AFC West: Wesley Woodyard

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was easy to see as free agency opened this past March that the Denver Broncos -- even with a Super Bowl trip this past February and three consecutive AFC West titles in tow -- were going to be a team in transition in the locker room.

Not just the usual player turnover that coach John Fox says he prepares for each season -- "a third of your team is going to be new looking back at you in that meeting room, that's what I expect almost every year" -- but at the foundation, at the core. It's also turnover among the guys who keep an eye on things, the guys who keep the peace, the guys who give the needed pats on the back or deliver the kicks a little south of there.

The guys who run the room, who help keep the little problems from becoming big ones.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Michael Ciaglo/MCT/Icon SMIChris Harris has the potential to be a leader on defense, but injuries have kept him separated from his teammates.
"A lot of it is the players you bring in," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said. "I just believe you have to get that locker room right, your leaders have to lead in what they say and what they do."

This offseason, including this week's mandatory minicamp, has been as much about getting their leadership secured as it has been about X's and O's. None of the five captains who strode to midfield to take the pregame coin flip as recently as the 2011 season are still with the team. The last three -- all significant contributors -- were lost this offseason.

Champ Bailey was released before he signed with the New Orleans Saints, Wesley Woodyard was not offered a contract, so he signed with the Tennessee Titans, and Chris Kuper retired.

Quarterback Peyton Manning and tackle Ryan Clady were voted captains on offense by their teammates last season -- Wes Welker was voted a captain after Clady went to injured reserve -- and there's no reason to believe Manning and Clady wouldn't get the votes again. Manning sets the agenda, in many ways for the entire team, by his approach and presence, but he's also a decade older than many of his teammates, and separated by standing and life experiences, so other voices will be needed on offense. That's where Clady comes in; he's a quiet, talented leader who has the respect of those around him.

Welker, too, has the savvy, veteran chops to get the attention of teammates, but some younger players such as Demaryius Thomas, Louis Vasquez and even second-year running back Montee Ball can emerge.

Defensively, however, it still bears watching given that two of the team's most talented defenders -- linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris -- are both on the mend from ACL surgery. Players going through injury rehab often spend much of their day away from their teammates. They are held out of most of the on-field work, which limits contact with their teammates at times.

"It's just so hard to lead right now when I'm not actually involved with a lot of things," Harris said. "That's the only thing that I would say hurts right now on the leadership part is that it's kind of like I'm on IR still. So everybody else does their thing and I kind of do my own thing. So I'm still in that situation. But film room, meeting room, off the field, I'm definitely going to lead, and once I get on the field that leadership is going to come right back."

Harris has the potential to act like a captain, with or without the actual C on his jersey -- Bailey often said as much during his time with the Broncos. So does linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and has been pushing for more in offseason workouts.

"I'm sure that's in my picture, or at least I hope it is," Trevathan said of his potential to be a captain. "Right now I just need to get better, help others get better, help this team get better."

Broncos players say defensive end DeMarcus Ware, with a no-nonsense work ethic to go with 117 career sacks, has already earned the respect of his new teammates. Ware, simply because of his standing in the league and how he carries himself, has the potential to be an important voice among the Broncos.

Those who know him say he is a lead-by-example type who picks his spots carefully to speak. Often that works far better given that so few players have any patience for the rah-rah, in-your-face guys who don't practice anything close to what they preach.

In the end, this type of thing always gets sorted out. Talent will always be the biggest component in success, but talent is also the most wasted commodity in the league when it isn't accompanied by the ability to work in a group or some roll-up-your-sleeves attitude.

The Broncos are talented. They just need the right people keeping everyone involved and on the right track.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It might be time for Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan to invest in alternative fuels.

Because to this point, for the most part, Trevathan has powered himself through the beginning stages of his NFL career by igniting the slights, doubts, criticisms and question marks people have put next to his name and turning them into desire and production.

"I always dream big. I’m not usually on people’s radar, you know, but I always dream big," Trevathan said. “People can’t control your dreams. Those are all yours, man, so I try to find a way to get myself in the mixture and find a way to get myself on top. That’s always my mentality with me, showcase things they said I couldn’t do."

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDanny Trevathan showed last season that he can be an asset when dropping into pass coverage.
Still, after he finished as the leading tackler on a Super Bowl team last season, the list of things people think Trevathan can’t do is shrinking. He was, in his second season, the defense’s most consistent player in 2012, the kind of every-down linebacker that Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway wants in the mix.

That’s a long way from the undersized linebacker the Broncos grabbed in the sixth round of the 2013 draft with the idea that Trevathan had the instincts and ability in the high-powered Southeastern Conference to have a chance to play on special teams.

Ah, but that’s where the "dream big" part comes in for Trevathan. Let him get his foot in the door, and he wants to come inside to find a seat.

