Denver Broncos: Stewart Bradley

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

Miller
Woodyard
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 Broncos saw what they were looking for in Derek Wolfe Tuesday.

As in the versatile defensive lineman was back in practice and on track to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 5 against the Ravens. Wolfe was sidelined since Aug. 17 after being taken from the field by ambulance after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson during a preseason game in Seattle.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeDenver will likely have versatile defensive lineman Derek Wolfe in the lineup for Week 1.
But the Broncos have been hopeful he would be ready for the opener.

“I was just waiting for the pain to go away,’’ Wolfe said following the workout. “Zero pain, zero weakness, so that’s all good.’’

Wolfe may not be the first name off people's tongues when they talk about the Broncos elsewhere, but he is a key piece of the defensive game plan for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. That's because Wolfe is strong enough to play on the interior in the defensive line and athletic enough to play at end, as well. The Broncos list him as an end, but Del Rio has estimated that he asks Wolfe to do things defensive tackles do about “80 percent of the time.’’

And while Del Rio is constantly using different sets of players for a variety of situations in games, Wolfe is one of the innings eaters as it were. He plays in them all and if he isn’t in the lineup against the Ravens, it would affect how the Broncos do things.

Wolfe played 903 defensive snaps last season as a rookie -- 84.4 percent of the defensive plays -- and the only defensive lineman who played more in 2012 was Elvis Dumervil with 922. Wolfe is expected to play even a little higher percentage of snaps this time around if things go the way the Broncos hope they will.

Coming into the 2012 draft, Wolfe was a rarity among the defensive line prospects that year in that he won matchups all across the defensive front, including at nose tackle and at rush end. Del Rio has been quick to ask him to do many things including as a stand-up rusher when the Broncos go to a sort of whirlpool look with one player in a three-point stance and the other defenders moving around the formation.

“He can do a lot of things, so we’re going to ask him to do a lot of things,’’ Del Rio said.

In other Broncos news:

  • When the Broncos make the bulk of their roster cuts Friday to get to the league-mandated 53 players by Saturday afternoon’s deadline, some of their most difficult decisions will come with players who aren’t quite healthy enough to practice yet but may not be injured enough for injured reserve. The Broncos can only designate one player for return from injured reserve when those final decisions are made. But they also can’t afford to take up three, four or even five roster spots with players who may, or may not, be available any time soon. Guard Chris Kuper isn’t full speed after almost two years of dealing with multiple ankle surgeries and an infection, linebacker Stewart Bradley has not returned to practice because of wrist surgery following the preseason game in Seattle, tight end Joel Dreessen is still coming back from an offseason with two arthroscopic surgeries on his knee and guard/center Ryan Lilja had offseason knee and toe surgeries and was recently held out of several practices because of knee pain/swelling. The Broncos still hope Dreessen will be ready by the opener. That’s all in addition to cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), who is still a question mark for the opener. Bailey is not yet practicing, and he needs a roster spot as well. Suddenly the Broncos are poised to use almost 10 percent of their roster space on players who may or may not be at full speed if they keep all of those players. It’s a calculated risk and could cost the team a young, developmental player along the way.
  • Safety Quinton Carter, who started 10 games as a rookie in 2011, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of knee troubles, ending his season. Carter played in just three games last season, having spent the remainder of 2012 on injured reserve as well. He’s had multiple surgeries on his left knee, including a microfracture procedure in the days following his third of three games he played last season. The Broncos still believe the former fourth-round pick can get back on the field or they wouldn’t have kept him on injured reserve again. Carter last played Sept. 23 last season against Houston, but did not have a tackle. “It’s an unfortunate injury,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “It’s really nobody’s fault. … We think with time he can come back completely.’’
  • The Broncos are expected to start QB Brock Osweiler in Thursday night’s preseason finale, but Osweiler is expected to start behind the second-team offensive line. He has been sacked eight times this preseason behind that group.
  • Center J.D. Walton, who battled an infection in his surgically-repaired ankle this offseason and had another procedure to repair the joint as well before training camp opened, was moved to reserve/PUP. It means Walton can return to practice in Week 6 and the Broncos would then have three weeks to watch him work in practice before having to make a decision to add him to the active roster or place him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. If he moved to the roster, it would be for Week 10 -- Nov. 10 at San Diego.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos surprised no one Sunday as they took a step toward getting the roster to 75 players by Tuesday's deadline, and it was clear their decisions were influenced by who's hurt and who isn't.

The toughest choices are still to come, of course, with the deadline to get down to 53 players arriving Saturday at 4 p.m. MT. The Broncos will start the clock for the regular season sooner than most teams because they're playing in the league's kickoff game Sept. 5, and so the team will likely make the majority of their cuts this Friday -- the day after the preseason finale against Arizona -- because they will practice on the weekend in preparation for the opener against Baltimore.

Sunday's cuts put the Broncos roster at 77 players, including center J.D. Walton, who is on the physically unable to perform list. Walton, who had ankle surgery before training camp, is expected to be ready by late October or early November.

The Broncos can designate only one player to return from injured reserve when the cut goes to 53 players, and they have at least two candidates in Walton and linebacker Stewart Bradley (wrist surgery) to go with Chris Kuper, who is still trying to return from offseason ankle surgery and has been limited since returning to the practice field. Kuper was not in uniform for Saturday night's game against the Rams.

Among Sunday's decisions, the release of wide receiver Greg Orton was notable given he was pushing for the fifth receiver spot. He faced an uphill climb, with Andre Caldwell having worked so much with the starters as the No. 4 receiver, both in the slot and on the outside, and rookie Tavarres King having shown more athleticism with the ability to play in the slot or outside as well as on special teams. Undrafted rookie Lamaar Thomas has also caught the eye of the Broncos' coaches and is a quality candidate for the practice squad.

