Denver Broncos: Why They Didn't Prioritize Middle Linebacker in the NFL Draft

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIMay 13, 2014

Louisiana State linebacker Lamin Barrow runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Many expected the Denver Broncos to shore up their presumed biggest need, middle linebacker, early in the draft. They didn't.

Instead, the Broncos went with Bradley Roby, Cody Latimer and Michael Schofield with their first three picks. They waited until the fifth round to address the middle linebacker position, when they drafted LSU's Lamin Barrow.

Barrow is a solid player, but the Broncos could have drafted a solid coverage linebacker like Telvin Smith, Kyle Van Noy or Christian Kirksey earlier in the draft. So why did they wait until the fifth round?

For one thing, the Broncos didn't want to reach at any position because they have the depth to pick the best player available. They felt comfortable waiting at middle linebacker because of Nate Irving and because of the depth late in the draft.

Irving—while unspectacular—is, as Pro Football Focus notes (subscription required), a capable coverage linebacker. He will be complemented by Barrow, a versatile linebacker who is similar to Irving in ways.

He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash and has done a solid job in coverage during his career. In addition, he wore the No. 18 last year, which signifies a lot for LSU. That number is issued to, as the Broncos official website noted, the model LSU player on and off the field.

Also, the Broncos were able to add Corey Nelson, a linebacker who, according to Mile High Report, ran a 4.6 40-yard dash. In this deep draft, the Broncos knew they could fill their void at middle linebacker late in the draft.

It wasn't worth reaching for Smith, who weighs 218 pounds and failed a drug test at the NFL combine, in the second or third round. It wasn't worth picking Van Noy over the talented, athletically gifted Roby in the first round, especially considering Paris Lenon started at middle linebacker in the Super Bowl.

Denver has two capable players at middle linebacker now. However, if it still feels underwhelmed by Irving and Barrow, it has an alternative.

New safety T.J. Ward thrives in the box, and he is one of the most physical safeties in the game. He's known for his tremendous run defense, but his pass coverage is stellar as well.

According to Pro Football Focus, opponents compiled a horrendous 61.3 passer rating against Ward last season. He could patch up Denver's gaps in coverage by guarding tight ends and running backs, which the Broncos have had some trouble with.

The Broncos will need to be able to cover tight ends and running backs well in 2014. They will face pass-catching threats such as Rob Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, Vernon Davis, Jamaal Charles and Giovani Bernard, all of whom can hurt the Broncos.

With Ward in the box, Denver could use a Cover 2 alignment with four pass-rushers or send five after the quarterback. With the depth the Broncos have on the defensive line and with linebacker Von Miller's pass-rushing skills, Denver could try this and achieve wonderful results.

Denver doesn't have a great third safety, as Mike Adams remains unsigned, Quinton Carter's future is still in jeopardy due to his injury history and Duke Ihenacho is poor in coverage.

This means that employing Rahim Moore as the lone safety might be the best thing.

If Moore holds up as he should, Denver could unleash its stable of pass-rushers, such as Ware, Miller, Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Terrance Knighton. 

Its secondary also contains lots of talent, as Bradley Roby will make a huge impact on the team. Roby, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are all stellar corners.

As long as the lightning-fast Roby, who is expected to start in the nickel package, does what he's expected to do, Denver should be able to trust its secondary to hold down the fort with Ward in the box.

If the Broncos want to keep Ward back in the secondary, which would allow him to make the big hits he's famous for, they could get by with their current team. 

Irving, Barrow and Nelson all bring unique qualities to the team. Irving is a two-down thumper, and Barrow can play in the nickel or in the 4-3. If Denver finds Barrow unfit in the nickel, it can easily slide Ward in and trust the back end of the defense and the pass rush to hold up.

And now, the Broncos can go into the season with all of their needs completely filled.