The Denver Broncos enter the upcoming 2013 season as Super Bowl favorites with high expectations, according to pregame.com.
There aren't many key position battles to question on this team as they enter training camp. We know that Peyton Manning will be the starting quarterback. We know Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker will form quite possibly the best trio of receivers in the NFL. Champ Bailey and Von Miller will once again lead the defense.
There is however, a huge question mark on the team. And it just so happens that it pertains to the side of the ball where Champ and Von play.
That would be the middle linebacker position, of course.
In a season where the Broncos had the league's best record at 13-3, and where they ran off 11 consecutive victories during the regular season, Denver obviously didn't have many weaknesses as a team. They ranked in the top five in offensive PPG and defensive PPG. Manning finished runner-up for the MVP Award, Von had a stellar sophomore campaign and both D-Thomas and Decker had 1,000-yard seasons.
The defense as a unit had a strong season as a whole, as both Champ Bailey and Chris Harris were two of the top 10 cornerbacks in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The pass rush was also was one of the stronger areas of the defense, as Von racked up 18.5 sacks in finishing as a runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, while former Bronco Elvis Dumervil notched 11 sacks himself.
There was one area that left more to be desired: the middle linebacker position. This position was a mess, and because the Broncos really had no other alternatives, they were forced to start 37-year-old Keith Brooking for the majority of the season.
Here's a short recap of Denver's middle linebacker position in 2012: Joe Mays was signed to a contract extension before the season, after a strong 2011 campaign gave the impression that he would be Denver's long-term solution at the position.
However, injuries, a one-game suspension and weak play led to Mays being replaced in the starting lineup by Brooking in Week 6 at San Diego. Mays' season would then end due to injury in his first game after being demoted.
Which leads to the Broncos' current situation at middle linebacker: Brooking was not re-signed during the offseason and still remains a free agent. Mays is back, but will now have to compete in order to regain the starting job. Nate Irving remains a candidate to win the starting job, while Denver brought in free agent Stewart Bradley to hopefully recapture some of the magic that once netted him a 100-tackle season more than four years ago.
The Broncos did not address the position through the draft, focusing more on the defensive line and other positions that needed more depth.
It's possible that Denver will look towards some of their undrafted free agents as possible alternatives, but this article will look at the three veterans who are the favorites at competing for the job entering training camp.
We already covered what happened to Mays last season. As disastrous of a season as it was for Mays—the lackluster play, a one-game suspension due to his hit on Texans QB Matt Schaub and his subsequent benching, and the eventual season-ending injury he suffered at San Diego—the Broncos organization is still giving Mays another chance to redeem himself.
However, there are major warning signs that the Broncos don't want Mays to start this season.
First of all, the North Dakota State product was not cleared for OTA's due to a broken ankle/injury. According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, Broncos brass wants Nate Irving to start.
To top things off, the veteran was put on the trading block during the NFL Draft, but the Broncos found no takers. He is due $4 million this year, but if the Broncos cut him, they owe him just $500,000.
The sixth-year pro is going to have to recapture his 2011 form early on in camp in order to avoid being released by the Broncos.
Irving enters his third season with the Broncos, having been drafted in the third round of the 2011 Draft by Denver.
As mentioned before, the Broncos organization reportedly favors Irving to start at middle linebacker.
It's hard to analyze what Irving's impact would be at MLB, considering he has played so little at the position during his first two seasons in the league.
He has primarily been a special teams player, but with Mays' salary, injuries and underwhelming performance from 2012, combined with Irving's youth, lack of injury history and organizational support (he's a product of the John Fox regime), it seems like the North Carolina State alum has the inside track to be Denver's starting middle linebacker.
The dark-horse candidate and one of the many veteran free-agent signings overshadowed by the Wes Welker addition, Bradley enters 2013 hoping for a fresh start.
The University of Nebraska product was drafted by the Eagles in 2007. He had his first full season as a starter in 2008, racking up 108 tackles, and even landed on the Sports Illustrated All-Pro Team for that season.
However, it's been all downhill from there.
Bradley tore his ACL before the 2009 season started, missing the entire season. He would go on to start the 2010 season, before signing with the Cardinals in 2011 and remaining a special teams player over the next two seasons.
The veteran enters an uphill battle to win the job, but if there's any destination that presents him with the best opportunity to revive his career, it's Denver.
These three players wouldn't be your first options to start at middle linebacker for your team, but such is the dilemma that the Broncos are currently in.
They could go with Mays and hope he shows off the stellar play that netted him a contract extension following the 2011 season. Denver could choose to go the route of Irving, where his youth could provide the Broncos with an added boost, or they could go with the veteran Bradley and hope that he becomes one of the more underrated signings of free agency.
The best bet to win the starting job is Irving. He is a hand-picked favorite, having been drafted by John Fox and John Elway. He's young and has yet to be given the chance to start. Playing alongside Von and Wesley Woodyard should make the job a lot easier.
Expect Mays to be released. Bradley could be retained as insurance and depth in case of an Irving injury, but he will turn 30 years old this season and looks to be more of a training camp body than anything else.
If both Bradley and Mays are to be released, expect the Broncos to bring back Steven Johnson, who led the team in special teams tackles in 2012.