Middle linebackers to get long look in draft

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
7:30
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Two guys started games at middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos this past season. They were Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon.

This just in: Neither is on the Broncos’ roster at the moment, so welcome to what is the still one of the biggest unanswered questions in the Broncos’ plan for 2014. But the Broncos have treated middle linebacker more as an August issue over the past two years than one to take care of in March.

Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it recently; “We’re not as worried about middle linebacker as some other people are."

[+] EnlargeRyan Matthews, Wesley Woodyard
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver PostWith Wesley Woodyard, left, in Tennessee, Denver is searching for a starting middle linebacker.
The Broncos exited their initial free-agent spending spree with two holes in the starting lineup unaddressed (at least officially) -- left guard and middle linebacker.

The guard spot, vacated when the Broncos let Zane Beadles leave as a free agent, will likely be filled in-house. The most likely scenarios, and two that will get a look in offseason workouts and training camp, is right tackle Orlando Franklin bumping down inside to left guard and Chris Clark moving to right tackle. Or, the Broncos can play Manny Ramirez and former Washington Redskins starter Will Montgomery -- Montgomery agreed to terms with the team Tuesday -- in some combination at guard and center with the option of leaving Franklin at right tackle.

Both Ramirez and Montgomery have started games at guard and center in their careers.

But at middle linebacker the Broncos are more willing to see what develops in what is now a situational position in their defense. In the past two years they didn’t sign one of their starters at the position until August, and both were 30-something players who were not already in somebody’s training camp.

In August of 2012 they signed Keith Brooking off the street, and he went on to play in all 16 games, starting 14 at middle linebacker. Last August they signed Lenon off the street. He started six games in the regular season and all three playoff games.

It’s a roll of the dice to wait that long and then sign a player good enough to be a potential starter, especially when the Broncos have made a concerted effort to increase their team speed on that side of the ball during this offseason. So, the inside linebackers in the draft will get a long look.

The Broncos could play a rookie in the middle if they find the right one, because weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan is the every-down guy at the position and would be comfortable calling the defensive signals as well.

That would ease the transition in the middle for a younger player, if the Broncos would commit themselves to playing a younger player there. But they haven’t shown the willingness yet. They worked out veterans D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu last month just before Jackson signed in Indianapolis.

Tatupu hasn’t played in three seasons.

But they expect to have options later. Time is still on their side, and middle linebacker is no longer a glamour position for many teams. With the bevy of three- and four-wide receiver sets offenses use, the nickel -- five-defensive backs -- is almost the base defensive formation in the NFL.

The Broncos were in the nickel more than any other formation last season, often on early downs when a run play was still among the offenses’ choices. The Broncos had four games this past season when they were in the base 4-3 defense 12 or fewer snaps, and they had just three games last season when they spent more snaps in the base defense than they did in their five- or six-defensive back formations.

The Broncos will continue to look at the veteran players who are available, but getting a young player ready is looking increasingly like the route they will go. Nate Irving has played some in the middle, but he has been far more comfortable, and far more reliable taking on blocks, as Von Miller's backup at strongside linebacker.

In the middle, Irving has shown a tendency to be too quick to work to one side of the blocker instead of facing up and shedding to then move toward the play. That has resulted in an ill-timed running lane at times for opposing backs.

Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy has routinely said the way to get young players to produce in an NFL lineup is taking the first step and not being afraid to play them. For the Broncos, if they want to keep improving their team speed and fill a spot in the starting lineup, using a draft pick and not being afraid to play him in the middle might be the best way to go.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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