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Broncos Position Breakdown: Linebacker

Posted Apr 10, 2013

Andrew Mason takes a close look at the Broncos' linebacker position group.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No team handles playing time for its linebackers quite like the Broncos. But this isn't a problem -- not when you have Von Miller, even though his unique skill set and the Broncos' scheme has repercussions for how the Broncos use each of their other linebackers.

In retrospect, it seems silly to think that Miller could be considered an awkward fit in a 4-3 alignment. But when Miller was draft-eligible, many pundits felt that he was best served as a 3-4 outside linebacker. At a listed weight of 237 pounds, Miller seemed too light to be an every-down defensive end, but his massive pass-rush potential meant his skills could be wasted as a 4-3 strong- or weak-side linebacker.

The Broncos' solution was simple: make Miller a hybrid -- a base-package strong-side linebacker and a pass-rushing defensive end when the Broncos remove one linebacker for nickel downs and two for dime-package snaps. The official roster still lists Miller as a "linebacker," but it was his hand-in-the-dirt work that helped him become the only 4-3 linebacker to make the Pro Bowl in January.

Elvis Dumervil's departure is unlikely to change Miller's role drastically. It also won't change the blocking schemes he faces much; teams began focusing more on Miller than Dumervil as 2012 progressed. As long as the Broncos stay in a 4-3 alignment, Miller is in the role for which he's best suited, although his improvement in lateral pursuit against the run and in pass coverage gives the Broncos the flexibility to move him around even more in 2013, if they so choose.

Miller is the alpha dog of the front seven. But the defense didn't rise to No. 2 in the NFL last year on the strength of his skills alone; it helped that he had a perfect compliment on the opposite side in 229-pound Wesley Woodyard, who led the Broncos with 114 total tackles and became an every-down linebacker for the longest period as a pro to date.

Woodyard is at an interesting point in his career. He tested unrestricted free agency last year, then opted to return to the Broncos on a two-year contract for a reported $5 million. At the time, it looked like an insurance policy on D.J. Williams, the previous year's starting weakside linebacker who faced a six-game suspension that he contested. It was upheld, and after a conviction on a driving-while-ability-impaired charge added three games to Williams' absence, Woodyard had the opportunity he'd craved: a chance to be an every-down linebacker.

He did the job so well that Williams was relegated to spot duty upon his return, mostly when the Broncos went into their nickel packages. Meanwhile, Woodyard, who enters his sixth season this year, is playing for more than just his team; he could be playing for his long-term future and the potential for lifetime financial security his next contract could offer.

Woodyard wasn't even a Pro Bowl alternate, a curious snub considering that he was the only player in the NFL with at least five sacks, three interceptions and 60 tackles last year. If he hits the first two standards and goes over 100 tackles, he should get more consideration this time around, since such recognition often takes two years to be rewarded in the voting process.

For this season, Miller and Woodyard are the known commodities. Miller's contract expires after 2014, but decisions will be forthcoming in the next 10 to 16 months, because of terms placed into the collective bargaining agreement of 2011.  

Per the CBA, a team has the right to add another year (termed the "fifth-year option") to the contract of a first-round pick at the rate of a transition-player contract tender at his position. To do this, the team must give written notice to the player between the end of his third regular season and the following May 3, prior to the player's fourth season. If the sides want to avoid this situation, they can work on a renegotiation and/or an extension, beginning after the last regular-season game of the player's third year.

That's enough to keep the Broncos busy in making their long-term plans on the outside -- but there appears to be more short-term certainty there than at middle linebacker, where Head Coach John Fox and Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway have named Nate Irving, Steven Johnson and free-agent pickup Stewart Bradley as contenders for the job held last year by Joe Mays and 15-year veteran Keith Brooking.

Mays was demoted after five games and later tore an anterior cruciate ligament; he is still under contract, but has not been mentioned in connection with the position by Broncos officials in their on-the-record comments at the NFL Scouting Combine in February and owners' meetings a month later.

Mays was re-signed last year to start at middle linebacker, which might not have been necessary at all had Irving enjoyed a normal rookie transition after he was a third-round pick in 2011. It can be argued that no player was more hurt by the lockout of 2011 over the long term than Irving; as a middle linebacker, his learning curve was steeper than that of most positions. The cancellation of offseason practices left him without much of a knowledge base by the time he reported to training camp, and he couldn't catch up.

By Irving's second season, he was backing up as a strong-side linebacker and excelling on special teams. For him and Johnson, an undrafted free agent last year who also contributed on coverage units, their time is now -- unless the Broncos look for a middle linebacker in the draft. 

On the surface, it would seem illogical to target a middle linebacker who could dislodge Irving/Johnson/Bradley with an early-round pick, since the Broncos should use a middle linebacker on no more than half of the snaps, as a nickel alignment becomes the true base package. But if the Broncos can find a middle linebacker with enough speed and coverage ability to line up along with Woodyard as one of their two linebackers in a nickel alignment, this could bring middle linebacker up on the list of draft priorities. Both Mays and Brooking were one of the two linebackers in a nickel alignment at times last year, particularly early in the season.

Should the Broncos avoid drafting a linebacker, the most likely candidate to play next to Woodyard as one of the two linebackers in the nickel is Danny Trevathan, who handled that role at times last year and endured the standard rookie ups and downs, although his prodigious tackle totals at Kentucky and his football speed offer the Broncos reason to hope that he can flourish in an expanded role. Trevathan is often compared to fellow Kentucky alumnus Woodyard, even though their skill sets don't completely match, and if the Broncos can't sign Woodyard to a new contract next year, Trevathan could become an option on the weak side.

Elway takes pride in trusting the draft and the player-development process. That appears to be more true of linebackers than any other position group, where the Broncos are set to start three home-grown players -- with two backups, and perhaps more, also knowing only orange and blue as a pro. But for all of them, their usage will continue to flow from how the Broncos utilize Miller's singular talent.

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