When I was asked for a piece on Mario Haggan and the inside linebacker position, I went through the three research files on Haggan that I had already developed and quickly realized that there was a lot more to the situation than just a story on Mario. Since I've covered him a few times already, I felt it best to deal more directly with the question, "What options do the Broncos have for ILB this year?" Since getting it all done solo wasn't an option right now, I gave a call to the Dude, admired the way his rug pulled the room together and enticed him into the project. Never one to miss out on some play time, TJ tossed in with gusto. At this point, you hopefully can't tell where one of us stops and the other begins, in a literary sense. We both hope that you enjoy the offering. - Doc and TJ
Over the course of the 2010 offseason, questions abound as to the direction that the Denver Broncos have chosen for the last few weeks of free agency and the NFL draft. The initial question was what to do abou the defensive line, one that failed in the second half of the season. The acquisition of Jamal Williams, Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green has almost undoubtedly bolstered the size, power and ability level of the defensive line. The progress of Chris Baker, Everette Pedescleaux and the changes that Marcus Thomas are attempting (losing over 20 lb. in an attempt to compete for a DE position instead of NT) are unknowns that Broncos fans will continue to speculate on until training camp reveals their progress. One thing is certain, though - Denver is recovering its long-held reputation as a desirable destination for quality free agents. Regarding his own experience, DE Jarvis Green said,
"I know that when free agency hit, I was like, "Denver Broncos, Denver Broncos"... The last thing I remember is watching him (Josh McDaniels) doing the fist pumps at the end of the game, and I saw that and I saw the energy, and the players, they way they're playing for him, and everybody wants to play for a coach like that. And I was like watching guys from the sidelines and I thought, "Hey, man, I want to play for a coach like that too".
The new looks that we will see on defense apparently will include a greater emphasis on blitzing, including cornerback blitzes. The recent acquisition of Nate Jones adds a dimension to the secondary that was missing for much of 2009. Jones played with Renaldo Hill and Andre' Goodman in Miami and one of his strengths is the cornerback blitz. Jones is also known as a stronger tackler than talented cover guy Andre' Goodman, and has played corner, nickel corner and safety in his 6 seasons in the NFL, 4 with Dallas and 2 with Miami.
A second question haunts the defense. Inside linebacker Andra Davis was singled out as the first of the linebackers to be replaced - he was given his release as early as possible to ensure that he had a chance to connect with another team. As as new player for Buffalo, Denver fans wish him the best and will recall him as a class act and a solid mentor and locker room model who the Broncos faithful will miss as a person. Given the performance of the run defense during the second half of the 2009 season, however, his release may have been a surprise as far as its timing, but there is little question that the ILB position is in need of changes that will complement the upgrades to the defensive line. DJ Williams is written in ink into one of the slots, generally the weakside ILB. What options for the SILB do the Broncos currently have?
1. Mario Haggan
Is Mario Haggan going to be the inside linebacker in a 3-4 (or 5-2) front? With the release of Andra Davis, that question is upon us. In an earlier interview, Josh McDaniels intimated that the Broncos were considering simply moving Haggan to ILB and increasing the playing time for 1st round draft pick in 2009, Robert Ayers. While that is certainly one option, there has been a great deal of concern in the MHR community over this situation, and several scenarios have presented themselves.
Mario himself doesn't know at this time where they will want to play him. In an interview this past week, on whether he plays inside or outside, he said:
"I prefer to (just) be on the field, to be honest with you. I had a lot of fun last year, I've had a lot of fun my whole career playing linebacker, so do I think that I can play it (inside), yes, do I think I can play outside, yes, so the coaches, they know I can do both things so it may be something that they look at but right now I'm preparing to play outside linebacker, right now. "
Haggan also points out that the reason that he's 'better' now than he was in Buffalo is just that he's gotten an opportunity. He always felt that he could do this for a team (come in and start and contribute) but really didn't get the opportunity. When you look at his record in Buffalo, it bears that out - when given a chance to play, he came in and got the job done. He was always a better fit for the 3-4, though, so it's no surprise that he was one of the defensive leaders last year. The McDaniels/Nolan defense emphasized having the outside linebackers set the edge and the ILBs make the majority of the tackles. It's a good lesson for the practice squad guys, or for the guys that don't get activated on game day - it's all about opportunity. When that opportunity comes, you have to be ready.
