Middle linebackers aren't worth as much now as they were in Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus' days, but they're still valuable.
As the NFL has evolved into a more pass-heavy league, the nickel package has become more popular. This package, which carries five defensive backs, is sometimes run in a 4-2-5 alignment. This means that there are only two linebackers.
And usually, the middle linebacker doesn't play in that package.
The Broncos run the 4-2-5 often, so starting middle linebackers (who play in Denver's 4-3) aren't extremely important. In fact, Paris Lenon, Denver's starting middle linebacker from Week 14 until the Super Bowl, played just 37.8 percent, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of Denver's postseason snaps.
The more athletic Wesley Woodyard, however, was in on 54.7 percent of Denver's postseason snaps despite being relegated to a bench role in Week 14.
In other words, the Broncos run the nickel more often than the base 4-3 and prioritize pass defenders.
Woodyard, however, was actually mediocre in coverage. He graded out negatively in pass coverage this year, and he struggled with tight ends. The Broncos likely won't re-sign him, as he struggled mightily with his transition to middle linebacker and has consistently been poor in coverage.
Denver needs another linebacker to improve its coverage and complement Danny Trevathan. Trevathan is a talented playmaker who can hold his own in coverage and fly to the ball on run plays, and he almost always plays in coverage.
The Broncos can also use Von Miller, their star pass-rusher, in coverage. For example, he played 11 snaps in coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs. He is incredibly versatile and can do anything well, but he primarily rushes.
He performs best when he's chasing helpless quarterbacks, and Denver wants to keep him in that role. But to allow him to rush, it needs another quality coverage linebacker.
It also needs to force turnovers. The Broncos didn't force a turnover all postseason, and it eventually came back to bite them.
There are two players who can help Denver intercept passes and force fumbles, although both could be a bit expensive. Daryl Smith and Karlos Dansby, despite being on the wrong side of 30, both put up phenomenal numbers in 2013.
Dansby registered 122 tackles, four interceptions and 6.5 sacks, while Smith checked in with 123 tackles, three interceptions and five sacks. Both signed cheap, one-year contracts during the 2013 offseason, and both will get paid boatloads of cash in 2014.
Smith, however, could be affordable for Denver, which, according to Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey, should have near $22 million to play with. Smith's not a good run defender, and it could be hard for him to make a case for a hefty contract because of that noteworthy deficiency.
The more well-rounded Dansby would be harder to obtain, however.
He wants to stay with the Arizona Cardinals, and he would likely have to be paid a lot to leave. He’s more talented overall and more experienced at middle linebacker than Smith, who played his first season at middle linebacker in 2013.
Oh, and according to ESPN, he thinks he's worth as much as the highest-paid linebacker in the league. In other words, he's likely to be out of Denver's price range.
Even though Smith set a Baltimore Ravens franchise record with 19 passes defended, and even though he intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles, he should stay in Denver's price range.
Why? Because even if Denver re-signs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris, who must both be retained, it would still have cap space. And even if it re-ups the deals of its other cheap free agents, such as Zane Beadles and Shaun Phillips (or Robert Ayers), it would have money to spend.
Denver could use the majority of that cash on a wide receiver, a safety or a middle linebacker. Signing some receiver like Anquan Boldin or Hakeem Nicks at a good price might be Denver's best bet, as Peyton Manning can make any receiver look good.
That leaves safety and linebacker. The Broncos should certainly prioritize the free-agent class' best strong safeties, such as T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner. Both are physical, and both can force turnovers.
Ward, however, is very likely to re-sign with the Cleveland Browns, which have a multitude of spending money, at a steep price.
On the other hand, Whitner’s San Francisco 49ers have minimal cap space and already have talented safeties. They could afford to let go of Whitner, just as they were able to afford letting go of Dashon Goldson last year.
If Whitner signs with Denver, the Broncos would have to turn to the draft or a cheap free agent at middle linebacker. For example, they could sign Dan Connor—who missed almost all of the 2013 season but has been decent over his career—to a cheap, one-year deal.
Additionally, Denver could turn to Nate Irving. The Broncos have always envisioned Irving as a middle linebacker, but he's not known for his pass coverage. It would be a bit risky to start Irving, but he's a serviceable linebacker who can step in if Denver can't afford a more talented defensive general in free agency.
If needed, Irving can step in. However, Denver would be smart to look at other middle linebackers.
If the Broncos don't trust Irving, they could also turn to the draft. Chris Borland, Shayne Skov and Yawin Smallwood are all talented run-stoppers.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, there aren’t many linebackers who excel in coverage in this year’s draft class.
Pass coverage is the main area Denver needs to focus on, and it can improve in that aspect in free agency. If it fails to sign Whitner or Ward, the Broncos could add Bernard Pollard, who would be fairly cheap. He would also add much-needed physicality to the defense.
If the Broncos do sign Pollard, they would likely be able to afford Smith. That would lead to Denver having lots of defensive talent and physicality at a decent price.
Denver should prioritize the safety position, but there aren't many elite safeties out there in this free-agent class. If Denver doesn't agree to a contract with one of those elite players, it should certainly turn its attention to Smith and potentially Dansby (if he doesn't receive the contract he is seeking).
Smith has deficiencies, but he could definitely ignite the Broncos defense. If the Broncos can lure him in with the possibility of playing for a championship contender (something Smith has never done), it would make a monumental impact.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless specified otherwise.
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