After playing in every game and finishing with 30 tackles as a rookie, Trevathan had designs on more. He latched onto a starting job at weakside linebacker last summer, and he didn’t let go.

"I think last year he just came here with a totally different mentality," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Got himself ready to be bigger, faster, better prepared, more focused and ready to have the kind of year he had. You saw the natural instinct right away when he was a rookie, but he needed to grow, he needed to get stronger. Last year he came back with the intention to keep his weight up, and he did. Once he does that part, we can take some of that great instinct that we see and develop it."

So when LB Von Miller was suspended for six games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, when the Broncos couldn’t decide what to do at middle linebacker and eventually moved Wesley Woodyard into the spot, when injuries started to erode the plan the Broncos had on the defensive drawing board last season, Trevathan just kept churning.

There was the interception return for a near touchdown in the regular-season opener -- only a young-guy-loses-his-mind-for-a-moment dropped ball to celebrate too early kept it from being a score -- and the 12-tackle game against the New England Patriots and the 12-tackle game in the blowout loss in the Super Bowl.

When all was said and done, Trevathan led the team in tackles with 134 and, along with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, was one of the team's best week-in, week-out performers on defense. Trevathan proved himself to be physical enough to work out of the base defense and athletic enough to drop into coverage when the Broncos go to their specialty looks.

Through the team's offseason workouts thus far, Trevathan has carried himself like a player who believes he is still ascending on the developmental curve.

And the Broncos, too, expect to see even more from Trevathan this time around.

"And that’s what is happening; his confidence now is soaring and I think he’s ready to have a big year for us," Del Rio said.

Pro Bowl? Team captain? More playoff wins? Trevathan doesn’t leave anything off the "dream big" list.

"I like going above and beyond the expectations people have for me," Trevathan said. “I’m never the type of person to let the other stuff get me big-headed, because as soon as you mess up, a lot of those people are going to go over to the other side of the fence with you. So just be sure of what you’re doing, be sure of yourself; you can’t let what other people say change how you carry yourself, how you handle yourself. Little kids watching you, be great, work hard, be accountable for yourself."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is the meal and there is the parsley that simply rides along on the plate.

Whatever becomes of the 2014 season for the Denver Broncos, the team's offense, coming off the highest-scoring season in the league's history, will fuel much of the discussion as well as the team's fortunes along the way.

But as the Broncos get down to some of their offseason business this week, the team's defensive players have decided they don't want to just be ornamental. They want to have an impact.

"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We just want to be that defense that goes out there and dominates and be talked about."

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
On the way to their second 13-3 season in a row, their third consecutive AFC West title and a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos offense scored a record 606 points and quarterback Peyton Manning set NFL single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). And the defense? Well, five starters finished the year on injured reserve as the unit finished 19th in the league in yards allowed per game (356.0) and 22nd in points allowed per game (24.9).

When all was said and done, 10 opponents scored at least 21 points and the Broncos surrendered 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards.

"I think last year we made a mistake of just having the guys we had thinking that was enough and not putting in the effort to be great," Knighton said. "That's something we're not talking about this year, the talent we have. We just want to go out there and put out the work. Like I said, just be a top defense and not be dominant in certain spots."

The Broncos lost three defensive starters in free agency -- linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- but they responded with urgency, signing cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. They used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby. And the players themselves, the new arrivals and the holdovers, have kicked around the idea of being more than some high-profile passengers on the Broncos express.

So much so that when the Broncos' strength and conditioning coach, Luke Richesson, gave the players a day off Tuesday from the usual conditioning sessions, the defensive players all showed up for work any way.

"Everybody has that mindset," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "We thought we had better talent than how we played sometimes last season and we think we have a lot of talent this year."

"It's always exciting to start over," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "When you have a collection of guys coming back like we do -- a very talented group returning from injury, we also have a very talented group that we brought in -- free agency and draft picks. So getting all of those guys back out on the field, it's an exciting time of year."

When the Broncos sifted through what went wrong with the defense, the injuries to linebacker Von Miller, Harris, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe certainly played a part. But executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has also consistently referenced a hole in last year's roster-building.

"We never really replaced Elvis [Dumervil]," Elway said.

Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 63.5 sacks in six seasons with the Broncos, signed with the Baltimore Ravens last season after a fax fiasco forced the Broncos to release him to avoid paying him a bonus. It's why the Broncos were so persistent in their pursuit of Ware, who got a three-year deal worth $30 million, because they wanted the same kind of pressure package Dumervil and Miller provided when the Broncos were a top-five defense -- second in yards allowed per game and third in scoring defense.

They believe a nickel package with Ware and Miller rushing the passer -- in which offenses have to decide where and how to slide their protection plans -- with Talib, Harris and Roby at cornerback is faster and more athletic than last season's defense. The defensive players have already shown more edge as they work through the non-contact portions of the offseason program.