But Haggan isn't the only candidate for ILB on the Broncos right now. While they may expand their options during the draft, there are some other ways that they can go, should they decide to. Let's go over the options as the team stands right now and then go over some options in the draft.
Other In-House Options
1. Nick Greisen
Greisen is a mystery to many Broncos fans, and for good reason. A 6'1, 245 lb ILB, Greisen spent 4 years with the New York Giants, one with Jacksonville and two with Baltimore before coming to Denver in April of '09. A knee injury in training camp put an end to his 2009 season but he's reputed to be ready go go this spring. Greisen has been more of a talented special teams player and backup linebacker, so he has his work cut out for him in landing a position on the team. Right now, he's been dropped from the team roster as of April 1. There's no information as to whether he'll be back, so it doesn't look good for him.
2. Spencer Larsen
It's hard not to list the 6'2, 243 lb Spencer Larsen as a fan favorite. One of the very few three way players in the history of the NFL, Larsen has played MLB, ST and FB. He missed much of his sophomore year with a freak shoulder injury from a slip and fall accident, and was extremely effective in both special teams and in the fullback slot when called upon last year during the time that he was healthy. There is a lot of interest in whether the Broncos can afford to lose him from the FB slot. However, he's still listed as an ILB as well as FB on the team roster, so he may have the opportunity to fight for a starting slot.
Drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 draft, Larsen was the heart and soul of the Arizona defensive unit at middle linebacker. Mike Shanahan quickly saw the versatility of Larsen and used him sparingly at MLB, but consistently on special teams where he made two of the most powerful ST tackles that I've ever seen. The second one, against Kansas City, is still available on YouTube. Shanny also saw Larsen as a blocking fullback, and area where is is good enough to be hard to replace. Despite dealing with a spate of injuries in 2009, Larsen may get his chance to fight for a starting job at ILB in training camp this year.
Larsen doesn't have blazing speed, running in the 4.8-4.84 range most of the time, but that doesn't stop him from fiercely guarding his section of the field. When he was up for the draft, Rivals.com said,
"...may fit best on the inside as a pro. His versatility will allow him to play in different situations after playing both inside and outside backer and that experience will allow him to be a flex defender for a front seven. His instincts and sure tackling gives him a chance to start or fill a key backup role. He gives total effort at all times and is a fierce competitor who sets the pace for a defense. He competes as well as anyone in this draft and ranks high as far as special teams skills is concerned. He understands his responsibilities in the defensive scheme and carries out his assignments well."
Larsen is already known as a vocal leader. Denver has no shortage of leadership on defense right now, but Larsen fits in with that mentality perfectly. While it will be hard to fill his slot at FB if he is permitted to make the move, he's made no bones about feeling that he's a linebacker in his heart. The next question is whether or not he can be one on the field.
3. Wes Woodyard
An undrafted free agent out of college, playing for Kentucky, Wesley Woodyard was constantly told that at 220, he was too small and too light to play linebacker. Happily, he didn't believe any of it. He managed to start for much of 2009 at Will and was a solid if not spectacular player. He did manage to average 10 tackles over 5 of his games in 2008, and that should give any casual fan a quick understanding of why you don't want to underestimate him.
Woodyard confirmed this week that he's currently at about 230 lb, after playing in 2009 at 228. The staff would like him to get up to 236 or so of solid muscle. He has a lot of talent for a young player. Woodyard can penetrate to hurry the QB, fall back into coverage or stop the run. While he needs to become more consistent on all three, player development was a mantra when Josh McDaniels was in New England, and is clearly becoming one in Denver. WW is one of only three players listed as ILBs on the current roster at denverbroncos.com, but we all know that at this time of year, that roster is nothing more than an NFL requirement and has little bearing on reality.
