There is a case to be made for several positions across the defense as the cornerstones of the 3-4 alignment. Certainly the nose tackle gets much of the credit for its ultimate success or failure, but his efforts would be in vain if not for the performance of the linebackers behind him. In particular, the outside linebackers are called upon to shoulder the lion's share of the pass rushing burden and their ability to speed up the offense or make plays behind the line of scrimmage becomes absolutely essential. The exploits of our very own Elvis Dumervil are an excellent example of the game-changing nature of the OLB. Whereas star cornerbacks are at their best when they force the QB's eyes elsewhere and the stud NT is doing his job when he merely occupies two blockers, the OLB is the variable that determines the tenor and tone of each and every play. Lucky for the Broncos, "Doom" isn't the only weapon at that position on the roster already. Follow me below the fold for a closer look at the depth at outside linebacker currently present in Denver.
#92 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2006 Draft, 4th Round, 126th Overall
Contract: 2010: $3,168,000, 2011: Free Agent
It's a true pleasure to write about a man who really needs no introduction. Ironically enough, Dumervil has had to make a name for himself over and over again, in level after level, throughout his impressive football career. Despite a then-school-record 78 career sacks in highschool, Elvis was overlooked by the traditional college football powers of his home state and had to make his way up to Kentucky to continue on the path that would eventually lead him to the NFL and our beloved Denver Broncos.
After largely sitting out for two years at Louisville, Dumervil finally worked his way into the Cardinals regular rotation at defensive end as a junior, and - in what would become a sign of even greater things to come - he impressed with six sacks in his final three regular season games played. As a senior, Elvis managed to match his season sack total from the previous year (eight) in just his first two games and racked up 17 in all. Following that astonishing campaign, he collected a litany of personal accolades highlighted by the Bronco Nagurski Award (presented to college football's best defensive player) and first-team All-American honors. Despite all that, his draft stock suffered due to concerns over his size, stamina and skill-set.
Punditrys protect their dubious expertise from being discredited due to their inability to accurately foresee significant future events in their fields by making claims of "perfect storms" gathering to produce the results they did not predict. In the case of Elvis Dumervil, this meant giving some portion of the credit for his "breakout" All-Pro 2009 season to the 3-4 scheme implemented in Denver by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They also made sure that their astonishment at his achievements came across as though they were championing a true underdog story for our benefit and even his. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that Dumervil followed up a record-setting highschool career with an historic two-year stretch in college and even flashed glimpses of his ultimate pro potential with 26 total sacks during his first four years as a Bronco. The bottom line is this: Elvis didn't become a superstar last year. He's been a superstar since he was a teenager and, in 2009, he just made sure that the world finally took notice once and for all.
#56 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2009 Draft, 1st Round, 18th Overall
Contract: 2010: $1,712,500, 2011: $2,055,000, 2012: $2,397,500, 2013: $2,165,000, 2014: Restricted Free Agent
Ayers arrived in Denver clouded in controversy. The draft pick used to select him was a key part of the trade that sent the Broncos disgruntled quarterback, Jay Cutler, to the Chicago Bears. Moreover, