ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It wasn't that long ago when the Broncos would have looked at their roster as constructed in February and deduced that middle linebacker was their top defensive need, with cornerback well down the priority list.
In 2013, however, the NFL style of play has evolved into a full-throttle, pass-intensive mode that makes the use of three linebackers an increasingly rare scenario for a team in the 4–3 alignment. So middle linebacker will likely be filled by one of two candidates previously on the roster as backups, while the Broncos supplemented an already solid cornerback corps with one of their pricier free-agent pickups in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-day draft pick, third-rounder Kayvon Webster.
"You look at last year: 65 percent of the plays of our defense were in nickel situations," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway told approximately 5,000 season-ticket holders on a conference call Tuesday.
It's time to stop referring to the 4-3 as the "base package." In effect, nickel is the new base.
Barring injuries, it appears likely that either Rodgers-Cromartie or Chris Harris, who ascended to the starting right cornerback role last season, will not be listed in the starting lineup on the official depth chart. But that chart won't reveal the importance of the top second-team cornerback to the club; whoever handles that role and becomes the nickelback will likely play a majority of the snaps.
Thus, the fourth cornerback becomes a backup who, at some point, will likely play a majority of a game's snaps, since the chances of all of the top three cornerbacks holding up for all 16 regular-season games is slim. It didn't happen last year thanks to Tracy Porter's seizure symptoms and an injury that kept Harris out for the Week 2 loss at Atlanta. Assuming that Bailey, Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie are the top three cornerbacks, Tony Carter, the third cornerback for much of last year, will still have a vital role -- assuming he can beat out 2012 fourth-rounder Omar Bolden, as well as Webster.
"Chris Harris and T.C. (Tony Carter) are great players for us, but we're always trying to upgrade and get better," said Director of Player Personnel Matt Russell, who also took part in the conference call.
And deeper. All six of the top cornerbacks heading into organized team activities could stick, and it would be justifiable for all, especially with Harris possessing college safety experience and Webster having size that led Russell to describe the South Florida product as "a safety playing corner that can also cover."
Although Champ Bailey's age (35 this year) and contract that expires after 2014 is notable, Rodgers-Cromartie and Webster were added to bolster the cornerback corps now, not for a perceived role in the future.
"We love T.C. We love Harris," said Russell, "and we wanted to get better when we signed Rodgers-Cromartie."
The depth chart also won't reveal how one of the three linebacker slots has taken a back seat. In the nickel, one of the linebackers must go. For a time last year, that meant moving Miller from the strong side to defensive end, and leaving then-middle linebacker Keith Brooking and weak-side linebacker Wesley Woodyard on the field for long stretches. But eventually, the nickel package saw Woodyard paired with rookie Danny Trevathan or veteran D.J. Williams, who was cut in March.
Trevathan is in the mix to have that role as one of two nickel linebackers all to himself, although the flexibility of many linebackers raises the possibility that Steven Johnson or Nate Irving — the two young linebackers with a combined zero starts that are expected to grapple for middle linebacker — could work in the nickel package alongside Woodyard.
"That's one thing Trevathan can do: he does a good job covering in the nickel situation," Elway said.
The depth chart will also deceive regarding backup strong-side linebacker Shaun Phillips, who will see substatial playing time. Like starter Von Miller, Phillip will get plenty of looks at defensive end in pass-rush situations when the Broncos go into nickel and dime packages, which Elway also laid out for the fans who listened and asked questions during the 50-minute call.
But the job won't exclusively belong to Phillips. Robert Ayers, who will be listed as the first-teamer at the "open" defensive end slot, will play quite a bit. Elway and Russell also hope that fifth-round rookie Quanterus Smith, currently rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, will also help fill the void left by Elvis Dumervil, who was an every-down defensive end for the last two seasons after the Broncos changed back to a 4-3 from the 3-4.
"I think we more than replaced Elvis as far as being able to put pressure on the quarterback," Elway said.
And the message sent by adding Phillips and Smith was the same as the one conveyed by the arrivals of Rodgers-Cromartie and Webster: it's a different game in 2013, and the Broncos must build a defense with a different composition than they've ever known. Pass rush and pass coverage have never been higher priorities than they are now.
"Adapt or die," Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane said in the film adaptation of Moneyball. The Broncos' offseason moves demonstrate that they have chosen the former.