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Thursday, February 20, 2014
Broncos roster breakdown: Linebackers

By Jeff Legwold

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.