The Denver Broncos are about as close to perfect as a football team can get.
They have a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning, depth and talent at running back and wide receiver, an elite pass-rusher in Von Miller, potential star pass-rushers in Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe and a multitude of talent in the secondary.
When you throw in the fact that Denver had the second-best total defense and fourth-best total offense last year, the team appears to be perfect. However, there are still some questions at one position: middle linebacker.
Sure, there is a bit of uncertainty as to who will seize the running back job, and sure, the offensive line has had its problems. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a position with more question marks than middle linebacker.
Last year, Keith Brooking stepped in at the position and provided leadership for the Broncos. Production-wise, he exceeded expectations, as he registered 54 tackles, forced a fumble and registered a sack.
However, Brooking currently remains unsigned and is unlikely to return to the Mile High City. To replace Brooking, Denver will need a young middle linebacker to step up.
Luckily for the team, it has a multitude of options; all are unproven, but all have a chance to break out.
Nate Irving hasn't done much on the field, but he is the leader of the pack so far. Irving registered four tackles in 2011 and 13 in 2012, but he's ready to shatter those numbers in 2013.
He doesn't exactly blow anyone away with his speed, as his 40-yard dash time is a lackluster 4.74 seconds (according to nfldraftscout.com). However, the 240-pound linebacker posted 27 reps on the 225-pound bench press, and he can attack running backs with his impressive strength.
Steven Johnson isn't as strong, but he ran a decent 4.58 40-yard dash and has turned heads with his athleticism. As Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post noted, Johnson showed the willingness to battle through blocks on special teams last season. His skills as an open-field tackler will benefit the team, and it could vault him to or near the top of the depth chart.
Both Johnson and Irving appear to be solid options with good physical tools, but the two have just three years of experience (combined). In addition, the two have combined to compile a mere 27 tackles. The Broncos don't need their middle linebacker to have tons of experience, but it's a valuable tool.
Stewart Bradley and Joe Mays have experience, but neither is likely to make a huge impact on the field. In fact, there's a good chance that Mays doesn't make the 53-man roster, as he is owed $4 million in base salary and isn't a great run defender.
Mays isn't athletic and struggles against the run, and, as itsalloverfatman.com noted, he can be eaten alive by speedy, talented running backs. If the Broncos decide to keep Mays on the team, he would primarily be used as a run defender. If he can't prove his value against the run, he won't make the team.
As Mile High Report noted, cutting Mays would only cost the Broncos $300,000 in dead money. So, he could definitely be playing elsewhere (or not playing at all) this season.
Bradley isn't athletically gifted or great against the pass, which won't help his chances of earning significant playing time. Bradley was signed to a cheap contract to provide depth at the position; he won't start and become a star. He will likely make the roster due to his experience (compared to his competitors) and his low salary, but he won't be a key contributor.
While Bradley isn’t getting paid a ton, Mays is reeling in too much money. He hasn’t lived up to his contract, which has cost the Broncos and will continue to cost the Broncos. It could also hurt Irving, who has received some comparisons to Mays for his lack of speed and his potential inability to stay with speedy running backs.
The Broncos will be cautious about handing out contracts to middle linebackers, especially when it comes to an unproven third-year player like Irving. However, that’s not the only reason.
Middle linebackers have always spearheaded defenses, but they are becoming obsolete. As the NFL has shifted into a more passer-friendly league, middle linebackers have become less and less important.
To stop the pass, teams are using nickel and dime packages. That has hurt middle linebackers.
In a nickel package, a team uses five defensive backs. In a dime package, six defensive backs are used. Teams usually employ these packages on passing downs, and it allows teams to thrive against potent aerial attacks.
Denver uses two safeties and three cornerbacks in its nickel package, and last year, it usually used Champ Bailey, Chris Harris, Tony Carter, Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. Either Carter or Harris was used as the nickelback, Bailey covered opponents' best receiver and whoever wasn't used as the nickelback covered the other outside receiver.
Adams was the strong safety, and he played man coverage in four-receiver sets. When that happened, Moore piloted the defense in a Cover 1 look. If the opponent presented a three-receiver set, the Broncos employed two deep safeties. Tight ends were usually covered by a linebacker, and the Broncos made sure every receiver was covered.
While the personnel might be a bit different, Denver will do the same thing in 2013.
Because five defensive backs are used, only six linemen and linebackers (combined) can be on the field. At least three defensive linemen will be used, and to get to the quarterback, the Broncos will continue to use Miller.
Last year, Miller lined up as both a defensive end and a linebacker. If Miller lined up as a linebacker, the Broncos' look was a 3-3-5. If Miller lined up at defensive end, the look was a 4-2-5. However, regardless of where Miller lined up, he rushed on most plays.
And when he rushed, the Broncos only used two linebackers in coverage.
Wesley Woodyard, who plays opposite Miller in the 4-3, will continue to shift to middle linebacker in nickel situations. Danny Trevathan is good in pass coverage, and he can cover tight ends without much of a problem. This tandem saw the field often in 2012, and it will likely work together even more in 2013.
As Jack Del Rio said (via denverbroncos.com), the best linebackers usually take the field in nickel packages. Del Rio pointed out that the San Francisco 49ers (which have two dominant middle linebackers) will let its middle linebackers stay on the field in sub-packages, so middle linebackers can still play in sub-packages.
However, that won't happen in Denver. Miller and Woodyard have proven themselves as top-tier starters and will rarely take plays off, which will cut into the playing time of other linebackers. That leaves just one open spot, which will likely be occupied by Trevathan on most downs.
If an inside linebacker steps up and excels in pass coverage, it would help provide depth and coverage skills. However, it isn’t likely, and the Broncos can survive without it. Woodyard and Trevathan should do a fine job stopping underneath routes.
So, the Broncos won't need much from their inside linebackers.
They will still need Irving or Johnson to plug the middle of the field in the 4-3, but that’s about it. Woodyard is listed as an outside linebacker, but he doesn't usually fill that role. He will continue to occupy the middle of the field in Denver's predominant package.
The players who are listed at middle linebacker are potent, but they have flaws. Johnson isn't remarkably strong, Irving isn't extremely mobile and neither Mays nor Bradley will do much. Johnson and Irving are both capable of improving and exceeding expectations, but neither will play or contribute much.
As denverbroncos.com’s article noted, Brooking only played in 42 percent of Denver's snaps last season. It's not realistic to expect any middle linebacker to play more than that this season. The Broncos will be playing against Tom Brady, Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and other solid quarterbacks, so they will be in the nickel on most downs.
And that will allow them to get by with minimal production at middle linebacker.