The Broncos surprised everyone - mostly - by releasing ILB Andra Davis yesterday. Perhaps people are most surprised that the Broncos seemingly don't have someone to take Davis' place. It is obvious that Davis did not fit into the future plans for the Broncos and they did the 9-year vet a favor by making the move now. It allows Davis to find work early in the free agent process. That is a classy move - despite leaving a glaring hole in the Broncos LB corps.
So what cost Davis his job with the Broncos? Flexibility, likely. That is the calling card of the Josh McDaniels way - players that can play multiple positions in multiple situations. That means, when at all possible, your linebackers cannot be 2-down players. Davis was a liability on 3rd Down, and as the season went on he became a liability in the run game. McDaniels wants players that can play 3-downs. That limits the vulnerability that the Broncos defense would face if team go no-huddle - limiting substitution ability.
So who fills the hole left by Davis? Good question, but not a question without answers. Here are some of the options -
Free Agents - The Broncos could dip back into the free agent pool if they desire. There are several players available, though each has concerns.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS -
Kirk Morrison(3rd Round Tender, Raiders) It was a surprisingly low tender that Morrison received, but the lack of interest from teams so far is a major red flag that something could be wrong. Morrison definitely took a step backward last season, but losing, combined with the daily grind that goes along with being an Oakland Raider can take it's toll. Morrison has been a Mike linebacker most of his career, so there are questions about whether or not he could play in a 3-4 scheme as the run-stuffing ILB. At 6-2, 240, he has good size to fit the bill. He is also 3-years younger than Davis. Keep in mind that Broncos DC Wink Martindale was the linebackers coach in Oakland and is very familiar with Morrison.
Tim Dobbins (5th Round Tender, Chargers) Just as enticing as Morrison, Dobbins was given just a 5th Round tender by the Chargers. Dobbins has been mostly a backup in San Diego but is ready to break out. At 27 he is still young and is familiar with the 3-4 system the Broncos are running. Broncos D-Line coach Wayne Nunnely is familiar with Dobbins when he was with the Chargers.
UNRESTRCITED FREE AGENTS
Keith Bulluck(UFA, Titans) Bulluck has been a stalwart for the Titan defense but injuries have become a concern. Before getting hurt, Bulluck was enjoying his best season in years, proving that after 10 years he could still get the job done. The Broncos have shown they are not afraid to go after solid leaders despite age(re: Brian Dawkins) so Bullock could be an option later in the off-season. He's primarily played outside as well.
Antonio Pierce(UFA, Giants) another solid veteran coming off an injury. Many think Pierce's neck injury could be career threatening, and was enough for the Giants to release their defensive captain. Pierce has good size to play in the middle, and like Bulluck, is a solid locker room presence.
Akin Ayodele(UFA, Dolphins) Ayodele isn't flashy but he plays a solid linebacker and will get the job done - cheaper than some of the options above. Ayodele has plenty of experience in the 304, playing for Bill Parcells in Dallas and Miami. How much of an upgrade Ayodele would be over Davis is a big question, being that the two players are the same age.
What about in-house options? One name that should be kept in mind is Spencer Larsen. Fans have been clamoring for Larsen to get his chance on defense after proving his nose for the football as a special teams ace and fullback on offense. The Special Teams experience impresses me the most. Most linebackers get their start in the NFL on special teams - guys like Bulluck and James Harrison in Pittsburgh were special teams standouts before becoming Pro Bowl linebackers. At 6-2, 243 Larsen has the perfect size to play inside and he has proven he has a nose for the football. Could this be the time for Larsen to get an opportunity to play?
Some people think the Mario Haggan could make the move inside as well. Haggan started primarily outside last season, though he does have the size to play inside(6-3, 267). That is a lateral move, however, and the Broncos either need to get more talented inside, or get younger. Haggan does neither.
If the Broncos are going to make a move on a RFA, it is likely to happen soon. Team have until April 15th to sign another team's RFA to a tender.
If the team is looking at Unrestricted players, the process could take longer - especially with the guys coming off of injury. The Broncos could simply wait until after the draft to bring a guy in, depending on who they are able to select. The Broncos are likely to pick a linebacker during the draft regardless of which way they go. Now I ask you - what do you want the Broncos to do at Linebacker?