Denver Broncos: Who Will and Won't Be Backing Up the Defensive Line in 2011
With the switch back to the 4-3 defense, we will see some major changes at the linebacker position.
Our two best outside linebackers in the 3-4, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers, will be most likely moving to the DE positions.
This means the Broncos have to provide the support from the linebacking position needed to plug the holes and also be able to cover the TEs and the RBs out of the backfield.
They also have to stop the run at the point of attack and make sure the middle of the field is covered.
One of the many questions needing to be answered: Do we have enough 4-3 linebacking talent currently on the roster? I don't think so, and that is why this position will also have to be addressed in the draft, along with the DL, which we covered in my last segment on the defense.
Outside the Lines: Weakside LB DJ Williams
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DJ Williams, 6'1", 242 pounds, has the athletic ability to play any of the linebacking positions and has over his seven-year Broncos career. But I think this coming year, he will move back to his natural spot at the weak side.
Williams has averaged over 100 tackles each season he has been here and will most likely continue that trend for the next several seasons. He also can cover receivers, as long as they aren't true speed burners.
He is currently the best LB on the roster but will need some help along the way. He led the team with 5.5 sacks last season so he shows the ability to fight off blocks and get to the QB.
The biggest downside for Mr. Williams and the Broncos is his propensity to attempt to drive after drinking. He is currently awaiting the final dispensation on his second DUI that will, in the best case, cost him a four-game suspension. And it could go as high as six games, depending on King Goodell's sense of "justice."
So no matter how other things shake out, we won't be seeing D-Will on the field for the first quarter of the regular season.
Outside the Lines: Strongside LB Joe Mays
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A player who came on strong in the latter part of this season after coming from the Philadelphia Eagles is Joe Mays. He had 18 solo tackles in the last three games and 40 for the season. He is hard-nosed, tenacious and plays above his abilities with a full-throttle motor.
The only drawback is his size. Mays stands only 5'11" at 247 pounds—a bit on the short side but he is all muscle and can flat out play.
I see him working into the starting rotation at the weak side, unless we draft a player that can outwork and outplay Mays.
And being a long-time Broncos fan, I see Mays in the mold of a certain outside LB by the name of Tom Jackson—almost the same size body and I think the same size heart.
Not bad credentials to play on the new Orange Crush.
The Centerpiece of the D: Middle LB Mario Haggan
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With the move to the 4-3, the MLB position will be key.
Last season in the 3-4, DJ Williams shared the inside spots with Mario Haggan. But with Williams moving back outside, it will be on Mario's shoulders to hold down the inside and be the defensive QB, calling the defensive plays.
Haggan, at 6'3", 267 pounds has the size to plug the gaps and the intelligence to make the reads necessary to stop the inside rushes as well as move laterally to support the wide plays.
He finished with 87 unassisted tackles and two forced fumbles.
And, as seen in this picture, he can also rush the passer. He had five sacks last season—one short of team-leading DJ Williams' 5.5.
Other Current Roster Players to Watch: Jason Hunter
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With the potential starting LB positions set from the current roster, let's look at the rest of the talent and where they might play.
Beginning with a part-time starter in 12 games last season, Jason Hunter will be pushing to move back into the full-time starting role. And I see him at the MLB slot, considering his size—6'4", 270 pounds—but he can also play at the DE position as well. Hunter had 61 solo tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and one INT, so he has a nose for making big plays.
If he doesn't move back into a starting position, he will still be a major factor on the Denver D.
Other Current Roster Players To Watch: Wesley Woodyard
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Another starter from last season is Wesley Woodyard. He started three games and ended the season as the starting ROLB.
He is a dependable player who plays above his size much of the time but at 6'0" and 220 pounds, he may not fit the mold of a starting OLB in the new 4-3.
But he can hit and is mobile, so he may very well be moved to strong safety—a position that might push his hitting skills and size, changing the way the safety position is looked at.
What a scary thought for a TE coming across the middle!
Other Players To Watch on the Current Roster: Spenser Larsen
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A throwback to the old days! Spencer Larsen is the only player in the modern history of the game to start at both fullback and LB in the same game.
He was drafted out of Arizona where he played both positions and played them well.
But my feeling is with the return to the running game by head coach Fox, Mr. Larsen will be seeing a lot more time at the FB position. And at 6'2", 243 pounds, that is a lot of man coming at you in front of the ball carrier.
Help Is on the Way from the 2011 Draft: Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina
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As I have said in a previous article, I see the real possibility that Denver takes Quan Sturdivant from North Carolina with its third-round pick.
He has the size, speed and cover ability to play all over the field and will shore up the lack of depth at LB.
He led the Tar Heels in tackles for two years and would have for three if not injured. His size, 6'2", 237 pounds, will also plug some holes in the middle.
He has a motor and will be a great fill-in for D.J. Williams, as he sits out his suspension of 4-6 games for his second DUI.
I think Sturdivant may be the best fit for the Broncos in this draft and will end up a real star under the Fox defensive scheme.
Help Is on the Way from the 2011 Draft: Kelvin Sheppard, LSU
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Kelvin Sheppard is another player that could be the third-round pick. He is a perfect specimen at 6'3", 240 pounds to plug the middle of the defense.
He also is a senior, which gives him one more year of experience—something that Fox will love.
Through the 12 regular-season games at LSU, Sheppard has 108 total tackles and 42 solos. Playing from the inside position, he had 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
With those credentials and the fact he was the defensive leader on one of the best defenses in the country, he could be a great future star for the Denver Broncos Orange Crush v.2.
My Projected Broncos Linebacker Depth Chart Would Be...
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Looking at the current talent on the roster and the potential players in the draft, I see this position as being a strong contributor to returning to the vaunted Orange Crush days.
And here is how I see the LB roster unfolding:
WOLB: Quan Sturdivant, 6'2", 237 pounds (Until DJ Williams is off suspension)
MLB: Mario Haggan, 6'3", 267 pounds
SOLB: Joe Mays, 5'11", 247 pounds
Jason Hunter, 6'4", 270 pounds
Wesley Woodyard, 6'0", 220 pounds (Could also play at SS)
Spencer Larsen, 6'2", 247 pounds (Will start at FB but can fill in at LB)
Greg Lloyd, Jr, 6'2", 255 pounds (great genes from Dad and we steal him in the seventh round)
I can't wait to see these guys destroying the other team's offensive schemes and their will to continue.