One the same note, Braxton Kelley, who was on the practice squad last year is simply listed as 'LB'. He's 6'0 ad 230 - very light for the inside, but he could have put on 5-10 lb of muscle (or last weight) for all we know right now.
4. Baraka Atkins
Currently listed as an OLB/DE, Atkins is a classic tweener, standing 6'4 and weighing in at 268 lb. Uncertainty is no stranger to this player - he was chosen in the 4th round of the 2007 draft by Seattle, where he stayed for two seasons. Atkins didn't start a game with Seattle, and moved on to San Fransisco, where he was activated but didn't play in a game. Atkins may be a long shot to make the Broncos, but you can bet that with Darrell Reid recovering from a knee injury, a guy with similar skills, height and weight will be given a chance to show whether or not he's an NFL-ready player. Atkins signed a reserve/futures contract in January and will have to prove himself to make the squad. His official time at Combine was 4.69 for the 40 and 1.56 in the 10 yard segment. He's not blindingly fast, but he's about normal for an ILB or OLB. He played DE mostly in the past, but could learn the inside game. Otherwise, he's possible insurance for Reid taking too long to heal up.
There's no question that the draft offers several options at the OLB and ILB slots, and I wouldn't be shocked to see one player coming from each. While the lines should be the first concern of the Broncos, that doesn't mean that they will fail to fill out the LB roster.
One thing that sets this draft apart from many others for Denver is the fact that they have, without question, an opportunity to draft an ILB such as McClain or Sean Weatherspoon, OT/OG/C such as Trent Williams or Maurkice Pouncey, a DE or a NT such as Dan Williams or even a DE like Jared Odrick. They may also have first choice at CB, and Joe Haden could beckon. Rarely does a team find itself with choices matched to their needs in such a way. The question will likely be: What does the FO see as their biggest need?
1. Rolando McClain
The most vocally popular option, without a doubt, has been the chance of taking the excellent ILB Rolando McClain at the 11th pick in the draft. There are certainly some strong advantages to this - McClain usually has decent tackling skills, is a good run-stuffer, rushes the passer well and is a natural leader. Like all players, he also has weaknesses. His are in two areas - the first is pass coverage, which is a reasonable concern. He is not at the point where his man coverage skills are where they need to be. His zone coverage skills are better, but he is admittedly weaker in that area than I would prefer for a player taken that high in the draft. DJ Williams was toasted more often than New Year's Eve last year in coverage, but he was experiencing yet another change in position. It's not unreasonable to believe that he will continue to improve in this area, but one of the things that I would like to see in Andra Davis' replacement is a better coverage skillset. That's not McClain's strength, even though it's quite possible that he will improve here over time.
The second problem with McClain is a risk management issue. No matter which side you come down on, McClain has a disease that is capricious. His past experiences do not foretell how well or badly he will do with the disease over time, and no amount of argument or theory will change that. It's a medical fact; it is not a belief, a theory or a personal prejudice. You're looking at using a 1st round pick on a player who may or may not be able to continue to play. No one can know, either way. There are no crystal balls, and you cannot accurately say that because medication and diet have helped so far, he is unlikely to experience a flareup that could impact his career. That statement is medically inaccurate. I hope that such a situation never happens to the man, but ignoring this is pointless. It's the elephant in the living room, and it's not going to leave. It's a risk, and some team will undoubtedly take it. The question of whether or not it is Denver will be answered later in April.
