ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- While Linebackers Coach Richard Smith is disappointed he hasn't been able to work face-to-face with his position group so far this offseason, he's plenty excited for what the corps will bring in 2011.
When asked about what he expects to see out of the linebackers this season, he started by gushing about the middle linebacker competition.
It begins with a player who has "already earned his stripes" as a veteran,
"When I watched him on film, Joe Mays can knock you out," Smith said. "I look at him, his body type is more of a Mike linebacker. I did have the opportunity to meet him during this offseason before the lockout, and I like his personality. I like his demeanor."
Right behind him is one of the nine new Broncos, third-round pick
"I'm very impressed with him," Smith said. "This guy is very mature and football is very, very important to him. I liked the way he played (at N.C. State). The story that he overcame that accident -- he's a tough guy.
"Even though he's a rookie, I think that will be very good competition between him and Joe. The reason I say that is he's mature, he's confident, he loves to play the game. I think whoever ends up coming out of that position, whether it be Joe or Nate, I think we're going to end up with a pretty good inside linebacker there."
Next, Smith praised another incoming rookie, second overall pick
The coach said Miller has "Pro Bowl-type ability," and has the work ethic to get himself to that level. At the same time, it's up to the coaches to help put the rookie in the best position to succeed.
"That's our job as coaches, to find out the things that he can do really, really well," Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen said last month. "We're going to let him do those things. The things that he may not be as good at -- I hear a lot of people talking about this guy dropping into coverage and that kind of stuff -- listen, if he's not good at it, we won't do it. Because he doesn't have to drop back in coverage if he's hitting the quarterback."
Allen said Miller will get better at the subtleties of playing linebacker in the NFL, and in the meantime the club expects his pass-rushing ability to carry over right away.
With Miller slotted for the Sam, or strongside linebacker position, Smith turned his attention to the Will, or weakside.
A potential backup at outside linebacker is
"When you look at it two years ago, he was a starter in the sub package," he said. "These coaches that were here, they weren't bad coaches, so if they put him in those situations, that means they think that he does have some coverage skills. From that standpoint I know that he can run. I've watched him play numerous times not only on defense but in the kicking game, and I like the emotion that this guy plays with. That excites me. It shows me that he likes to play the game. I call it a 'rah-rah.' Once again, I don't know him at all -- I haven't spent any time with him. But what I see on film, it looks like he's got some pretty good speed that you could match him up on certain positions like a tight end or running back, and that's what I've seen."
The final linebacker Smith spoke specifically about was the club's third rookie at the position,
He said the sixth-round draft pick could be a "quality backup" behind Miller at Sam or at middle linebacker, where he started 19 games at Cal.
"What we liked about him was he's very, very bright -- he's got a high test score," Smith said. "When you look at it, he's had great production. Seven interceptions, that means he's got some ball skills and was in the right position. And I see him as a core special teams player.
"When you start getting later-round draft picks -- fifth, sixth and seventh round -- that are making your team, you're doing a good job drafting. Time will have to tell through training camp and preseason."
With three more veteran linebackers --