"The biggest way is as coaches, we provide a blueprint, we provide kind of a map for them," Del Rio said. "But then [the players] have to take it and make it their own. So the interaction they have, the time they spend lifting weights and running, different guys emerge. Guys earn the respect of their peers and I think as you play and you're here and as you show you're a guy that can be counted on, then your voice becomes a little more important. So that's how I think you kind of grow into it. Very rarely does a guy just plug himself and say, 'Hey I'm the leader.' So as coaches that's something that we encourage obviously, for guys to step up and take charge and be accountable and take responsibility for each other ... I feel good about our group."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway says he wants to be "ready for anything" by the time the draft opens Thursday night, he means everything.

Sitting near the bottom of the first round of this week's draft, the Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said Monday he's prepared to do what needs to be done to secure the players they want. Elway said the team is certainly willing to stay put at the 31st pick. They would also move up if they see an opportunity to snag a player they deem worthy of the capital it would take to make the move, or would move down as Elway did in 2012 when he traded out of the first round.

"We're looking at the options of moving up, but we're also looking at the possibility of moving back," Elway said. "Leading up to the draft there's going to be plenty of talk out there, and until you really get to draft day you never really know what's going to happen."

The Broncos have a routine allotment of picks at the moment -- one in each of the seven rounds. They enter this week's three-day affair coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons, including a Super Bowl trip, and -- as Elway said -- no roster holes that need immediate attention.

"We don't feel we have huge holes so we're going to try to pick football players we believe can make our football team and also help us," Elway said.

With Wesley Woodyard having signed with the Titans in free agency, the biggest hole on the depth chart may be at middle linebacker. The Broncos took some swings at linebackers during free agency, but did not sign any of them. Elway, as he has said throughout the offseason, reaffirmed Monday his belief that the job could be filled in-house with Nate Irving handling the duties on first and second downs and safety T.J. Ward as an option in some of the team's third-down packages.

"I don't know that is necessarily a need, we feel pretty good about Nate, especially on first and second down," Elway said. " ... We're more concerned ... on third down. T.J. Ward is an option there, he does a tremendous job in the box."

If the Broncos do get any interest for a trade Thursday night, it will most likely come from a team that wants back into the first round to take a quarterback it desires.

There is also the matter of the "fifth-year" option available to teams for first-round picks in the current collective bargaining agreement. Grabbing a quarterback in the first round that a team believed could be a potential long-term starter would give the team the ability to have a fifth year on the contract instead of four on rookie deals for players selected in the second round or later.

"I think it adds to it, there's no question, especially with the quarterbacks," Elway said. "It makes the end of the first round more inviting."

Elway, a staunch believer in the "best-player-available" philosophy during the draft, said if an offensive tackle or guard was the most highly-graded player at No. 31, the team would not hesitate to take the player. If all of the cornerbacks the team likes are gone by the 31st pick, the strength of the board will likely be an edge rusher or an offensive lineman.

Also, Monday the Broncos added some help in the defensive line when they signed defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Austin, a second-round pick by the New York Giants in the 2011 draft, has been de-railed some by injuries thus far in his career.

He missed his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle and he was waived last year by the Dallas Cowboys after injuring his back in practice. He later had surgery, but after working him out last week, Elway said Austin will join the team healthy.

"He was a guy who really had a first-round grade three years ago ... he had some injuries," Elway said. "We worked him out last week and he's healed from his back surgery."
When the Denver Broncos gathered this week for their first group workouts of the offseason, there were plenty of new faces on the roster.

DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib and Will Montgomery lead the way in the new arrival department, at least until the draft class arrives next month. But for many on hand this week, the workouts still had an odd feel to them.

The Broncos were missing three former team captains -- three powerful voices in the locker room, three players others often looked to in good times, as well as bad, to show others the way.

Champ Bailey is in New Orleans, having been released by the Broncos after 10 seasons. Chris Kuper retired and Wesley Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans.

And while Super Bowls are won with talent on the field, they are also won with how things get handled in the locker room along the way, because ego, the pursuit of credit, fretting over contract status, grousing over playing time and the general human condition has cratered almost as many title hopefuls as the injury report.

Asked this week about the team's identity, quarterback Peyton Manning said what he usually says when things such as identity or chemistry are the topics of the day.

"I don't know if it has to be the same or different," Manning said. "I want it to be an identity that helps us win football games. I think it's hard to say what it is going to be at this point. Our full roster has certainly not been decided. The draft is -- when is the draft now? It's like in September now. ...We still probably need to see who we are based on who the personnel is, I think you form the identity from that. I think it is OTAs, it's definitely training camp and obviously it'd be nice to have it somewhere around the beginning of the season, but even before, I think you can develop it throughout the course of the season -- what really works for you."

