Yesterday I posted and evaluation of the defensive line. Today lets discuss the linebackers. It seems hard to believe that a mere three years ago the Broncos has one of the best linebacking core in the game. Wilson, Williams, and Gold were the fastest group of linebackers in the NFL and the Broncos routinely lead the NFL in run defense. But Big Al sustained a career ending neck injury in 2006, Ian gold seemed to lose his passion for the game, and DJ Williams has been moved more than a military family: three different positions in three years. In 2008 the Broncos' linebacking core is a mere shadow of the previous group, roundly considered one of the weakest groups in the NFL. So what can be salvaged and what just need to go. Let's start with the lightning rod of the group:
Nate Webster - many feel Nate is symbolic of much of went wrong with 2008. A linebacker with good measurables, size, strength and speed, hailing from what has become LB U, Miami, Webster always seems to be out of place on the field. With 75 tackles and 2 sacks, he plays with intensity but little discipline. Since he is a free agent I doubt he is re-signed; we need the comp picks more.
Wesley Woodyard - Woodyard is almost the antithesis of Webster. Considered too small for the NFL woodyard was a CFA out of Kentucky, a school not particularly known for its contributions to the NFL. All Woodyard did was prove to be an impact player whenever he was on the field. Quick reactions and a nose for the ball had him in on numerous plays. In limited action he racked up 55 tackles (47 solo). The knock on Woodyard is still his size; many consider him too small even for a 3-4. I'm not convinced that he cannot play ROLB in a 3-4. What he lacks in size he may make up for quickness off the edge. Some have suggested possible a move to safety, but he hasn't demonstrated the fluid swivel ability required of safeties in pass coverage. The overall lack of quality and depth on defense may create an opportunity for Woodyard.
DJ Williams - DJ seems controversial as well. While some point to the number of tackles he gets others wold like to see more sacks and interceptions. Some have even suggested trading him. That's not likely to happen even with the new coaching staff. Williams recently signed a long term deal with the team. Despite missing 6 games he was second on the team with 93 tackles and grabbed 2.5 sacks as well. The problem with DJ is where to play him; he's already shown he can play every LB position. His natural position would seem to be ROLB but that would displace WW. He could go back to LOLB but there are issues with that as well. He could also work at RILB next to WW. That cold create some matchup issues for offenses. I suspect DJ's position will be largely based on what other players we acquire.
Niko Koutouvides - last year the Broncos signed him as a FA . He was proclaimed as our answer at MLB. While we kept hearing good reports out of camp, he was unable to beat our Webster in the preseason. When he was on the field he looked tentative and lost. When Webster was injured the team preferred to make Spencer Larsen play both ways rather than put K2 on the field. For cap reasons I look for K2 to get cut before the June 1 deadline allowing the team to spread the cap hit over two years. This was another failed FA signing.
Boss Bailey - another free agent acquisition that was supposed to fix our defense. While he is good when he's on the field Boss has a career of injury problems and 2008 was no exception. It's hard to imagine an injury prone player, no matter how good, being an integral part of a solid defense. At the same time he singed a long term deal with a $4mill signing bonus. Cutting or trading him would actually cost more than keeping him. The Broncos may just have to keep him and see how he does.
Jaimie Winborn - While Bailey and K2 were disappointments I think Winborn was a pleasant surprise. While he is in no danger of going to the Pro Bowl he was solid in his role and ranked first on the team in tackles with 99 along with ½ a sack. Given all the other wholes on defense Winborn may be the starter at LOLB next year. Not that he is so good, but there are just more pressing needs and he is serviceable.
Spencer Larsen - Another pleasant surprise. Drafted as a LB in the 6th round out of ASU Larsen actually became the first player in a decade to play both ways. For some reason Shanahan wanted to convert Larson from LB, where he had played in college, to FB, a position he hadn't played since HS. While Larsen didn't put up gaudy numbers, the defense did seem to play better with him on the field. I don't know if that's due to his positive influence or just the value of getting Webster off the field. Larsen played both inside and outside LB at ASU. He may be a candidate for LILB.
The others - rounding out the depth chart are Louis Green and Mario Haggan. To me they looked serviceable for depth but it's hard to say if that's because they are good enough, or just if the guys ahead of them are not that good.
Despite the atrocious play of our safeties, I consider LB the greatest weakness on this team. A 3-4