The Denver Broncos haven’t had a quality starting middle linebacker since the days “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson roamed the field. He was forced to retire in 2006 due to a neck injury, and the Broncos have been scrambling to find an enforcer in the middle ever since.
They’ve tried everything over the last few years. Players like Keith Brooking, Paris Lenon and Joe Mays (among others) have started at the “Mike” with varying results. None have been the long-term answer the Broncos have been looking for.
Today’s NFL is changed. The league has transformed into a pass-happy game, and defensive players have had to adjust. Middle linebackers are no longer the two-down thumpers they used to be. Today’s “Mike” linebackers need to first and foremost be able to stand out in coverage.
The Broncos have an interesting mix of players at middle linebacker right now, and they have multiple options at the position. They even have some options for “Mike” ‘backer that come from other positions on the defense.
According to Mike Klis, from the Denver Post, fourth-year linebacker Nate Irving will enter training camp as the starting middle linebacker for the Broncos. Irving was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft with the idea that one day he could be the team’s starter inside. He’s athletic enough to cover, and Irving arrives at the ball with natural violence.
Over the first few years of his pro career, Irving failed to stay healthy and impress when given the chance at middle linebacker. Irving was considered the frontrunner last year at the position entering training camp, but he ended up losing the job to converted “Will” linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
As the season wore on, Woodyard was injured and replaced by Lenon on the inside while Irving stayed on the bench. Irving did become a standout player as a reserve “Sam” linebacker. He received more playing time for the Broncos after starting linebacker Von Miller went down with an ACL injury in Week 16 against the Houston Texans.
That extra playing time caught the eye of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “I think Nate played well last year when he was called on. And the things that he got an opportunity to do, he played well. So I know he comes in with a lot of confidence based on the way he played last year, and the fact that he’s very familiar with our defense, understands where he belongs.” Del Rio concluded, “He’s a heavy-handed guy, a bright guy, good communicator, and he’s having a good camp.”
Irving has carried the momentum over from last year, and he’s looked good at his new position in minicamp. It will be interesting to see if that carries over when the pads come on in training camp.
He will face the most competition for the starting job from two players; veteran Steven Johnson and rookie fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow. Johnson has been a standout player on special teams, and he loves to initiate contact. Barrow is a “new school” middle linebacker because he is rangy, athletic and can make plays in coverage but needs work as a run-defender.
Irving may begin the year as a starter at middle linebacker, but he could be replaced on passing downs. When the Broncos go into their nickel package it won’t be surprising to see Irving replaced by Barrow or by strong safety T.J. Ward.
The first move the Broncos made in free agency was to add Ward to the defense. He’s a hard-nosed intimidator with the nickname “Boss”—and he certainly lives up to the hype. Ward is an enforcer with the ability to play close to the line of scrimmage to stuff the run, plus he can turn and stay with receivers or tight ends on downfield routes.
Ward’s versatility gives the Broncos an interesting option in the middle of the defense. The Broncos played in their nickel package on nearly 65 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013. The pass-happy nature of the league isn’t going anywhere, so the number of snaps in the nickel may be the same—or more—this year.
Denver also sees more passing early on than other teams do. Opponents are forced to the air quicker when Peyton Manning and the offense build a big lead early. The Broncos defense has to be better in coverage earlier than other teams in the NFL.
The Broncos have the most dominant offense in the league. They have made moves like adding Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Bradley Roby to be a dominant defense as well. No matter who starts at “Mike” linebacker for the Broncos, they will be able to give opponents several different looks defensively in 2014.