It also means players such as Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady, the team's captains on offense last season -- Wes Welker replaced Clady when Clady went on injured reserve -- will again have prominent roles in the locker room.

But defensively, with Bailey and Woodyard gone, there are some players who are going to have to step forward in how they handle themselves as well as how they interact with their teammates. Linebacker Danny Trevathan has the look of a potential captain in how he approaches his job and how he plays on the field. As does cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is currently working his way back from ACL surgery.

They will be two of the most important voices in the defensive meeting room, kind of a bridge between the new arrivals like Ward, Talib and Ware and the players who have been with the Broncos. But it would be a shock if Ware, whose friends in the league say is one of the hardest workers they have been around, is not elected a team captain by his new teammates when the votes get tallied later this summer.

Ware is a classic lead-by-example guy who has 117 sacks on his playing resume. He will serve an important role in the coming weeks and months, as a veteran presence on that side of the ball. And while Ware's presence will certainly benefit Von Miller, Derek Wolfe is another player who could reap the rewards as well. Wolfe had the look of an impact player as a rookie in 2012 before last season's illness landed him on injured reserve.

The Broncos have some questions to answer on the field as they get started, but they're working through some in the locker room as they move through these opening weeks of their offseason work.

"Everything is all about details when it comes to football," Ware said this week. "When you have everything in place, it really doesn't matter. It comes to the small things of guys really wanting it, the mistakes that you make and it starts this offseason with just working out and guys really giving it their all. That carries over into the season."
As the reigning AFC champions, the Denver Broncos will wait until the 31st pick before they make their first selection in this year’s NFL draft. And after a spending spree the first week of free agency that both raised some eyebrows around the league and largely focused on needs on the defensive line and in the secondary, there is still a hole on the depth chart.

And that’s what Mel Kiper Jr. has addressed in his Grade A mock draft .

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.

Free-agency review: Broncos

March, 18, 2014
Most significant signing: The Broncos went for the big splash in the opening days of free agency, reeling in four high-profile players -- DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. The most important addition, both on the field and in the locker room, may carry the biggest risk as well. Ware, 31, was the oldest player the Broncos signed last week, and he is coming off an injury-marred 2013 season. But Ware has 117 career sacks and has missed just three games in the previous nine years. The Broncos see him as still being an elite edge rusher worth a $30 million deal.

Most significant loss: On the field, wide receiver Eric Decker was the biggest loss. But in the locker room, it was linebacker Wesley Woodyard. The Broncos believe Sanders, if he gets up to speed quickly in the playbook, can be a more versatile receiver in their scheme than Decker was. Decker, however, is taller and had 24 touchdowns the past two seasons combined thanks to his work in the red zone. In the locker room, Woodyard was the first player since Hall of Famer Floyd Little to be a captain each of his first six seasons with the team. Woodyard's outlook, work ethic and ability to relate to his teammates will be missed.

Biggest surprise: Most in the league expected the Broncos to be active once the bidding opened last week. But they were able to reel in two players -- Talib and Sanders -- after they appeared to be heading elsewhere. The Broncos were negotiating with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during the first hours of free agency before they zeroed in on Talib. Sanders took four team visits but signed his deal with the Broncos shortly after he arrived at the team's complex Sunday.

What's next? The Broncos were able to address some of their most glaring needs on the depth chart at defensive end, wide receiver and cornerback. It will allow them the freedom to take the best player available in May's draft, no matter the position. The Broncos will still give a long look to a deep class of receivers in the draft and will likely take a cornerback as well. They are largely done in free agency unless they see an offensive lineman who piques their interest.

Broncos free agency primer: LB

March, 10, 2014
With the countdown to free agency in its final stages, it’s time to take a look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.

The Broncos are expected to aggressive once the signings formally begin Tuesday. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need, and the draft is then the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.

Plenty of folks in the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets, then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial wave of signings has passed.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Dansby
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellArizona free agent linebacker Karlos Dansby would be a good fit in Denver's scheme.
It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

Today: Linebacker

Tuesday: Running back

Why it’s an issue: For most of the past six seasons, when the Broncos had a problem at linebacker and circumstances demanded they do something, they usually moved Wesley Woodyard somewhere in the formation to try to make things right. When it was an injury, a D.J. Williams suspension or a Von Miller suspension, or just the desire for a little something different, Woodyard was often the man for the plan.

Woodyard is an unrestricted free agent, coming off a difficult season when he suffered a stinger and eventually lost his starting job. The Broncos appear to be moving on as he goes in search of a starting job.

The player who replaced Woodyard in the starting lineup a middle linebacker, Paris Lenon, 36, was a stop-gap signing last August and is an unrestricted free agent.

