As the Denver Broncos open their first mini-camp on Wednesday, the biggest question among fans seems to be who is going to play middle linebacker? I understand the concern because it’s really the only area of need that was not addressed directly through free agency or the draft. However, the Broncos do have some options.
The position of middle linebacker position today is different from the one played by Mike Singletary or Ray Lewis. There are very few who play all three downs and a lot of team’s play 60%+ without a middle linebacker on the field. The profile of the position used to be a thumper, a guy who could shed blockers and stuff the run. The new profile requires a middle linebacker to still be able to stop the run, but also be able to run sideline to sideline and cover a tight-end on passing downs. In short the middle linebacker has become a specialized position, based on down and distance.
While the Broncos did not sign or draft a prototypical middle linebacker, they have addressed the position with two key offseason moves. Before we get to those moves, let’s start with Nate Irving. Irving is the likely starter at the Mike (middle linebacker) on opening night versus the Indianapolis Colts. Irving brings two key components to the defense; he is very good versus the run and he has the speed to go sideline to sideline.
Irving will likely play on run downs and in some passing situations, and does give the Broncos one of the fastest linebacker trios in football with Von Miller and Danny Trevathan. As solid as he is versus the run, Irving is not the middle linebacker the Broncos want on the field on third and nine.
The issues surrounding the middle linebacker spot has little to do with stopping the run, the Broncos were solid in that area for most of 2013. Even in the Super Bowl disaster, the Broncos did an excellent job versus Marshawn Lynch. If the Broncos defense is going to be better in 2014, then the position of middle linebacker must be more productive on passing downs.
The Broncos signed safety, TJ Ward to upgrade that position but they can also play him in the box on obvious passing down. Playing in the box simply means playing within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Ward is big enough to move down into the middle linebacker spot and that would give the Broncos someone who can both cover, and stop the run if necessary. Their depth at cornerback allows the Broncos to move Ward around and take advantage of all of his skills.
The Broncos struggled in third-down defense with underneath crossing routes because of their suspect play at middle linebacker. Moving Ward down into that spot on third downs or other passing situations would solve that issue. The plan going into training camp will be Irving on the early downs and then moving Ward around on the passing downs.
The wildcard in this battle is fifth-round pick, Lamin Barrow out of Louisiana State University. Barrow is a bit undersized for the typical middle linebacker but he might be perfect for the new middle linebacker. Barrow is fast and can run sideline to sideline with the best of them. That speed also allows Barrow to cover tight-ends and running backs out of the back field. His challenge will be how quickly can learn the defense, acclimate to the professional game and get comfortable with the defensive calls. In a perfect world Barrow will play in spots early in the season, and then play more as he gets more and more comfortable.
In the true sense of the word, the Broncos did not address the position of middle linebacker but they did make moves to improve that area of their defense. The NFL is a passing league and no position is changing more because of that than the position of middle linebacker, and the Broncos now have three players who can man the position depending on the situation.