Part 7 of 9

2013 Denver Broncos Offseason Preview: Linebackers

Von Miller, 2013 base salary: $2.284 million: The hero of the the Broncos' front seven rightfully played his way into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation in 2012. His mere presence on the field was scary for any opposing offense.

His 18.5 sacks were third in the NFL and for a 4-3 outside linebacker, it was historic. Jack Del Rio's aggressive scheme proved to be a perfect fit for Miller's skill set to establish the tone of the attack.

His run defense was phenomenal as he consistently blew up plays in the backfield. In only his second year Miller took a quantum leap into full-blown NFL stardom.

He should be an All-Pro first-teamer for the next decade. He is the franchise's cornerstone on defense. Without Miller in 2012 the Broncos' defense would have been average. The same goes in 2013. Future: Starting strong-side linebacker. 

Wesley Woodyard, 2013 base salary: $3 million: Woodyard was a model of consistency and was the league's best linebacker in pass coverage last year. The sixth-year pro had been a core special teams player since joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky in 2008.

DJ Williams started the season suspended for eight games for substance abuse,which opened the door for Woodyard to start. Most thought he would fill in until Williams returned but his play was so superb that John Fox allowed him to keep his starting job when Williams came back.

Woodyard is an athletic freak (4.3 40 time) who finally transitioned into being a consistent starter. Woodyard was an underrated playmaker for the Broncos in 2012. His ability to use that athleticism covering tight ends and running backs set him apart from most outside linebackers in 2012.

Pro Football Focus graded him out as the best cover linebacker in football as quarterbacks had a 60.9 QB rating when throwing in his direction, which was second best among linebackers.

His run defense was decent as he was 10th in the league with 48 stops (a stop is a tackle in which the offense loses yards or has no gain). He lead Denver's defense with 117 tackles on the year.

Surprisingly, he graded out as the second best 4-3 pass rushing linebacker in the league according to Pro Football Focus, right behind Miller, as he racked up five and a half sacks. While improvements are still needed,

Woodyard elevated himself last season into being a key play-maker for Denver's defense. He is an underrated factor and should definitely return to start again in 2013 on the weak-side. Future: Starting weak-side linebacker. Has made DJ Williams expendable. 

Keith Brooking, 2013 base salary: Free Agent: Brooking signed out of the blue right before the start of the preseason with the idea of challenging then incumbent starting middle linebacker Joe Mays.

With the Broncos starting with a record of 2-3 going into their Week 6 matchup on Monday Night Football against the Chargers, John Fox and Jack Del Rio made the decision to insert Brooking into the starting lineup in an attempt to stir some change on defense.

The Broncos didn't lose the rest of the regular season with Brooking starting in the middle. At 37 years old it was an incredible feat for the future Hall of Famer. All though he only partook in 42 percent of all defensive snaps due to his athletic limitations, he brought an intelligent element to the Broncos' defense.

Most media members said he "stabilized" the position. According to PFF, Brooking was ranked 41st out of 53 middle linebackers in run defense efficiency. Brooking was good to have down the stretch but he was limited to solely making plays in between the tackles, meaning he was a liability in coverage and was a non-factor if the runner was going outside.

The Broncos need a younger, more athletic, more well-rounded middle linebacker who can stay on the field more. The defense would be limited if Brooking came back for a 15th season. Future: Will not return to start in Denver. 

DJ Williams, 2013 base salary: $6 million: Williams had been a staple player on the Broncos' defense since he  was drafted in the first round in 2004. He was slated as Denver's starting weak-side linebacker position going into the 2012 offseason before failing a league mandated drug test.

He was subsequently suspended for six games to start the 2012 season. Roger Goodell tacked on an additional three games later meaning Williams couldn't return to the team until Week 10. Wesley Woodyard started in his spot and played well enough to start all season. Williams was stuck as a backup for the first time in his career.

He returned to play sparingly in the final eight games where he logged just 162 snaps and 17 tackles. He might have been demoted permanently. With a $6 million base salary going into 2013, the Broncos feel more comfortable moving forward with Woodyard on the outside, who is cheaper, younger, and better in coverage.

Reports from the Denver Post stated the Broncos might attempt to trade Williams before the Draft, with linebacker needy teams such as the Raiders, Ravens, Redskins, and Texans bidding. Denver could fetch a 5th round pick for Williams but with his large salary getting a late rounder might be difficult as it is.

If the Broncos are unable to deal him they might cut him before the start of training camp. One scenario is him competing to start at middle linebacker where he played the position before, in 2008 and 2009, where he racked up career highs in tackles. Denver might feel more comfortable with a younger crop of linebackers. Future: Won't return to the Broncos in 2013. 

Joe Mays, 2013 base salary: $4 million: Mays became a John Fox favorite in 2011 as the 5'10"  linebacker packed a major punch with huge hits on opponents as he ranked 17th out of 37 starting middle linebackers in playing efficiency according to PFF.