Nate Irving, who the Broncos have tried at middle linebacker on multiple occasions, has shown himself to be a far better on the strong side. Von Miller is working back from ACL surgery, and Danny Trevathan is a foundation player in the defense on the weak side.

The Broncos need/want somebody in the middle, somebody with enough power to bring some presence to plays in and around the line of scrimmage yet with enough athleticism to drop into coverage. With the right player, the Broncos could go from having a middle linebacker who is simply a situational player (as they did down the stretch with Lenon) to a player who plays the middle on early down and stays in the formation with Trevathan in the nickel. Woodyard did this with success before his injury.

The Broncos had two games this past season -- against Washington and Tennessee -- when they were in a base 4-3 look more than they were in their specialty packages. They had four games this season when they were in the base defense, with three linebackers, for 12 or fewer snaps. That could change in 2014, because the Broncos will have the rough-and-tumble NFC West on their schedule.

The best out there: It is not a deep group of inside linebackers poised for the open market, and the Broncos have already worked out a player -- Lofa Tatupu -- who has not played in three years.

The Broncos would have taken a look at Donald Butler, but the San Diego Chargers signed Butler last week to deal that is worth almost $20 million over the first three years with a team option for four additional years. The Broncos also had D'Qwell Jackson in for a visit, but Jackson then signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts. The Buccaneers also re-signed Jonathan Casillas to a one-year deal this past weekend.

The Colts' Pat Angerer is set for the open market, but has had foot and knee injuries over the past two seasons to go with a concussion. The Colts’ Kavell Conner is a free agent, and played in 10 games this past season as a reserve at inside linebacker.

Jon Beason played for Broncos head coach John Fox in Carolina -- Beason was the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2007 -- and is acting as his own agent. He sent an e-mail to teams saying he was the contact for any contract talks, but by rule teams could not respond to that e-mail, because Beason is a player and players cannot have direct contact with team officials until Tuesday.

Only agents could negotiate this past weekend before the formal opening of free agency.

But the biggest risk/reward riddle for the Broncos among inside linebackers is Karlos Dansby, who will require some of the biggest money that will get spent at this position. Dansby is coming off a 114-tackle, 6.5-sack, four-interception season at inside linebacker in the Arizona Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. But Dansby will be 33 in November and never has been named to a Pro Bowl despite having been a franchise player multiple times in his career.

He has the kind of range and lower-body power, even at about 230 pounds, to flourish in the Broncos’ defense, but it will take blue-chip money if the Broncos choose to pursue him.

Bottom line: With fewer college linebackers fitting as an NFL middle linebacker because of the proliferation of spread offenses in the college game, the Broncos will look hard at the free agent market to fill this hole.
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.

They have worked out veteran linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu this week.

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.

Broncos want to get a look at Jackson

February, 27, 2014
The Denver Broncos are in need of some help at linebacker and -- with enough salary cap room to take a look at a proven veteran player at the position -- they are on linebacker D'Qwell Jackson's travel itinerary in the coming days.

The Broncos are selling the prospect of a Super Bowl team with Peyton Manning at quarterback, but they will have plenty of competition for Jackson.

The 30-year-old Jackson was released, in large part, by the Cleveland Browns Wednesday because he had a $4 million roster bonus due March 16. Jackson had signed a five-year contract extension with the Browns two seasons ago when current Broncos' pro personnel director Tom Heckert was the team's general manager.

Jackson also played alongside Broncos safety Mike Adams during Adams' tenure in Cleveland. Adams is one of the Broncos' 16 unrestricted free agents this year.

Two league sources said Thursday Jackson was expected to begin what was initially described as a five-team tour on Friday. But the Tennessee Titans are first on the list and have to be considered the leader for Jackson before he even steps on a plane. Jackson's former defensive coordinator in Cleveland, Ray Horton, is on Ken Whisenhunt's staff in Nashville and is expected to play much the same scheme there as Horton ran with the Browns.

The Broncos are scheduled to get their chance Monday and project Jackson as a middle linebacker.

The Broncos are poised to give plenty of attention -- in both free agency and draft -- to the team's defense. At linebacker alone, Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon are free agents and the team has six defensive backs who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents. And Jackson fits the profile Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway believes free agency should have.

“With free agency, we're always trying to get ourselves in a position where when we go into the draft -- we don't have a glaring weakness where we are reaching for somebody in the draft,'' Elway said in recent days. "So I think it's important for free agency, in my opinion, to try to pick up the places where you think you have glaring holes and fill those holes and then when you go to the draft be able to draft the best players that you hope are going to have great careers in the NFL.”

Jackson, who will turn 31 in September, has had five 100-tackle seasons in his career. He missed all but six games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons because of torn chest muscles, but has started 16 games in four of his seasons.

