ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The strategic reaction to the growing prominence of pass-intensive, three-wide receiver formations and up-tempo offenses has altered the job description of linebacker.
The days of an every-down, middle linebacker anchoring a 4-3 defense are vanishing. Only a unique athlete can handle that role; he must be strong enough to stop the run up the middle, smart enough to make all the calls and checks before the snap and speedy enough to be used in pass coverage as one of two linebackers that remains on the field when the defense goes into its nickel sub package.
"You'd love to have it where that guy was an every-down guy who wouldn't have to leave the field," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. "But if you don't have that situation, then fortunately you find a guy like Wesley Woodyard, who filled that role for us last year as the quarterback of the defense on sub downs."
It was Woodyard who eventually wore the helmet with the radio receiver, even though he plays on the weak side, and not at middle linebacker. Woodyard stayed in when the Broncos went to the nickel, and with Von Miller shifting from strong-side linebacker to defense end on nickel downs, the other nickel linebacker came from a changing cast before Del Rio settled on Danny Trevathan and D.J. Williams sharing that role late last year.
With Williams released, Trevathan is the favorite to play beside Woodyard when the Broncos go into the nickel, although others will be in the mix. But middle linebacker remains more muddled. Nate Irving got the first look throughout organized team activities, but Stewart Bradley and Steven Johnson are expected to factor into the competition before training camp ends.
"We have a competitive situation there and we'll let it sort itself out," said Del Rio. "We don't want to forecast and get into who may or may not be that guy."
Whoever wins the job will be considered a starter. But he won't necessarily see a starter's workload -- not with nickel and dime packages taking up so much of the defense's burden.
"We feel like we'll have good competition for that role in base defense where you're going to play about one third of our snaps," Del Rio said. "One of those guys is going to emerge and get that done for us."
If Irving is the one who emerges, it will have validated the Broncos' patience with the 2011 third-round draft pick, who was hindered as a rookie by the cancellation of OTAs due to that year's lockout and was forced to play catch-up to learn the defensive calls.
"We've spoken about some of the things that we need to see from him and he's working hard to give that to us," said Del Rio. "He's a bright guy, and he's got a big opportunity in front of him and I think he's trying to make the most of it."
Irving knows that to win the job, he must do more than simply stop the run. The middle linebacker's job is as much about reading an offensive set before the snap and leading the entire defense as it is making the actual play.
"A lot of players said to be loud [and] talk, especially (Woodyard)," Irving said. "He's been helping me out through this whole thing, since I first got here. He's been helping me a long time, and a lot with defensive calls and being more loud, being more vocal and working out in the weight room and everything like that."
Del Rio said in May that Irving would get the "first crack" at middle linebacker. That doesn't mean the job is Irving's, and he knows that.
"It doesn't mean anything, because all it is is the opportunity," said Irving. "They didn't give me the spot, they didn't tell me, 'It's yours to lose,' or anything like that. They just gave me the opportunity."
But even then, it's an opportunity that is limited by the evolution of football strategy, which forces an emphasis on speed over brawn at linebacker. The pendulum might someday favor the sort of iconic middle linebackers that defined the sport from Ray Nitschke to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Ray Lewis when the Ravens ran a 4-3, but for now, the role of whoever becomes the middle linebacker looks to be limited.
THE LINEBACKERS: THE BASICS
Von Miller: By the end of last year, there wasn't a weakness in his game. His pass coverage improved, and his run defense was the best among 4-3 outside linebackers according to the metrics used by ProFootballFocus.com. This is to say nothing of his pass-rushing abilities, which will be tested with Elvis Dumervil no longer on the opposite side to draw attention.
Wesley Woodyard: His emergence last year made Williams expendable, as he became the only player in the NFL with 100 or more tackles, at least three interceptions and at least five sacks. Woodyard is in the last year of his contract, so there'll be more than just a world championship to motivate the six-year veteran and team captain.
Nate Irving:His one-year move to strong-side linebacker didn't give him much playing time, but it did help him improve at the point of attack and in coverage on tight ends. If Irving is to grow into a role as an every-down linebacker, both skills will be crucial.
Danny Trevathan: The 2012 sixth-round pick is poised for a major role in the Broncos' defense if he stays healthy. Trevathan became more effective in coverage as his rookie season progressed, although comparisons to Woodyard are unfair, given that it took Woodyard five years to lay the groundwork for his breakout 2012.
Shaun Phillips: Like Miller, he'll likely assume a hybrid role as a strong-side linebacker and pass-rushing defensive end. Phillips has spent his NFL career working mainly as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and his transition will be fascinating to watch during training camp.
Stewart Bradley: A return to the 4-3 defense is a welcome sight for Bradley, whose two years with the Cardinals in their 3-4 were often a struggle. Bradley was starting to emerge before leaving the Eagles for Arizona in free agency two years ago, and hopes to pick up where he left off.
Joe Mays: Last year's season-opening starter at middle linebacker is completing his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in Week 8 against New Orleans. But upon his return, he'll find a crowded middle linebacker field.
Steven Johnson: Along with long snapper Aaron Brewer, Johnson kept alive the Broncos' streak of years with at least one undrafted rookie making the 53-man roster. He was a special-teams standout as a rookie, but his defensive experience was limited to six snaps in the regular-season finale.
Damien Holmes: The rookie from UCLA did well enough at a rookie-camp tryout to earn a contract. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Holmes is right on the size edge between outside linebacker and defensive end, although ideally he'll settle in at linebacker. He's been timed at 4.98 seconds for the 40-yard dash, but plays a bit faster, particularly from side to side.
Lerentee McCray: If he can stay healthy, he could be an undrafted steal for the Broncos. The athletic 250-pounder can drop into coverage unusually well for a linebacker his size, and can even contribute as an extra pass rusher off the edge.
Uona Kaveinga: He took a circuitous route to the NFL, transferring from USC to Brigham Young in 2010 and playing two subsequent seasons for the Cougars. He's not the fastest linebacker, with a mid-4.6 40-yard dash time, but was often around the football, forcing four fumbles at BYU. Kaveinga told the
in 2011 that choosing USC over BYU was an "immature" decision but noted that he has grown since then; if he's mature, that only bolsters his chances.