- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Denver Broncos reporter
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With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 10, today marks the seventh installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Linebackers | Monday: Defensive backs | Rest of the series
As the Broncos move toward a 3-4 look on defense, things will change some in this group. However, even with two players at the position who started games in 2014 having closed out the season on injured reserve (Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan), it's a position where the Broncos have plenty of star power and depth to go through the installation of a new scheme.
Especially since Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are now outside linebackers in the Wade Phillips defense, so Phillips already has the edge players he needs to have the kind of pass rush he wants. But Brandon Marshall, who led the team in tackles last season, also projects to be a quality fit at one of the inside positions, as does Trevathan if his return from three separate injuries to his left leg goes well.
The Alpha: It’s time for Miller to step forward even a little more. He will turn 26 in late March, has had three seasons of at least 11.5 sacks, two with at least 14 sacks, and is entering the final year of his original rookie deal. There is every reason to expect Miller will flourish in Phillips’ defense, and Ware’s influence has helped -- Miller was a far more prominent voice in the team’s locker room this past season than he was in previous years. That transition would be closer to complete if his teammates saw enough to elect him a captain.
Salary cap: Miller leads the way with a $9.754 million cap figure, and Ware is at $8.667 million. The other half of Ware’s $7 million base salary is to be guaranteed on March 14 -- the first half was already guaranteed last year when he signed his deal. Trevathan, who will enter the last year of his deal in '15, will count $1.6 million against the cap. Everyone else at the position who is under contract carries a cap figure of $557,790 (Lamin Barrow) or less, including Todd Davis ($510,000), who was a starter down the stretch in '14.
Pending free agents: Marshall was signed off the Broncos’ practice squad to close out the 2013 season and went on to become one of their most indispensable players this past season. He will have to wait for his major payday. But he is a restricted free agent the Broncos would likely have to give the highest tender and still be prepared to match most any offer he would get from the outside. Irving, who finished the season on IR, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
Who could stay: Marshall isn't going anywhere, and most everybody else is under contract. The question for all of them will be how they transition into Phillips’ defense and find roles that suit them, especially for the younger players like Barrow, Davis, and Corey Nelson.
Who could go: With the Broncos set to address some issues on offense that could need attention in free agency, like the offensive line and at tight end, the crowd at linebacker -- especially with two picks from the 2014 draft at the position -- doesn’t help Irving’s cause.
What they like/want: They want to begin filling out the depth chart for the new scheme. The Broncos have certainly played with some 3-4 principles at times in recent seasons under John Fox, but it will be their full-time scheme now. And with Ware set to turn 33 in training camp, they might be looking to round out some future depth at outside linebacker. They have to quickly find players up to playing on the inside, alongside Marshall, or in their situational work in the nickel or dime.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 1, but this is a best-player-available team through and through, and if a physical middle linebacker type is on the board for them early in the draft, they would jump at that.
Team in good situation at position as it transitions from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 under new coordinator Wade Phillips.