He was a second-round pick by the Browns in the 2006 draft.

Broncos roster breakdown: Linebackers

February, 20, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine officially underway and free agency to follow March 11, Thursday marks the seventh installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Linebackers

Friday: Defensive backs

Things happen in football life. Plans, from time to time, get shoved off the drawing board and shatter into pieces.

And what the Broncos plan was at linebacker, a position that was going to be among -- if not the -- deepest and most talented on the roster, pretty much imploded when Von Miller was suspended for six games to open the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

When Miller returned, he never reached his 2012 level of impact and was then lost for the season when he tore his ACL against the Texans in December. Wesley Woodyard also suffered a neck injury and eventually lost his starting spot along the way when he returned to the lineup.

So, two of the three expected starters weren't for roughly half the season.

Also, with Miller in just the beginning stages of his knee rehab and Woodyard an unrestricted free agent, the Broncos have a lot of uncertainty in the middle of the defense, uncertainty that will need attention.

The Alpha: It should be Miller, but it's not. If things don't change, it will be intriguing to see what kind of momentum the Broncos have toward a long-term deal given Miller's maturity issues that now come with a major knee injury. Miller becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season. Woodyard has been a team captain for six seasons, but if he moves on it leaves a large leadership hole behind. But Danny Trevathan's next step as a player will come in this regard. He was the team's best at the position this past season and is on track to be a foundation player in the defense.

He's young, entering just his third season, but he is an every-down player who can play in a variety of situations.

Salary cap: Miller, on the basis of being the No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft, leads the way among the linebackers under contract for 2014. His cap figure for '14 is $6.682 million, the sixth highest on the team at the moment. He's also the only linebacker right now with a cap figure of over $1 million. Nate Irving is at $818,750 for the coming season, Trevathan at $596,018, Steven Johnson at $574,000 and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster as an undrafted free agent in training camp last summer before suffering a season-ending injury, is at $425,666.

Pending free agents: Woodyard, who has been with the Broncos since making Mike Shanahan's last Broncos team as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is slated to hit the open market in the coming weeks. The player who replaced him in the starting base defense, Paris Lenon, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Stewart Bradley, who was given a look as the starting middle linebacker in the preseason, is also an unrestricted free agent. Reserve linebacker Brandon Marshall, who the Broncos promoted to the active roster late in the season, is a restricted free agent.

Who could stay: The spot where the "help wanted" sign is out at the moment is at middle linebacker. The Broncos' attempts to play Irving there haven't gone all that well over the last two seasons and he has performed far better on the strong side when in the lineup, so he figures to get penciled in there as Miller tries to return. Trevathan is the unquestioned weak-side guy right now and plays in all of the specialty packages as well.

So there won't be much turnover at the other spots with those players already under contract. The movement will come in the middle because that is where the deals are up.

Who could go: Given the Broncos already moved Woodyard out of the starting middle linebacker spot this past season, it's unlikely they would consider him an option there this time around. And Lenon was signed to a one-year deal in August as a depth player who ended up being moved into the starting lineup when Woodyard injured his neck. The Broncos didn't see him as a potential starter when he signed and won't see him as one in free agency.

Woodyard is a high-character player who knows the team's scheme and always played with passion no matter where they lined him up, but this time around he may be able to secure a better offer elsewhere -- his last deal with the Broncos was a two-year, $5 million contract he signed in 2012. The Broncos would certainly consider to have him back, but at their price.

What they like/want: They like speed overall at the position and versatility as well. That's because, like many defenses in this pass-first era, the Broncos "base" defense isn't their base defense at all.

They had just two games in the regular-season -- wins over Washington and Tennessee -- in which they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs). And they had four games in the regular season in which they were in their base defense for 12 or fewer snaps in a game, three games in which they were in the base 4-3 for 9 or fewer snaps in the game.

That means right now the premium is on movement and the ability to drop into coverage. Which makes a player like Trevathan, who can do that and play with a physical edge on the line of scrimmage as well, all the more valuable.

Need index (1 is lowest priority, 5 the highest): 4

Miller is coming back from an ACL surgery and most guys not named Adrian Peterson need more than a season to return to the level of play they could reach before the injury. And with Woodyard and Lenon both free agents, the Broncos need a middle linebacker.

It means the Broncos will need pass rush help at the position as well as a potential starter in the base defense.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will play in the franchise's seventh Super Bowl a week from Sunday because they did enough in the draft to make it that far, they did enough in free agency (OK, Peyton Manning is the ultimate free-agency home run) and they made it all work over the past three seasons.

But even with the extreme makeover that came with John Elway's return to the team as its chief football executive in January of 2011, even with the title-game appearance, there is still a roster hole the Broncos will have to address moving forward.

