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Broncos Position Breakdown: Linebacker

Posted Apr 22, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes an in-depth look at the Broncos' linebacker position entering the 2014 season.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are answers on hand to the questions at linebacker, but the second line of defense is by no means settled four and a half months away from the regular season.

Who will back up Von Miller in the base package on the strong side? Will Nate Irving get another shot at playing in the middle after his strong work on the strong side in the postseason, particularly in Super Bowl XLVIII, when his alert play kept the game from getting out of hand early? Is Steven Johnson ready to push for a more expansive defensive role after emerging as a solid special teamer the last two years? Will Brandon Marshall be the special-teamer who surges? And how will Lerentee McCray look this summer after being placed on injured reserve after the final preseason game of 2013?

Note that none of those questions involve Danny Trevathan. The third-year linebacker became a known commodity last season.

More will be asked of Trevathan in terms of leadership and setting this line of defense, with five-season captain Wesley Woodyard moving on to the Tennessee Titans in free agency. But after Trevathan's 2013 breakthrough, he appears ready. He led the Broncos in tackles with 124, intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and added seven tackles for losses and two sacks -- the kind of all-around performance demanded on the weak side.

"I think Danny Trevathan is kind of a guy who’s ascending and has really become a strong player for us," Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said in January. "Because of this season, I would call him an emerging player. Very productive, very instinctive.

"I think he’s got a very bright future. He’ll continue to grow and get better and better as we go."

Irving's future could be bright, depending on how much playing time he ends up receiving in 2014. Although the work he received at middle linebacker in previous offseasons and preseasons didn't result in him getting the job, he filled in for Miller in the base package at strong-side linebacker during Miller's six-game suspension and after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 16. With each snap, his confidence rose.

"As a young player, the more experience you get, the better you feel going into different situations," he said before the Super Bowl. "I feel like I have enough confidence in myself, my teammates have confidence in me and my coaches have confidence in me to go out each week, each practice and each game to perform and do well."

Irving's contract expires after the season. Where he ends up fitting in the defense could have a domino effect. If he settles in at middle linebacker, then any chance for Johnson to get a look there could be reduced; last year, Johnson was the backup on the weak side to Trevathan. If Irving returns to serve as a backup on the strong side, then that would affect McCray and Marshall, who was the second-team strong-side linebacker in the postseason.

McCray was one of the Broncos' preseason standouts last year after arriving as an undrafted free agent from Florida. His ability to drop into coverage, maintain his ground against the run and help in the pass rush made him a potentially ideal backup for Miller, since he had the size and skill set to potentially handle the dual defensive end/strongside linebacker at which Miller flourished. But an ankle injury delayed that role. Onlookers might have forgotten about McCray, but the Broncos haven't.

But all this is subject to what the Broncos do in the draft. Woodyard's departure created a hole at one of the two linebacker spots in the nickel package the Broncos use frequently. Neither Woodyard nor Paris Lenon are with the Broncos, so the first-team middle linebacker will be someone new, whether it's a holdover moving over or a new arrival.

There is potential within the group, and if the Broncos feel confident in them, then linebacker is not a need that has to be addressed at all costs. Nevertheless, it would surprise no one if the Broncos pick a linebacker in the first two days of the draft -- especially if they can find a middle linebacker who can also transition to a nickel role and play every down, if needed.