There is a third issue, and it's not without merit. Many systems of the 3-4 place less financial emphasis on the players at ILB because many LBs have the skillset to play there. Obviously, you always went the best players possible at every position, but it's fair to say that many teams that run the 3-4 don't put their greatest money on the ILB. They put it on the OLBs who rush the passer. Elvis Dumervil and his problems with a tender was caught in a situation that was set up by both the players association and the owners, but he will have his day, his contract and his money (althogh improving his run stopping would greatly expand that paycheck). It just isn't likely to be this year. the owners will save money when they can, especially with a potential lockout looming in 2010. DJ Williams is making a lot of money right now. Taking McClain at 11 puts a lot more money on that position. Is is worth it? Many will say yes, others will say no. It's a discussion that is well worth having, but again - it will be settled later in April. Wes Woodyard was tried out at ILB last year in training camp, and he's also an option. His coverage skills aren't great, but they are better than the average LB. There are other options, including Don Butler and other LBs from the draft, so let's consider them.
2. Donald Butler
Another ILB that has been linked to the Broncos as a potential 3rd-round option is Donald Butler. Although he didn't play with the same notoriety as McClain, he looks every bit the part of an inside linebacker, standing more than 6-1 and 244 lbs, although he did drop to 235 for the combine (Denver would encourage him to work out hard and gain that weight back in pure muscle. Tuten is very good in this area. Butler's pro-day 40 time was 4.61, so he's also versatile enough to get into coverage on tight ends. As Pro Football Weekly pointed out:
"Reacts quickly to what he sees. Good athletic ability Plays with leverage and can scrape and fill. Agile to slip, avoid and beat blockers to the block point and makes a lot of plays in the backfield. Solid open-field, wrap tackler. Stepped up in big games (see USC and Arizona). Able to stay on the hip of backs and tight ends and has man-cover skills. Times up blitzes and shows closing burst to the quarterback. Coachable. Respected team captain and vocal leader. Versatile--has lined up inside and outside..."
We all know McDaniels likes versatile linebackers. Butler fits this mold. A blitzer, solid tackler, and a guy who can get into coverage, allowing Denver more flexibility to slide between a 3-4 and a 4-3. Not having to come off the field on 3rd downs is a huge benefit as well.
Is Butler just a slightly bigger version of Wesley Woodyard, though? This would be my chief concern. While Woodyard is 228 currently, and Butler another 7 lb heavier and has played at 244, right now both men are looking to be around the 235-lbs. range and both can cover.
3. Brandon Spikes
It appears as if Florida Gator Brandon Spikes, a former 2nd-round lock, is now destined for the 4th round, due to his horrendous 40-yard dash time (5.03) at his pro-day. As a pure 3-4 ILB, he is similar to McClain, punishing and a hole filler. One can't doubt Spikes on tape. He simply made plays. Sure, his senior campaign hurt his stock badly, but as a junior, he did have 93 tackes, 2 sackes, and 4 interceptions. That talent still exists, and it can be had for a price a lot cheaper than McClain if the Broncos want to take an ILB in the middle rounds.
Spikes is more versatile than the scouting reports would have you believe. In college, he often lined up in a 3-point stance to rush the passer. And he did log 6 interceptions in his college career, which was more than McClain. Still, he's destined to become a 2-down linebacker.
Is this a real upgrade over someone like Haggan or Larsen? If you are looking for speed comparisons aside from your gut reaction, Larsen ran his 40-yard dash in the 4.82-4.85 range and Haggan ran his 40 at 4.88. At the same time, playing speed and foot speed in a straight line without equipment can be much different. It's certainly true that spikes was fast enough for college, but is he fast enough for the NFL? His decision-making quickness will be one of the factors that comes into this situation.
4. Jason Worilds
Many are projecting Jason Worilds out of Virginia Tech as an OLB for a 4-3, but given his size (6-1, 254 lbs), he's the type of guy who is versatile enough to make the move to the inside in a 3-4 system. His combine 40-yard dash was a decent 4.61, but average by elite OLB standards. His stock has been steadily rising since the combine and there's a chance he could go drop off the board by round 2. This is interesting, because his slide down the draft board was originally caused by his poor 2009 season, in which he finished with only 49 tackles and 4.5 sacks, down from his previous year's total of 62 tackles and 8 sacks.