[+] EnlargeShaun Phillips
AP Photo/Ric TapiaJohn Elway signed veterans like Shaun Phillips to help win now, but is also committed to rebuilding through the draft.
Or, to put it another way, there is a reason the Broncos will be the older team in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Broncos have seven players on the current 53-man roster who have played at least 10 seasons in the league, led by Manning's 16. The Seattle Seahawks have one: defensive end Chris Clemons. While the Broncos have certainly climbed all the way out of their 4-12 finish in 2010, they also are still a product of that season and the smattering of nonplayoff finishes that came before it.

For those who believe the draft is the team's foundation -- and Elway counts himself as one of those -- the real guts of a roster are those fifth- and sixth-year, homegrown players. Players drafted and then signed to their second contracts to stay put. Of the Broncos' captains -- Manning, Champ Bailey, David Bruton, Wesley Woodyard and Wes Welker -- just two have been with the team since they were rookies. That’s Bruton (2009 draft) and Woodyard (2008 undrafted rookie).

A player in his sixth season would be a product of the 2008 draft. And since ’08 the Broncos have had two coaching changes and two changes at the call-the-shots general manager level as well. Each resulted in a complete teardown from the previous regime. That is why this current roster includes a pile of young players to go with the veterans who have been around for at least 10 seasons. The Seahawks have 24 players with three seasons experience or less on their current roster -- players who came into the league in 2011 or after, while the Broncos have 22.

It means the Broncos' roster gap is rooted in '08 and '09. For the Broncos, only Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady remains from the ’08 draft, which was Mike Shanahan’s last season with the team, while Woodyard remains a high-quality find as an undrafted rookie from that year as well.

A player in his fifth year would be a product of the 2009 draft. For the Broncos that includes only Bruton, running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Robert Ayers. While Bruton is a special-teams regular, Moreno is still the only one of those three players who played at least 50 percent of the team’s snaps on offense or defense this season.

And that has put the Broncos in a position to be active in free agency at the front end -- the recruitment and signing of Manning in 2012 -- to go with a series of one-year contracts to experienced players. This past year that included defensive end Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), cornerback Quentin Jammer and linebacker Paris Lenon.

"I’ve always said if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them," Elway said. "And if they’re out there then we’ll sign them. So age and all that at this point in time, with where we were coming out of a 4-12 year and then we go to 8-8 now at that point and then you get a guy like Peyton Manning. Now it’s about trying to find all the pieces together … but we’re not just trying to find young guys. We’re going to find guys that fit, young and old guys, that fit together."

From Elway’s perspective, a Super Bowl trip only helps his cause, as would Manning’s expected return for 2014 if doctors give the quarterback the go-ahead in the weeks following the Super Bowl to play next season. So, even as Elway would continue his quest to "stack those draft classes year after year," to make the draft the foundation of sustaining what they’ve done over the past three seasons, the Broncos would be a popular destination for veteran players in search of success.

"It comes down to the thing is that it’s been my goal to really continue what [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen created in the fact that people want to play here," Elway said. "So players will come here late in their career when they know they have a chance to win a world championship and they know the reputation of the Denver Broncos since Pat Bowlen has been here that it’s a good place to play … . If money is the No. 1 thing, we’re really not on the same page if it’s all about money, in my mind."

The next big thing: Broncos

January, 22, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos still have one game to play -- Super Bowl XLVIII -- and virtually all of the organization's energy is pointed in that direction at the moment.

But the Broncos still have to think about life after the Big Game and had a full contingent at the East-West Game last week to go with one at Senior Bowl practices this week. And when all is said and done in MetLife Stadium Feb. 2, the Broncos will be left to their offseason duties in a far more compressed timeframe.

One of their first items, and executive vice president of football operations John Elway touched on it last week in a sit-down in the days leading up to the AFC Championship Game, will be to address head coach John Fox's future.

The 2014 season is the last year on Fox's current contract and no coach wants to go into the final year of his deal and try to direct a team. Elway said the two sides will sit down when the season is over and talk about what's next. The Broncos will also be awaiting the results of an end-of-season medical exam for quarterback Peyton Manning.

Win or lose in the Super Bowl, Broncos officials expect Manning to return for the 2014 season if the doctors give him the thumbs-up to keep playing. Elway said last week that he still considers Manning "young" and at the top of the his game.

On the roster the Broncos will face a decision in Eric Decker, who is poised for unrestricted free agency, as is cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Wesley Woodyard, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Robert Ayers, safety Mike Adams and running back Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos will also have to decide on the veterans they signed to short-term deals last offseason: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Paris Lenon (all are set to be free agents).

The choices they make will dictate where they look in the draft, but they'll be looking at the defensive line, inside linebacker, the interior of the offensive line, and cornerback to start.
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesTerrance Knighton (94) and the run defense may dictate how often Peyton Manning has the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In many ways his signing was simply caught in the vapor trail of the other work the Denver Broncos did in the opening hours of free agency last March.

