Skip to main content

Denver Broncos | News

Breaking down the linebackers

The basic job descriptions of Broncos front-seven defenders won't change much in 2015. But the spots from which they operate and the angles they must take will see a tweak in the 3-4 alignment.

And while position shifts appear to be imminent -- for DeMarcus Ware in particular -- we're going to look back at those who were linebackers in 2014, starting with the unit's lone Pro Bowler:


VON MILLER** Games played/started:16/16
Contract:Broncos picked up fifth-year option for 2015.

Let's not forget that Miller, like cornerback Chris Harris Jr., made a quick comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which he suffered on Dec. 22, 2013. As with Harris, Miller had a successful return, leading the Broncos with 14 sacks and returning to the Pro Bowl.

Miller was's third-highest rated player at any position this season, trailing only Houston's J.J. Watt and Oakland's Khalil Mack. But strictly measuring pass rushes, Miller's 33.6 rating outpaced everyone in the league but Watt.

But in the playoff loss to Indianapolis, Miller pressured Andrew Luck just once and finished the game without a sack. The Broncos rarely blitzed and mixed up tactics, leaving the Colts prepared to account for Miller on a play-by-play basis.

Perhaps no one on the defense could be helped more by the switch to new coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 alignment than Miller. Instead of being a hybrid 4-3 strong-side linebacker and nickel pass rusher, he'll work from a stand-up position exclusively, as will DeMarcus Ware.

When Miller was the top defensive player in the 2011 draft class, many pundits believed he would only be a fit for a 3-4 team. The Broncos made it work on a 4-3. But Derrick Thomas, the player to whom he is often compared -- and the one Miller regards as a hero -- did his best work in a 3-4 alignment in Kansas City, where he was free to attack from outside and use his speed to whip around offensive tackles.

The Broncos showed 3-4 looks occasionally in recent years. Now those alignments going to become the base, and Miller, with a new scheme and another year removed from a torn ACL, should flourish. **

BRANDON MARSHALL** Games played/started:14/13
Contract:Restricted free agent.

A revelation last year, the former practice-squad player could be in line for a bigger 2015, once he puts the foot sprain that he suffered Dec. 14 at San Diego behind him.

Marshall first earned notice for his play in the second preseason game against the 49ers last August, when he consistently closed lanes and stifled San Francisco's ground game. The other aspects of his game came together throughout the season, and by December, he was touted as a legitimate Pro Bowl possibility, having become the glue of the defense, and as effective in coverage and space as he was inside against the run.

His skill set makes him well-equipped to play inside in Phillips' 3-4 -- or any 3-4, for that matter, especially with Ware and Miller outside. Marshall expressed a love for being used in the blitz, and on the rare occasions he attacked the passer, he was effective. He should get more opportunities in 2015, which could be too much for an opposing blocking scheme to handle.

Games played/started:8/8
Contract:Expired; will become an unrestricted free agent.

After suffering a torn medical collateral ligament in the Week 9 loss at New England, Irving went on injured reserve, ending a promising season. The change to a 3-4 defense does not appear to suit him well, but he proved last year he could play well in the middle of a 4-3 alignment, and produced when given the chance to play every down after seeing situational work off and on in his first three seasons. Still, the presence of plenty of young linebackers and the scheme fit does not appear to bode well for him.

Games played/started:3/1
Contract:Expires after 2015 season.

It's not a question of whether Trevathan can contribute in a as an inside linebacker 3-4 alignment, although he will have to operate in greater traffic than the level to which he became accustomed as a 4-3 weakside linebacker, which will spawn some adjustment on his part.

But that is secondary compared to the condition of his left knee after three injuries that limited him to one full game and parts of two others. If he can put those problems behind him and return to effectiveness, then the Broncos have an intriguing speed/pursuit blend at inside linebacker possibility with Trevathan and Marshall, and it would suit Phillips' defense well. But that's a big if.


STEVEN JOHNSON** Games played/started:14/7
Contract:Expired; eligible for restricted free agency.

The special-teamer delivered solid play as a two-down middle linebacker, although he struggled late in the season when asked to handle short-area coverage responsibilities, which was on display on a Giovani Bernard touchdown catch-and-run in Cincinnati in Week 16.

But against the run, he brought some thump, which was no surprise given his pursuit and aggression on special teams. And if the Broncos bring him back, he will at minimum provide solid depth and an experienced option in some packages if Trevathan's injury issues linger.

The Broncos learned in 2014 what Johnson can do best -- and learned that, in the right role, he can deliver.

Games played/started:6/2 (played three others with Saints)
Contract:Expires after 2015 season; exclusive-rights free agent in 2016.

Although the image of Davis that will stay with most fans is of being beaten by Colts tight end Coby Fleener in the divisional-round loss, one play should not obscure the rapid progress he made after ascending to the first team following injuries to Marshall and Trevathan in San Diego.

Davis' ability to absorb the playbook in a hurry and learn a new defense after joining the Broncos in Week 10 as a waiver claim from the Saints suits him well for his next task: learning a new role in the 3-4.


LERENTEE McCRAY** Games played/started:13/0
Contract:Expires after 2015 season.

Miller's backup at strongside linebacker and rush end made the big play he'd been waiting for in the regular-season finale with a strip-sack fumble of Oakland quarterback Derek Carr that led to a touchdown.

McCray should settle in again behind Miller as a strongside backup in the 3-4, and looks to build off a season in which he was credited by with five QB hurries in 69 pass rushes -- a ratio of one hurry every 13.8 chances that was better than DeMarcus Ware's rate of one QB hurry every 16.8 pass rushes.

Games played/started:16/0
Contract:Expires after 2017 season.

More than half (56) of his defensive snaps came in a two-week span of October after Trevathan's second injury pressed the seventh-round pick into service. He showed some flashes of brilliance, particularly against the run, but had a bumpier transition in pass coverage.

Games played/started:16/1
Contract:Expires after 2017 season.

Originally drafted to be groomed as a middle linebacker, the plan has changed for Barrow, who saw mostly sub package work last year and will likely be in the mix to provide depth at inside linebacker. Barrow played with energy, particularly on special teams, but undermined his progress with third-phase penalties that need to be at minimum reduced, and preferably eliminated.

Games played/started:0/0 (played one playoff game)
Contract:Expires after 2016 season.

Barrett's progress bears monitoring. The 3-4 defense might bring out the best in his pass-rushing skills, and the battle for backup slots could be wide open. Expect him to make a push for a spot -- and more playing time.

Do you have a question for Andrew Mason? Ask it here and you might be in this week's Mailbag!


Check out the best photos of the Broncos' linebackers from the 2014 season, including two exquisite celebrations.


This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.