- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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When it comes down to how the Denver Broncos dive into, or don't dive into, free agency, John Elway has routinely said his goal is to get through the open-checkbook portion of the offseason without “a glaring need'' on the depth chart.
That way, Elway has said, the Broncos can avoid the draft trap many teams fall into when they force themselves to pick for need, consistently leaving higher-rated players on the board for other teams to select behind them. Already in this offseason the Broncos have shown what they believe just might be their most glaring need.
Jackson, recently released by the Cleveland Browns, worked out at the Broncos complex on Monday while Tatupu worked out Tuesday. Both are middle linebackers by trade. Tatupu's appearance shows how long Denver's list of potential free agent linebackers is, given the former Pro Bowl selection has not played in three seasons, after a knee surgery and a torn pectoral in 2011 and 2012 sidelined him.
It is all also a fairly clear indication the Broncos are prepared to fill that vacant middle linebacker spot with outside candidates and that Wesley Woodyard is not part of that plan.
Woodyard, who just finished his sixth season with the Broncos, has been a do-it-all player for the team. A six-time captain, Woodyard has been a special teams ace while also starting games at middle as well as weak-side linebacker. Former head coach Mike Shanahan once even tried Woodyard at safety.
And when the Broncos decided in training camp last summer to move Woodyard into the middle linebacker spot, even before Stewart Bradley was lost for the season because of wrist injury in a preseason loss in Seattle, it was because Woodyard was deemed the most physical option on the depth chart. It also went with his understanding of the defensive scheme that would enable him to quickly move from the outside into the middle.
But the Broncos believed Woodyard wasn't quite the same player after he injured his neck this season -- a stinger in a win at Dallas. Woodyard had been the only defender in the league in 2012 to have finished with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. Eventually the Broncos moved Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot over the last four games of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Factor in Danny Trevathan's emergence at Woodyard's former position at weak-side linebacker -- Trevathan was the team's most consistent player on that side of the ball from the start of the season until the Super Bowl loss -- and Woodyard doesn't have a position in the team's defense as a starter.
So, he will head into the market to see what kind of interest there is. Even though the Broncos will need to fill the position -- since Lenon too is a free agent -- the fact is the spot is largely a role of a specialist these days. They will have to be factor that into the pursuit since the Broncos are essentially using the nickel defense (five defensive backs) as their base.
They had four games this past season where they were in a base 4-3 defense, with a middle linebacker in the formation, for 12 or fewer snaps in the game. They had three games when the middle linebacker was in the lineup for nine or fewer snaps in the game. That's almost half of a regular season when the middle linebacker was on the field for just two handfuls of snaps or fewer.
So while the Broncos may want a player with Jackson's or Tatupu's experience to help face a muscled-up NFC West next season, they simply may not be inclined to write their biggest check of the offseason at a position that has not been more than a situational affair in recent seasons.
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