The Denver Broncos rebuilt their defense this offseason by upgrading the defensive line and the secondary. One group that received less attention from general manager John Elway was the linebackers, which is a testament to the play of weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan more than any other player.
When Trevathan crumpled to the ground with a left knee injury on Tuesday and had to be taken from the field on a cart, the Broncos not only feared the worst, they also knew instantly that their defense would not be the same without him. Unlike last October, when Trevathan was carted from the practice field with an apparent knee injury and was able to play four days later, he’s now an integral part of Denver’s defense.
Trevathan has a left medial tibial impaction fracture, the team announced, and will miss six to eight weeks. That timeline makes Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals after the bye a good target for Trevathan’s return.
"They told me that my ACL and MCL are fine, but that I have a fracture in my knee," Trevathan told ESPN's Josina Anderson. "The doctor told me I was going to be out four to eight weeks, but I told him four to six. I'm not tripping. I will bounce back. I'm a soldier."
Not only is Trevathan more important to Denver now than he was last year, but the Broncos don’t have sufficient depth behind him. The Broncos avoided the worst-case scenario as they will only have to do without him for about a month of the regular season. Wesley Woodyard, who Denver moved from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker to accommodate Trevathan last year, signed with the Tennessee Titans in the offseason.
Trevathan was the one defender that really picked up his game after injuries sidelined Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. last season. From Week 16 through the playoffs, Trevathan was nothing short of fantastic.
The Broncos have several options to replace Trevathan, but none of them can totally replace his production. One such option for mitigating the loss of Trevathan would be using the trendy big nickel package with three safeties. T.J. Ward would rotate down into the box and Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter could patrol deep.
However, linebackers are always going to be needed in base packages, and someone will have to play in Trevathan’s shadow. University of Nevada product Brandon Marshall, a former fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, got the first crack after Trevathan left the practice field.
Marshall spent most of last season on the practice squad after spending his rookie season on Jacksonville’s practice squad. Marshall is currently listed as Trevathan’s direct backup but has just 15 snaps of professional experience and two tackles in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Oakland Raiders. Marshall did perform well in the first preseason game playing with the second-team defense, however.
If Marshall proves to be a liability against the run or in coverage, the Broncos could consider Nate Irving, Steven Johnson or rookie Lamin Barrow. All three are currently listed as middle linebackers but have some experience playing outside.
|PFF Preseason Performance Breakdown|
|Player||Experience||Run Snaps||PFF Run Grade||Pass Snaps||PFF Coverage Grade|
|Pro Football Focus|
Barrow is perhaps the most likely to get a shot due to the fact that Irving is slated to be the starter in the middle. Irving would also be Miller’s primary backup at strong-side linebacker, creating more depth issues if he were to play on the weak side.
Irving may prove to be too much of a coverage liability on the weak side, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him positive coverage grade on 125 snaps last year at middle linebacker. Johnson sits behind Barrow on the depth chart and doesn’t have much game experience even though he’s played both in the middle and on the weak side over the last two years.
If Irving were to play on the weak side, Barrow would have to play in the middle. It would therefore make more sense to have Barrow play outside, leave Irving inside and just adjust snaps and defensive packages accordingly.
Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL.com draft profile of Barrow projected him as a weak-side linebacker, so that may actually be his most natural position. Barrow played a variety of linebacker spots at LSU.
Bleacher Report’s Darren Page says Barrow can “cover an adequate amount of ground” and may best fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker in the pros. With Miller and DeMarcus Ware rushing off the edge, Denver’s defense has many characteristics of a classic 3-4.
Page’s scouting report also lists route anticipation and quick feet in space as Barrow’s strengths. CBSSports.com’s scouting report listed similar strengths and said that Barrow could provide depth both in the middle and on the weak side.
In his first preseason action, Barrow struggled in coverage, earning a minus-1.6 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus after allowing two receptions on three targets, but he was better than Irving, who tied for the team’s worst coverage grade of minus-1.8.
By using Marshall and Barrow, there would be minimal disruption on the rest of the defense. The Broncos will have to find another player to wear the green dot on their helmet and call the plays regardless of who plays in Trevathan’s place.
No matter how the Broncos choose to shuffle the linebackers, they should be able to survive without Trevathan, as long as the return timetable is accurate. The Broncos need a healthy Trevathan down the stretch and in the playoffs more than they do early in the season, so navigating without him for a few games shouldn’t be a major problem.