Orton's ill-timed ankle injury didn't help his cause. The Broncos formally waived him injured Sunday, meaning he'll have to clear waivers before moving to injured reserve, but the Broncos are expected to reach an injury settlement with him in the coming days.

Of the 11 players cut, seven did not play against the Rams, so the Broncos' DNP list provided plenty of hints about who would not make the cut.

To that end, Jacob Tamme's return to the field from a thigh injury that cost him several practices made tight end Deangelo Peterson, a late signee after camp opened, an extra player at the position and he was released. Tight end Joel Dreessen, who is returning from knee surgery, is expected to be ready for the opener.

Undrafted rookie wide receiver Quincy McDuffie flashed some special-teams ability but suffered two hamstring injuries that affected his ability to stay on the field and state his case. McDuffie was also waived/injured. Other players released were wide receiver Kemonte' Bateman, cornerback Mario Butler, tackle Manase Foketi, quarterback Ryan Katz, linebacker Uona Kaveinga, cornerback Nigel Malone, guard/center Quentin Saulsberry and defensive end Lanston Tanyi.

Saulsberry had a troubled time with the Broncos, with a suspension last season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs while he was on the practice squad to go with an offseason drunken-driving arrest. Saulsberry served three games of a four-game suspension, and would have to sit out one more game if he were to sign with anyone for the active roster or practice squad.

What to watch for: Broncos vs. Rams

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
7:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tonight’s preseason game figures to be the last action for most of the Denver Broncos' front-line players until the Sept. 5 regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Most, or all, of the Broncos starters are expected to play through halftime.

That, at least, is coach John Fox’s goal, but say quarterback Peyton Manning takes as big a hit in the first half against the St. Louis Rams as he did against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday, and his exit come could earlier than that.

But some things to keep an eye on:

  • The Broncos' offensive front hasn’t consistently carved out running room or consistently protected the quarterbacks, and that is a worrisome 0-for-2 for the group. Things will improve when left tackle Ryan Clady rejoins the lineup in the regular season, but the group has to pick up the pace. If it doesn’t, the ripple effect will be that some of the favorite items in the Denver playbook will be left behind, like the drop-back passing game. The Broncos have averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in two preseason games; now-injured rookie C.J. Anderson is the only back who has averaged more than 3.8. The injuries up front have made life tougher for other backups -- Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert have 35 combined completions and have been sacked a whopping eight times combined. That’s not the kind of ratio the Broncos want, or need. The Rams tied the Broncos for the league lead in sacks last season (52), so it will bear watching how the Broncos protect overall Saturday, but especially out of their three-wide receiver set -- because it can’t be their base formation, as they’d like it to be, if they can’t protect Manning when they play it.

  • [+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonBackup QB Brock Osweiler has borne some of the brunt of the trouble Denver's offensive line is having.
    After a wafer-thin game plan and limited work in the first two preseason games, the Broncos' starting offense has one touchdown to its credit and no runs longer than 8 yards. Turnovers crushed them in Seattle -- they put up 209 yards on 40 offensive plays in the first half against the Seahawks -- but given that this is the unit's last work of the preseason, it needs to show it can close the deal on a couple drives.

  • Linebacker Von Miller, who has been suspended for the first six games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, will play, but the Broncos are expected to play him later in the game than he is used to. If they stick to the practice plan they showed after the suspension, the two-time Pro Bowl selection could be chasing a Rams backup quarterback against backup linemen. The Broncos want to get Miller some work tonight and in the preseason finale Thursday, but they also have to get Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan ready to play with the starters at strongside and weakside linebacker, respectively, over the first six weeks of the season.

  • With Champ Bailey (left foot) still a question mark for the regular-season opener and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having left Thursday’s practice after being hit in the lower back, the Broncos aren’t yet at full speed in the secondary. With Miller’s suspension also taking an elite rusher out of the mix, the Broncos need to find that right coverage/rush mix. The best defenses in the league are the ones that can get to opposing quarterbacks with four rushers -- pick any four in the formation, but just four if you want to be among the best -- and can put seven players into coverage. That will be a tough balance to walk without Miller, but it means Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips have to find a way to consistently disrupt plays. The Broncos need to take a look at some rush combinations in this one against an accurate pocket passer like Sam Bradford. The Rams played their starters for 15 and 25 plays, respectively, in the first two preseason games and are expected to go to the 30- to 35-play mark in this one.

  • This will be the Broncos' first home game -- they did have a scrimmage that drew just more than 44,000 in training camp in a driving rain -- since their off-the-field drama overtook football matters in the offseason. The folks in the seats might be a little edgy if things don’t go well early.

  • Eric Decker has one catch in the preseason for 10 yards. He is going to be a far bigger part of the offense than that.

  • This will be Wesley Woodyard’s first game action at middle linebacker since he was formally moved there this past week in practice. The Broncos did not stop the power running of either the 49ers or Seahawks in the first two preseason games. The problem was big enough that Fox said Woodyard was going to move to the middle even if Stewart Bradley had not had wrist surgery this past week. It’s a drastic decision, given that the Broncos worked Irving there the entire offseason and worked Bradley there through most of training camp. If Woodyard doesn’t work out, they’re out of options in the base defense.

  • The final roster decisions, particularly if an undrafted rookie or two like linebacker Lerentee McCray is going to make the last cut, will be made by what gets done in the kicking game. A play or two in the final preseason games can be the difference for a host of bubble players.

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