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Broncos Draft Prospects: Linebacker

Posted Apr 23, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason looks at the best time to draft linebackers in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Broncos' history drafting that position.

IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: It's all over the map.

To find a linebacker who can play every down, the best mix of value and potential production is anywhere from the late first to the third round. But as recent starters like Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan have proved, quality contributors can be found in the later rounds, and even outside the draft entirely.

In both cases, they had to grow into an every-down role -- and by 2013, Trevathan had nudged Woodyard out of that. The example of Trevathan is instructive: he dropped in the 2012 draft because of unexpectedly low testing numbers, but the film revealed a prolific tackler with above-average football instincts, acceleration, versatility and the ability to quickly read and react.

To find immediate help, the Broncos should look to the first two rounds, but with a year of growth, they could find future answers on the third day -- or beyond.

RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: Including Von Miller, who plays the base package on the strong side and sub packages as defensive end, the Broncos have taken four linebackers since John Elway and John Fox took the reins of the club in 2011. Three of them are still with the team, and all started at least seven games in the regular season and postseason combined.

If Robert Ayers is included (he was drafted as a defensive end/linebacker in the 3-4 alignment previously used by Denver), the Broncos have used five of their last 18 first-round picks on linebackers, the most of any position group in that span.

BRONCOS OUTLOOK: It all depends how the Broncos intend to use their linebackers in the coming season. Will 2011 third-rounder Nate Irving, the strongside fill-in for Miller, remain as Miller's understudy or get a look at middle linebacker? Can Brandon Marshall make a push at one of the spots? Does Lerentee McCray, on injured reserve last year, fit behind Miller on the depth chart, or perhaps at one of the other spots?

The loss of Woodyard did not remove the starting middle linebacker from the team, because he had been nudged out of the first team by Paris Lenon. But who will replace Woodyard alongside Trevathan in the nickel package that the Broncos use so often?

In the wake of free agency, there are few spots on the roster that have so many questions and relatively unknown quantities in roles that will see significant playing time. Linebacker is the exception. Miller figures to continue his base package strong-side role once he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Trevathan appears likely to be an every-down factor.

The Broncos don't have to take a linebacker early. Look no further than their season-ending middle linebackers the last two years, both of whom were signed in August of that season. If they can't pick an immediate contributor at linebacker, they can sift through the free agents still on the market for help.

But with Irving's contract expiring after the 2014 season and the position in transition, it would be a surprise if the Broncos didn't emerge from the draft with at least one new linebacker.