a long, long season.

There are options in the draft, there’s no question. Some of the obvious ones are:

  1. Von Miller - By far, the best LB in the draft. Will Denver pass on a lineman to take him at second overall?
  2. Mason Foster - Wes Bunting noted, “I still think the guy is as solid as any weakside linebacker in the draft and regardless of where he gets drafted, by year two he’ll be in someone’s starting lineup in the league.”   Good 40 time.
  3. Martez Wilson - He played very well for the Illini last season, and could develop into an excellent Mike. However, ESPN (Insider required) feels that his coverage skills are lacking despite running a 4.44 at the Combine. Scott Wright's colleague Shane Hallam wrote, “Martez Wilson of Illinois has the potential to establish himself as a first round pick with a strong showing at the Scouting Combine.  Wilson utilizes speed as well as power in his game, which should translate to impressive results in the forty and bench press.  Wilson has also been focusing on his coverage ability in recent months and could outperform others in those drills.  Don’t be surprised if Wilson ends up as a Top 20 pick." If he does, Denver is probably out of the running. Linebackers are odd on draft day, though; even top ones often drop on draft day, ala James Laurinaitis and Rey Maualuga.
  4. Casey Mathews - Slightly small for the position, but improving quickly. He may be a good starter in a year or two. Interesting answer to the typical Combine questions: “(My dad) played 19 years, and he didn’t even get to the Super Bowl,” Casey said. “My brother’s in two (seasons) and wins it. My dad was obviously very happy.” Casey was asked what part of his game was superior to his brother’s.“I just think my instincts,” he said, before backtracking a bit. “He has a pretty good game, though.”
  5. Greg Jones - Still a work in progress, and he may yet be moved outside. However, he could be a decent MLB in a weak year. His leadership skills are good, and he practices as hard as he plays, which is very hard indeed. He was an All-American two years in a row. There’s a good article on him over at Walter Football, plus his profile at CBS Sports.
  6. Mark Herzlich is a 6’4, 244 outside linebacker out of Boston College.  He has long arms, at 32+ inches, and 10-inch hands which he uses well to keep his legs clean. Herzlich possesses good intangibles for an NFL LB. His blend of height, bulk and top-end speed will attract attention. Mark is capable of good gap discipline, and while he doesn’t have a great explosion out of his backpedal, he’s solid in coverage. He has the lateral pursuit skills to make plays from sideline to sideline and can stay with running backs in coverage. He has skills in rushing the passer and a solid closing burst when lining up tackles. There is a question as to his lateral movement on one side, where he had a rod placed into his femur following a bout with cancer.

Wilson and Jones are potential options at Mike in a very weak year, and Casey Mathews is also in that mix: he’s smaller than the usual Mike, but that’s in keeping with Fox’s general preferences.  I’d tend to prefer using Mays, Woodyard or even DJ for this year or until there’s a free agent period, though. There are several free agent MLBs available, and Denver should look seriously into using a chunk of their capital to obtain the services of one. As every Broncos fan knows after having watched Al Wilson for eight years, the Mike is the engine the defense runs on, and you need a top-level guy with the willingness to push his guys in the right ways. Greg Jones is worth a second look.

Obviously, Miller is the best LB on the board as far as rating them is concerned, and he has very few weaknesses; if Denver can figure a way to bring in a solid DL player, Miller is probably the biggest need they have other than DL. Foster is more of an outside linebacker, and a good one - there are several in this year’s draft including Mark Herzlich, but I thought that Foster looked special. His performance in the Holiday Bowl was outstanding, and I tend to see him as a potential starter in the NFL.

Somehow or other, finding a RT to either replace or back up Ryan Harris is going to be essential, and safety is an area of question, if not outright weakness. David Bruton is a serviceable young player and free agency is also an option, if there is one. Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore are well-known, while Miami WR Leonard Hankerson said that Oklahoma’s Brian Jackson was the hardest one to face that he went up against in 2010, if the draft becomes necessary. Of course, we'll cover the defensive backs in greater detail in our next installment. See you then!

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