The Broncos brass thought he was the linebacker of future and signed him to a three-year deal worth $12 million following the 2011 season. Even though Mays is a two down linebacker the Broncos thought he was worth the investment for his run defense was superb.

He did not do anything in 2012 to justify his $4.5 million salary. A bone jarring hit on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub lead to a mega fine and one-game suspension may have been the only memorable moment for him.

Mays had tackling issues in 2011 and hoped to improve going into 2012, he did not, which frustrated Jack Del Rio. Joe Mays was a major dissipointment in 2012. He was benched in favor of Brooking and saw limited special teams play before going down with a gruesome season-ending leg injury.

Denver may give Mays one more shot to earn his spot back, but as a two down linebacker who inconsistently tackles can't be good for any defense.

The team's run defense was better without him but that could have been attributed to better interior defensive line play rather than the change to start Brooking.

Should Mays not win the starting job in  2013 all signs point to his release.

He has so far been a disappointing and expensive investment. Future: Will compete to start if he makes it that far into the offseason or could be cut should Denver draft or sign their new starting man in the middle.

Nate Irving, 2013 base salary: $555,000:  The former third-round pick out of North Carolina State was one of the Broncos' best special teams player this year and has put himself in a position to be the primary backup for Von Miller in 2013.

Irving was vital to the success of the kickoff and punt coverage units as he collected nine special teams tackles. He was a middle linebacker in college and during his rookie season, but Jack Del Rio had him move outside this year.

Some chatter around Denver consider him to be a dark horse candidate to compete at middle linebacker. He has little experience on defense going into his third year and the question must be asked if he will only be a special teams player for the remainder of his time in Denver.

Irving needs to have a monster training camp in order for John Fox and Jack Del Rio to consider him a full-time starter in the middle. Future: Primary backup for Von Miller and key special teams player. He has a role.Danny Trevathan, 2013 base salary: $480,000: The former sixth-round pick out of Kentucky was a tackling machine in college as he lead the SEC two years in a row in stops. The Broncos gladly scooped him up late in draft as concerns about his size dropped his stock.

With DJ Williams suspended, Trevathan had his shot on Denver's second defensive unit. The coaches knew Trevathan could cover tight ends and backs so they inserted him into the nickel package along with Woodyard.

He logged 244 snaps where he collected 18 tackles and a sack. He was also a good special teams player but missed too many tackles on coverage units. He should improve going into his second season.Danny Trevathan is an up and coming player for the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos may have gotten a steal with Trevathan and it would not surprise many if he started at some point down the road. He is a sideline to sideline player who is a three down linebacker. Future: Primary weak-side backup behind Woodyard. Should contribute in nickle packages when team faces two tight end sets. Keep a watchful eye on him.

Steven Johnson, 2013 base salary: $480,000: Johnson overcame a major knee injury in college and has an incredible story that separates him from most.

He made the team as an undrafted free agent after leading the Big 12 in tackles while at Kansas in 2011. Johnson is a physical player who shined on special teams units. 

Most would say he was the Broncos' best special teams linebacker in 2012 as he racked up 10 tackles and was vital blocking for returners. According to PFF, Johnson graded out as the ninth best special teams player in the NFL last season. He should return to the same role. Future: Special teams ace.

Overview: The Broncos seem set on the outside with DPOY candidate Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard. The issue lies with whomever will play middle linebacker.

Joe Mays might be given one more shot to earn back his starting job but should the Broncos commit major money towards a free agent or if they take one high in the Draft, Mays is expendable. Even if Mays wins the job the team has only an average player in the middle. "Average" isn't good enough to get the team to the Super Bowl.

Denver has a great crop of young linebackers who could spot start if need be. Trevathan has the tools to eventually be a starter in this league. Irving has little experience and hasn't been tested.

He could be a dark horse candidate to start in the middle if John Fox approves. Johnson is a great special teams player who gets the dirty work done. He also might be considered a starter in the next few seasons.

DJ Williams may have played his last down in Denver  and will most  likely be moved by being traded or cut. If he is retained it means the team thinks he could start in the middle. Clearing his salary would give the Broncos much more cap space.

There is an awkward bunch of free agents the Broncos could target to get their man in the middle for the defense. Names include aging players like Nick Barnett, Rey Maualuga, Brian Urlacher, Bradie James, and Erin Henderson.

All players would be a gamble. Guys like Barnett, James, and Henderson, could be signed for cheap, just to be brought in to compete. It might be worth extending an incentive based one year deal to one of them.

Manti Te'o will most likely fall to the back end of the first round where the Broncos sit with the 28th pick. If Del Rio or Fox fall in love with him Denver could have the controversial linebacker starting for them.

Other first-round possibilities include LSU's Kevin Minter, who is a high-motor player that John Fox likes. Florida's Jon Bostic could be a second round option. Which ever way Denver goes the team will most likely just have an average player in the middle yet again.