After the Broncos jumped into the checkbook pond to give guard Louis Vasquez the longest deal they handed out this past offseason, after they tipped the balance of power in the AFC at least a bit by signing wide receiver Wes Welker, the Broncos made a two-year deal to an under-the-radar guy who might be the most important piece of the Broncos' defensive puzzle in Super Bowl XLVIII. That would be one Terrance Knighton, a 335-pound (or so) space-eating interior defender who is going to have to figure prominently in the Broncos' plan to deal with the Seattle Seahawks' punishing run game.

The Seattle Seahawks finished second in the league during the regular season in rushing attempts per game (31.8) and were fourth in rushing at 136.8 yards per game. Most folks who have faced the Broncos believe the best defense against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is to not let him have the ball. So the Broncos figure to get a heavy dose of running back Marshawn Lynch as well as quarterback Russell Wilson working out of an option look in the title game.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Terrance Knighton gets one of the Broncos' two sacks on Tom Brady.
"We know people don't want to give Peyton the ball," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We know that means they are going to come after us if they think they have a chance to make some yards. We always want to stop the run games because the more we get the ball back for Peyton and our offense, the better it will be."

The Broncos faced four teams during the regular season that finished in the league's top 10 in rushing. Denver was 4-1 in those games, including two wins over Kansas City (No. 10 in rushing). The Broncos also defeated Philadelphia (No. 1) and Washington (No. 5).

The Broncos lost to the New England Patriots (No. 9) during the regular season -- the Patriots rushed for 116 yards on a frigid November night -- but held New England to just 64 yards rushing in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Overall, the Chargers recorded the most rushing yards against the Broncos this season -- 177 yards in a Dec. 12 San Diego win -- in the same game that Ryan Mathews became the only running back this season to top 100 yards against the Broncos with 127 yards on 29 carries.

"But our guys up front take it kind of personally if you try to run," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "They don't like it."

Well then, there will be plenty not to like against the Seahawks. Lynch is a yards-after-contact hammer, and defensive coaches in the league who have charted the Seahawks see an offense that has had quality production running through gaps across the front.

Seattle has run the most often this season over left tackle and center, averaging more than 4 yards a carry in both spots, 4.8 yards per carry over the center. But the Seahawks get more than 5 yards a carry over the right tackle and around the right end.

This puts Knighton and the strongside defensive end, usually Malik Jackson, in the crosshairs when the Broncos are in their base defense. For his part, Knighton will battle Pro Bowl center Max Unger for much of Super Sunday. Knighton played three seasons for Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville when Del Rio was the Jaguars' head coach. And when the Broncos made their roster plans this past offseason, Del Rio had hoped to add more bulk in the middle of the formation.

"I went through the whole process and chose the best fit for myself and my career," Knighton said. "I mean, a fresh start is always good. Most players want to stay with one team, but it worked out better for me being here, and I hope that I'm here for a long time.”

Knighton had one of his best all-around games Sunday with a sack and two tackles for loss among his four tackles against the Pats. On his sack, Knighton beat Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins with a quality first step and some savvy work with his hands. Woodyard has joked that he knew things would be different for the Broncos' defense when he couldn't get around Knighton while lined up behind the massive defensive tackle.

"He can do it all," defensive end Robert Ayers said. "He can rush. He's a big guy. He can stop the run. He brings a lot to the table -- he brings leadership and he commands double-teams on the run."

Teams gained just 2.84 yards per carry on runs over the center this season -- lowest in the league -- and had most of their success against the Broncos taking plays wide around the left or right end, averaging more than 6 yards a carry in both spots. The Broncos tweaked the lineup in the base defense coming down the stretch. They moved veteran Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot, and during the past four games -- two regular-season and two playoff games -- the Broncos have surrendered only 87, 64, 65 and 64 yards rushing.

Against teams that have the read-option element, as the Seahawks do with Wilson, the Broncos have played more of a 3-4 look on defense, using three down linemen to go with Shaun Phillips and Ayers standing up at the outside linebacker spots. The Broncos used it for 20 snaps earlier in the season against Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin Jr.

Denver figures to show that once again against the Seahawks.

"I think it's a chip," Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "I think as long as we step up to the challenge and accept that stuff, a lot of people are going to talk. But our key is just to play our game, stay within our scheme, and go out here and win games. Play 60 minutes. Like I said, a lot of people are talking, but you've got to come out here and you've got to perform. That's what it's about. ... A lot of people said [New England] could run the ball, all this and that. But you've got to be well-rounded. You've got to be a pro, handle that stuff as a challenge, take it upon yourself to go out there and perform and show them what's up."