ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Every year, you can count on at least one position group absorbing an atypical wave of injuries. For the 2014 Broncos, it is linebacker.
The team seemed prepared for this with how it allocated its draft picks, selecting two linebackers on the 2014 NFL Draft's third day: fifth-rounder Lamin Barrow and seventh-rounder Corey Nelson. But as the Broncos try to maintain at least a first-round playoff bye, their hopes of containing surging Bengals running back Jeremy Hill might rest on a rookie who wasn't even on the team at midseason.
Say hello to Todd Davis, a Nov. 6 waiver claim from New Orleans who played 28 defensive snaps at San Diego in the wake of injuries to Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan and acquitted himself well, particularly when he showed off his speed to the sideline.
Take a look at the murals of memorable Broncos players inside the halls of Dove Valley.
"We don't have a lot of guys that have played a lot of [NFL] football," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton of the remaining healthy linebackers. "But Todd Davis can come in and make an impact."
Davis didn't simply have to replace the two playmaking weakside linebackers; he had to help make the calls without the aid of the radio-receiver helmet that has become the standard for linebackers who relay the calls in recent years. Marshall and Trevathan had the helmets with radios; and without them, the Broncos resorted to old-school methods.
That heightened Davis' challenge, but it all worked out, and the Broncos forced turnovers on their last two defensive series, during which Davis worked extensively.
"We kind of had to rely on talking more than ever, but I think it ended up being pretty good," Davis said. "We kind of worked out some things on the sideline. They gave me a couple of options on signals. Kind of like, 'You've got these plays to choose from, you can run these while you're out there, and then we'll work from there.'"
It was as deep as the deep end gets for a rookie thrown into the pool.
And even though Davis is the newest rookie on the 53-man roster, we'll start there, because on Monday night in Cincinnati, he could be the most important rookie on the roster.
LB TODD DAVIS
So far:Davis played three regular-season games in New Orleans before joining the Broncos, but his work was limited to special teams, with just five offensive snaps thrown in before they waived him Nov. 5.
Davis is raw, as with many rookies, but has some tools, starting with his speed. As is the case with Marshall and Trevathan, Davis plays faster than his listed 40-yard dash time -- which was north of 4.80 seconds at his Pro Day.
"I think it was just me putting too much on myself -- trying to go out there and be fast and trying to do too much," he said. "I mean, I'm out there running sprints the day before, just trying to be the best that I can be, and then by the time I got to Pro Day, I think my body was just (tired)."
After that, he went undrafted. He acknowledges that the poor Pro Day affected his draft stock. But seven months after all 32 teams passed on him over three days of the draft, he can hardly complain. He can look a few feet away and around the corner to see the recently re-signed Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos' current, shining example of how draft status means nothing if you can play.
Consider that in the last three years, the Broncos have received stellar weakside linebacking from Wesley Woodyard, Trevathan and this year, Marshall. Woodyard was undrafted; Trevathan was a sixth-rounder and Marshall was a fifth-round pick.
They maximized their opportunities. Davis hopes he's next.
"I just wanted to come here and make the best I could of the opportunity," he said. "I just feel blessed to be here, and I'm just excited for the future."
CB BRADLEY ROBY**
So far:With more snaps than all but six defenders, Roby is effectively a starter -- even though he only has two starts -- playing 76.1 percent of the Broncos' defensive snaps this season.
With Harris emerging as a dominant corner and Aqib Talib a tough matchup, the ball flew in Roby's direction often in recent weeks -- particularly against Buffalo, when quarterback Kyle Orton tried to make Roby look like the rookie he is.
The results were mixed. Orton beat Roby for a 35-yard pass to Sammy Watkins. But Roby also forced a first-quarter fumble. Takeaways must be part of the equation for Roby to be effective; if teams are going to target him often -- 44 times in the last seven games, according to ProFootballFocus.com -- he'll need to make them pay often enough to take the pressure off him.
In the meantime, he continues to grow.
"I don't know that anybody could have predicted that he could have played the role that he's played and played as well as he's played for us," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio last week. "It hasn't been perfect, but it never is. And that's what I've explained to him: as long as you're competing, playing with great technique and going after it every week, you'll get better, you'll learn from the experiences you have. And I think that's what he's doing right now, and I'm sure glad we have him."
LB COREY NELSON
Nelson filled in as one of the nickel linebackers after Trevathan's injury in October, working alongside Marshall. He could be an option again in the next few weeks, depending on situations, and how Davis fares. Nelson is a solid special teamer, but was also in on the the most explosive play the special teams has allowed, Julian Edelman's 84-yard punt return at New England -- although he was blocked in the back on the play.
LB LAMIN BARROW
So far:Barrow got his only start of the season against Miami in Week 12, and in his role as nickel linebacker, played a career-high 20 snaps that day. But he struggled, and the Broncos returned to using safety T.J. Ward as one of two nickel linebackers, as has been the case most often since Week 10.
Barrow ranks third on the Broncos in special-teams tackles with six, and plays with abandon. But that has also led to penalties, and an ejection in the 31-17 win over the New York Jets in Week 6.
RB JUWAN THOMPSON**
So far:Thompson's got straight-line power and decisiveness to the hole that evokes memories of some fine power backs over the years. But there's also some shiftiness there, too, displayed in open-field moves that probably aren't a surprise anymore, but still draw oohs because they belie a back of his size.
The Broncos expect to get Ronnie Hillman back at some time in the near future following the three-year veteran's foot sprain. But with a 5.1-yards-per-carry average, 3 touchdowns and the Broncos' longest single run in three years (47 yards against Buffalo), Thompson has made a compelling statement to be the No. 2 back, although Hillman will be fresh and has the most speed of any runner in the group.
WR CODY LATIMER
So far:A concussion suffered during practice two weeks ago was a roadblock to Latimer, whose playing time was on the upswing in the weeks before he was injured. Manning looked for Latimer on a go route up the right sideline in Kansas City that could have been a touchdown or set up a goal-to-go chance, but the pass was too long into tight coverage.
If Latimer had been healthy for the Buffalo game Dec. 7, he might have been an intriguing option to provide an occasional breather for Demaryius Thomas, who struggled that day with a bruised ankle. But barring more injuries to the receiving corps, it looks like his time to emerge will be 2015.
G/T MICHAEL SCHOFIELD
So far:Schofield's work continues to be only on the practice field. However, he could find himself in uniform for the first time next Monday if the injuries to tackles Ryan Clady (quadriceps) and Paul Cornick (toe) have not healed in time for each to play. But barring multiple injuries, the time to measure Schofield's development will be this offseason and training camp.
WR/PR ISAIAH BURSE
So far:Shifted to the practice squad prior to the Week 14 win over Buffalo, Burse had shown some improvement prior to being cut from the 53-man roster. But for his future development, the Fresno State alumnus will have to improve his ball security; he fumbled three times in 53 opportunities (29 returns and 24 fair catches).
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