Positional Analysis for the Denver Broncos: Linebacker


November 9, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) is congratulated by defensive end DeMarcus Ware (94) during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 41-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips confirmed on Tuesday what everyone already knew. The team will move to a 3-4 look on the defensive side of the ball. Again for anyone who isn’t sure what that means, a 3-4 simply means that the defense lines up with three defensive linemen and four linebackers.

So with that said, what does the switch mean for the linebackers of the Broncos?

The first thing it means is that DeMarcus Ware will move from defensive end to outside linebacker with Von Miller on the other side. One of the goals of a 3-4 look is to get pressure on the quarterback with the two outside linebackers, and there are few better duos than Ware and Miller.

Ware enjoyed some of his best seasons as a pass rusher with Phillips as his head coach/defensive coordinator while both were with the Dallas Cowboys. Phillips believes that you put your best players into advantageous positions and then let them use their natural ability. That was not always happening last season under Jack Del Rio.

It’s safe to assume that Miller won’t be dropping into coverage on third and eight like he did at times in 2014. The defense for the Broncos was highly ranked last season but there were not nearly enough disruptive plays, that should change with the aggressive approach that Phillips has promised and Ware and Miller should be the primary beneficiaries of that approach.

One of the pleasant surprises last season was the emergence of inside linebacker, Brandon Marshall. Marshall was a fifth round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, and entered training camp last season just trying to make the roster. He ended the season as one of the Broncos most important players on defense, and his presence was greatly missed when a foot injury kept him out of the last two regular season games.

Marshall projects as one of the starting inside linebackers in 2015 and will be counted on to stop the run, and be a leader on the inside of the Broncos defense.

The common belief right now is that Danny Trevathan will be the other inside linebacker if healthy. There is concern from some that Trevathan won’t fit into a 3-4 defense but I disagree. Before Trevathan suffered his season ending knee injury, many believed that he was the most important player on the Broncos defense.

The duo of Marshall and Trevathan on the field together has to be appealing to the coaches and the fans. Both are playmakers, have the speed to get to the outside and are decent in pass coverage. If Trevathan is fully healthy, then the Broncos are set with their starting four.

Nate Irving also fits as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 but he too is coming off of an injury, and is scheduled to be a free agent on March 10th. With all of the other priorities the Broncos have in terms of their own free agents, it’s unlikely that Irving returns in 2015.

The depth at the linebacker spot is young and untested. The organization was happy when Lamin Barrow fell to them in the fifth round of last year’s draft, but he did not contribute much on defense. Sometimes players make their biggest jump between their first and second seasons, the Broncos are hopeful that’s the case with Barrow and that he can provided some much needed depth.

Corey Nelson is another young linebacker that the Broncos liked when they drafted him last year but unlike Barrow, Nelson did play some meaningful snaps on defense. As mentioned with Barrow, the Broncos desperately need at least one of these two to develop into a quality player.

Perhaps the most interesting player at the linebacker position, beyond the projected starters, is Lerentee McCray. McCray is an outside linebacker with some of the same qualities as Miller. He’s explosive and has some pass rushing ability. McCray was raw when the Broncos got him but if he can continue to develop, then he has a chance to be a big part of the defense.

Then there’s Steven Johnson. Johnson is not going to wow anyone with his ability and he’s never going to be named to a Pro Bowl, but he’s dependable and is one of the best special teams’ players on the Broncos. Johnson is a free agent but he probably wouldn’t cost a lot to keep, and what he brings to the Broncos is extremely valuable.

The Broncos would probably like to add some veteran depth that they were lacking last season when Trevathan and Irving went down. It’s also possible they will look to the draft to add an inside linebacker.

We wrap up our positional outlook for the Broncos next time, with a look at the defensive backs.