Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason will evaluate each position group. He will take a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and address how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. This week: linebackers.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: If you're a 3-4 team seeking an edge-rushing outside linebacker, you have to pounce early most years. But this year, the depth of potential 3-4 pass rushing OLBs is so great that good value for a potential elite talent will likely exist into the 20s.
But the Broncos provide evidence of how you can unearth bargains. Wesley Woodyard, last year's starter at weakside linebacker and a team captain on special teams dating back to the Josh McDaniels era, was undrafted coming out of Kentucky. Woodyard, like many young linebackers, made his name early on special teams; that's the first, best way for a linebacker outside of the first round to make an impact.
You're not usually going to find potentially elite pass-rushing linebackers in the mid to late rounds or the undrafted class, but that's where you can unearth complimentary linebackers who have the proper skill set -- coverage ability, good tackling form, intelligence -- but have less than ideal height and/or weight. In other words, you're always looking for the next Sam Mills or London Fletcher when you get to the draft's third day -- and beyond.
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: The Broncos have taken at least one linebacker in four of their last five drafts, and Von Miller was the highest pick in team history (No. 2 overall) in 2011. Of the six linebackers selected in that span, three are still with the team -- Miller, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan.
If you include Robert Ayers -- a defensive end who could play outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment the Broncos used when they drafted him in 2009 -- five of the Broncos' last 17 first-round picks have been linebackers, the most of any position group. No other area of the roster has seen more than three first-round picks in that stretch.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: As noted Wednesday, the Broncos' rotation is unusual, in that their strongside linebacker, Von Miller, stays on the field but moves to defensive end. When John Fox had a 4-3 defense in Carolina, he typically left his middle and weakside linebackers on the field, with the strongside linebacker rotating out of play.
Miller appears set to be a linchpin for the foreseeable future. But around him are question marks. If the Broncos aren't confident in the potential of Nate Irving and Steven Johnson to handle the middle slot, they could look there, although Stewart Bradley, a former starting middle linebacker in Philadelphia, is an insurance policy there. With Wesley Woodyard's contract expiring after this season, the Broncos face a decision on the weak side; if they don't retain him, they could look to 2012 sixth-round pick Danny Trevathan, who could be used as one of the two nickel linebackers (along with Woodyard) this year.
At middle and weakside linebacker, the Broncos have answers. It's a question of whether they like the potential answers in the draft better than the ones already on hand.
LINEBACKERS THAT MIGHT FIT WHERE THE BRONCOS PICK IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS:
Alec Ogletree, Georgia: A DUI arrest before the NFL Scouting Combine means that judgment and character must be called into question -- especially when it comes on the heels of a four-game suspension last year, reportedly for a violation of substance-abuse rules. If the decision were only made on his on-field play, Ogletree wouldn't be anywhere near the Broncos' draft range; he could play inside or outside and kept the quickness and agility he showed at safety before he moved to linebacker.
Kevin Minter, LSU: Other potential inside/middle linebackers at the top of the draft class have warts on them -- as seen with Ogletree and Manti Te'o, who we'll get to shortly. Minter does not. Although Minter's open-field speed isn't the best (he's been clocked at 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash), he plays intelligently, has good tackling fundamentals and should be able to step in and handle defensive checks and calls immediately.
Sio Moore, Connecticut: I loved the way he announced his presence at the Senior Bowl after being a mid-week injury replacement; he immediately stepped onto the field, flew to the ball and was the most aggressive of the linebackers on the North team the day he practiced. He's an every-down, all-around outside linebacker who should be a good bargain in the second round.
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame:Speaking solely of his work on the field -- and not the fake-girlfriend hoax that turned him into tabloid fodder -- there's a lot of good tape on Te'o throughout his Fighting Irish career. But if his play against Alabama and his combine speed are reflective of Te'o's true level, then he isn't fast enough to be a linebacker that you leave on the field in nickel and dime packages in a 4-3 alignment, and a first-round pick is too high an investment for someone who won't even play 50 percent of the snaps.
Jamie Collins, Southern Mississippi: Don't let his team's utter collapse to 0-12 affect your judgment of Collins; he was a bright spot amid the darkness, finishing with 20 tackles for losses and 10 sacks last year, exceeding his totals of 19.5 and 6.5, respectively, in 2011. He projects more as an outside linebacker, but if he could transition into the middle -- and at 250 pounds, he has the size to easily handle this -- he could be an every-down player.
Jarvis Jones, Georgia: He's not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense. He's not strong enough in coverage to be a weakside linebacker, and at 242 pounds, he's too small to be an every-down defensive end.
Others of note: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers; Arthur Brown, Kansas State; Barkevious Mingo, LSU (if he unexpectedly drops out of the top 20).
LINEBACKERS OF NOTE FOR THE MID TO LATE ROUNDS:
Sean Porter, Texas A&M: You'd like to see faster than a 4.69-second 40-yard dash time from a 229-pound linebacker, but the film is more telling than the workouts. Porter actually succeeded Von Miller in A&M's defense, although he gradually became less of a pass rusher and more of a coverage and run-defending linebacker.
Cornelius Washington, Georgia: He projects more as a defensive end in the NFL, thanks to a 264-pound frame and strong upper body (he led all combine linebackers in bench-press repetitions).
Kiko Alonso, Oregon: Alonso could play inside or outside; his experience is on the inside, but he has the size and athleticism to play on the edge, and plays larger than his 238-pound frame. A concern is injuries; he has a torn ACL and wrist issues in his past.
Others of note: Jon Bostic, Florida; Zaviar Gooden, MIssouri; Gerald Hodges, Penn State; DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina; Jelani Jenkins, Florida; Nico Johnson, Alabama; A.J. Klein, Iowa State; Corey Lemonier, Auburn; Lerentee McCray, Florida; Keith Pough, Harvard; Ty Powell, Harding; Kevin Reddick, North Carolina; Chase Thomas, Stanford; Trevardo Williams, Connecticut.