Worilds strengths (pressing off blocks, backside pursuit, and solid wrap tackling) combined with this weaknesses (not a great pass rusher) would suggest that a move to the inside at the next level is exactly what's best for him. His average speed suddenly becomes very quick on the inside in a 3-4 and probably ensures that he could be an every-down ILB. Moreover, his extensive experience in the 4-3 allows for the Broncos to employ his versatility from both the outside and inside, depending on the down, distance, and blitz scheme.
Is he worth a 2nd-rounder to the Broncos, given they could probably get Butler in the 3rd or Spikes in the 4th? Probably not, but if Worilds falls into the 3rd or 4th round, his versatility makes him a more attractive option than Spikes, I believe.
5. Micah Johnson
If the Broncos want to wait until the late rounds to attempt to unearth a diamond in the rough at ILB, they might want to pull the trigger on Micah Johson, a 6-2, 256-lbs. plugger from Kentucky. Johnson has been really flying under the radar thus far as we approach the draft for two reasons. First, the value of ILB is always lower than that of other positions in general. And second, Johnson's 40-yard dash times (4.99 at the combine and 4.88 at his pro day) were underwhelming to say the least. However, there is combine speed and there is tape. And Johnson had some great games this year in the SEC and finished with 105 tackles. The guy is a tackling machine between the tackles on 1st and 2nd downs. His value in the 6th or 7th round is ideal.
A better option than Larsen or Haggan, however? That's hard to say, and a lot is riding on where Denver wants Haggan to go, as well as whether we find a FB type to replace Larsen, who is exceptional in that slot.
He might be just as valuable at ILB and be on the field more, and that needs to be factored as well.
6. Daryl Washington
Around the mock-draft community, Washington's named gets mentioned as a possibility as an ILB, but it's hard to imagine that the Broncos would go in that direction. McDaniels has a preference (this is no surprise to MHR readers) for bulk, and Washington, although standing over 6-1, tips the scales at only 229-lbs., so he'd be in a similar position to Wesley Woodyard, who the Broncos are already asking to add bulk, and Braxton Kelley. Washington could end up sneaking into the late 1st round, and would likely be gone by the 2nd round, so this is another difficulty, given all of the other needs facing Denver. However, if Denver does indeed deal Marshall, and the Broncos find themselves with extra 2nd-round picks, I believe Washington could get a look as under the "best player available" scenario.
The final word on this situation is simply that there are several viable options for the Broncos to fill the void that Andra Davis' departure has left. Denver has multiple options on the team already and several more considerations in the draft. While using a 1st round pick is always an exciting option in some ways, it's also worth consideration of exactly what the value is that you can afford to place on a single position or area of need. With DJ's conract being as high as it is - he just received a 3 million dollar bonus - it's tough to put in 11th pick money to ILB. The full amount of his contract is as follows:
9/6/2008: Signed a six-year, $32 million contract. The deal contains $13 million guaranteed, including a $4.5 million "signing" bonus in the second year. 2010: $3 million (+ $3 million roster bonus due in March), 2011: $4.9 million, 2012: $5 million, 2013: $6 million, 2014: Free Agent
With 6 million already going to DJ, Doc just doesn't see 1st round money going to McClain. There are other issues, but the contract status is a very real part of this decision. The choice will indicate a lot about what the McX team is looking for. A willingness to play out for McClain also indicates that the Broncos see ILB as one of the keys to their nerwer, more aggressive defense.
There is also a final point that may end up trumping all: While the Broncos had no shortage of targets for the pointing fingers of blame that were brought on by their 2-8 finish, one was surely the play of the offensive line. There may have been a similar issue that cost the Colts their Super Bowl this year. It's worth consideration that Jim Caldwell noted after the SB that the Colts had lost it on the strength of the OL. It's a good lesson for much lesser clubs, too: First, you fix the OL. Then, you fix everything else. Some people will suggest that ILB is the biggest weakness for the Broncos. I'm not sure that I'd go that far even after much of FA has rebuilt much of the DL, but OL and ILB are certainly in the top three in terms of need. The question remains - what direction will the McX team go?
Bring on that draft!