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Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

Posted Jul 8, 2014

With three projected homegrown starters, the Broncos are optimistic that their linebacking unit can become a core strength of the defense.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Draft and develop. It's still the best way to build a team. And if all goes according to plan, the Broncos will line up in their base defense with three linebackers, all of whom were picked in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, anchoring the defense.

And all will be asked to do more this coming year than in 2013.

For strong-side linebacker and edge rusher Von Miller, the task is clear: recapture the form of 2012, when he set a franchise single-season sack record and was in contention for league Defensive Player of the Year honors. That entails shedding a bit of weight, staying away the kind of off-field issues that led to a six-game substance abuse suspension last year and recovering from the torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered at Houston last Dec. 22.

Losing the weight and rehabilitating can go hand-unhand.

"That didn’t work as well as I thought it would," said Miller, who added that he changed his eating habits. "It’s not like I wasn’t eating bad before, but my body fat has always been good. It’s just experimenting. I think me being able to be lighter is just better for me."

And it potentially allows him to be a better complement to defensive end DeMarcus Ware, when the two finally have a chance to line up as bookend pass rushers. Miller's success playing off Elvis Dumervil in 2012 could be a model for the Broncos' use of Miller and Ware in 2014. It hasn't taken long for Miller and Ware to build a rapport.

"It’s like DeMarcus already knows what I’m asking before I even ask it," he said. "I walk up to him and he’s like psychic. He already knows what I’m going to ask him when we start talking."

Talking, at least before the snap, is part of the job description for other linebackers, too.

For Irving, this summer is the most crucial in his four-season career. His previous chances to seize the middle linebacker role did not work out, and most of his starting work last year came as a strong-side linebacker when Miller was injured or suspended.

It was in that role that he finally found his footing. Although his duties were different than Miller's -- mostly because he didn't work as a pass-rushing end in sub packages -- Irving's comfort on the outside grew. His form peaked in Super Bowl XLVIII; even as the team struggled, Irving had arguably his best game, preventing an early Seahawks touchdown in coverage.

“I think Nate played well last year when he was called on," said Del Rio, "and the things that he got an opportunity to do, he played well."

"So I know he comes in with a lot of confidence based on the way he played last year, and the fact that he’s very familiar with our defense, understands where he belongs. He’s a heavy-handed guy, a bright guy, good communicator, and he’s having a good camp.”

Irving now needs to turn a good offseason into productive work at middle linebacker during training camp. But he's already been cited as a leader among linebackers by Del Rio, along with Trevathan, who took the Broncos' performance at weakside linebacker to another level last year, displaying the prodigious tackling and sense for the football that he displayed in his college years at Kentucky.

His play was often terrific in 2013. Trevathan's next step is to add leadership to his skill set.

"My job last year was just to make plays. To be a leader, you have to set an example. You have to make your name known," he said this spring. "I don't think I wanted to come here and be a leader, I had to earn that.

"Last year was a breaking-out season for me, and this year is going to be another breakout season for me. It's my job to help lead as much as I can. Just bring my characteristics to this team, my attitude to this team as much as I can."

Leadership is also expected from Miller, who believes his rough 2013 offers him the chance to counsel others to avoid the pitfalls.

"I can just share some of my experiences with the young guys and hope that I can rub off on those guys," Miller said. "Hopefully they can take it and experience it and use some of that stuff to better themselves. That’s all I can do."

LINEBACKERS: THE BASICS

Von Miller: His presence with his fellow front seven players during individual drills at the start of OTA practices was a comforting sign that his recovery from a torn ACL has progressed well. He admitted in June that he had "no idea" when he would be back to full speed in practice, but his availability in the individual period was encouraging.

Danny Trevathan: Perhaps the best statistic to sum up his breakout season last year was his ability to create potential turnovers: he had four forced fumbles and three interceptions.

Nate Irving: If the Broncos don't add a veteran middle linebacker, then that should be an indication that Irving is adjusting well to middle linebacker. The team signed a pair of veterans in the last two training camps: Keith Brooking in 2012 and Paris Lenon last year; both were starters by the end of the regular season.

Brandon Marshall: After spending nearly all of the regular season on the practice squad, he emerged as a key special teamer in the postseason thanks to the domino effect of Miller's ACL injury.

Lerentee McCray: The Broncos' hopes are high for McCray, who appeared to have a good shot at making the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie last year before suffering an ankle injury in the preseason finale. McCray has fully healed, and perhaps no Bronco benefitted more from Miller's absence during OTAs, as he frequently squared off against Julius Thomas and Virgil Green in coverage and Ryan Clady and Chris Clark when he rushed the passer.

Steven Johnson: A special-teams leader, Johnson briefly filled in against the Chiefs last November and helped spearhead a goal-to-go stop. The arrival of rookie Lamin Barrow will create one of the most intriguing competitions for a backup slot on the team.

Lamin Barrow: He could be part of the Broncos' long-term future at middle linebacker, but how much the fifth-rounder helps this year depends on his progress this summer. If he can't earn a starting slot, he could still work his way into extensive work if he can earn a sub-package role next to Trevathan.

Corey Nelson: Having recovered from the pectoral injury suffered last year that depressed his draft status, the seventh-round pick's best shot at sticking on the 53-man roster this year will be to play well on special teams.

Jamar Chaney: In 2011, Chaney started all 16 games for the Eagles, most of them at middle linebacker after being used on the strong side early in that season. After working as a reserve in 2012, Chaney wasn't a fit as an inside linebacker after the Eagles converted to a 3-4 alignment last year and was waived in the preseason. His experience could prove valuable, but he will need a strong summer to stick on the roster.

Shaquil Barrett: His skill set is similar to that of McCray; as a pass rusher, he has the potential to operate from the edge, either with his hand in the dirt or from a stand-up stance.

Chase Vaughn: After four years and four leagues -- including two of the 50-yard, field-on-a-hockey-rink variety -- the CSU-Pueblo and Smoky Hill High School product finally gets his NFL shot. Vaughn had the best season of his pro career with the Arena Football League's Spokane Shock in 2013. The 248-pounder was a defensive end in the eight-man AFL, and can provide speed and power off the edge.

L.J. Fort: One of a handful of ex-Browns prospects brought in this offseason, Fort started one game in Cleveland two years ago, and played all 16 games, mostly on special teams.

Jerrell Harris: The Broncos are the sixth NFL team for which Harris has played in the last two years, but he's still looking for his first regular-season work. He also spent time on the practice squads of the Jaguars, Patriots, Raiders and, last year, the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.

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