After the high of a great win over a division rival, it’s hard to come back to earth. One thing that’s a difficult reality for Denver, though, has been the disappointing play of Joe Mays.
Suspended for Sunday’s contest with the Oakland Raiders, he was effectively replaced by Keith Brooking, who looked better on Sunday than Mays has all year.
I give Mays, the Broncos, and Jack Del Rio credit for improving Mays’s coverage situation via changes in scheme somewhat as the season has progressed. Mays gave up four completions on four targets in the opener, two completions on three targets at Atlanta, and just one target and completion against Houston, with an average reception of 7.4 yards overall. They’re getting him out of danger well, but there’s more to the problem here. I have to wonder if they’re not following what they expected to have work, despite finding that it doesn’t. They need to look seriously at what has been more effective.
Mays's lack of speed, and inadequate play and adjustment calls has created problems in the middle linebacker section (mid- to deep-middle) of the classic Cover 2 defense. Denver often switches to Cover-1, -3, or -6 to deal with that. That’s good, but it doesn’t obscure the fact that Mays can’t cover his deep middle zone and has other problems.
The question is, what is Mays bringing to the table? He doesn’t cover well, he’s not taking good angles, he still bites on play fakes, he doesn’t play special teams any longer, and his tackling is way down. It’s the picture of a player who’s in over his head. Perhaps he should become the special teams ace and LB backup he was brought in to be.
Keith Brooking came in and was a noticeable and immediate upgrade. Part of that was simply Brooking’s long experience with the NFL, and his ability to see what Mays and even Wesley Woodyard might not - he made play-calling adjustments that on several occasions resulted in the play going for little or no yardage. TJ has said the same, and he's right . Brooking’s lack of speed wasn’t a problem against the Raiders. His experience, on the other hand, was a boon.
After this year, Denver might want to look towards free agency and to see if they can’t bring in someone who does have MLB experience, because the improvement in the play adjustments was so noticeable, with Brooking getting people into the right spot on multiple plays. Del Rio also called one heck of a game. But as far as next year - draft for the future, certainly, but it seems that the present benefits from an experienced eye at MLB. Brooking also put up five tackles, three of them solo. There was also no dropoff in Denver’s overall hitting, a selling point of Mays in the past - they struggled with tackling form somewhat in the first half, but unleashed orange hell on Oakland in the second.
Going with Brooking is far from a riskless proposition. He was a great player in his prime, and I honor that. Now, though, he’s in the final season(s) of his career. He’s been slow getting to plays previously, but not noticeably against the Raiders - the Mike, his traditional position, appears to suit him better. He’s not been unproductive, either - Brooking had 95 snaps going into Sunday (mostly at Will), with eight tackles and a forced fumble.
He was, in fairness, gashed against the run in the Houston game, and also gave up three receptions on three targets. He added five tackles against the Raiders, though - half of Mays’s three-game total (10 tackles) in just one game. He’s now up to 13 tackles in 89 fewer snaps than Joe took to get to 10. Brooking is fine for now. Optimally, my own preference would be a quality veteran MLB as a very good investment in this offseason, but first things first.
To get a more complete picture, I think that Mays’s play also has to be compared with Wesley Woodyard’s. Woodyard is currently the starter at Will, backed up by Brooking when Keith isn’t covering Mike. Woodyard led the team in tackles with 20 (he also had six against Oakland and leads the team) after three games, while Mays, as noted, had 10.
Woodyard also had 0.5 sacks (he added one more Sunday) and an interception; Mays had one sack, no picks. The numbers given for WW were on 127 snaps in the first three contests, while Mays had been on the field for 213 snaps (figures according to PFF) over the same three games. That gives Mays less than half of WW’s production on substantially more snaps. It’s clear that WW, as well as Brooking, is outplaying Mays.
What might complicate things slightly - but shouldn’t - is that Joe just received a new contract. Rotoworld has it this way:
Mays signed a three-year, $12 million contract on March 20th of this year. The deal contains $4.5 million guaranteed, including a $500,000 signing bonus, all of Mays' first-year salary, and $500,000 of his second-year salary. These are the figures by year: 2012: $3.5 million, 2013: $4 million, 2014: $3.5 million (+ $500,000 roster bonus). In 2015, he’d become a free agent.
The unpleasant reality is that this may in part be wasted money. However, only $500K is guaranteed for next year. I’m not suggesting that Mays not play at all - just that he’s not the solution as a starter at MLB. As Ted points out, there’s no sense in crying about sunk costs. Mays is a team player, a sparkplug, and can be a tough tackler (his suspension was for a play that clearly did not have an intentional outcome). He’s a value on special teams. He can back up as a Will/Mike/Sam.
For a guy in his fifth season of play, though, he’s not making it as a starter. This is a production-based business, and he’s just not producing. He isn’t the thumping power run stuffer in the middle that was hoped for, and he’s also not playing special teams or defeating the pass. He doesn’t really have a defined role that Brooking or Woodyard couldn’t play better. It’s just my opinion, but it’s based in numbers and a lot of reps of game film.
Woodyard could also improve the position, but that would mean that someone - probably Brooking, perhaps Danny Trevathan over time - would need to step up and play Will, as well as joining Woodyard in the nickel defense. Trevathan had one solo tackle against the Raiders, but he was always around the ball during his 23 snaps, and also did well in coverage - he just needs to get playing time. I think that moving Woodyard, given that there’s an alternative, would be premature.
Brooking seemed comfortable in the middle. His mind is a huge benefit, and he tackles well. His speed has been lagging at times in other games. That’s sad but true - this isn’t an emotion-based perspective. I’m just calling what I see on film. From the middle, he seems to have less of a problem with that than when he was at Will.
Whatever their choice, Denver really needs to make a change at middle linebacker. Seeing the alternative on Sunday, albeit against a less-than-coherent Raiders team, showed that there are alternatives to be had. Much as I like and suspect that Wesley Woodyard would be a better choice in the middle, one thing was made clear on Sunday.
Keith Brooking earned the job. He’s smarter, he makes better play calls and adjustments, and he seemed to get to plays faster from the middle. The numbers, and the film, back that up. I hope they stay with him.
I have all the admiration in the world for Joe Mays, the person. The player isn’t getting it done, though, and it’s time to get real and deal with that.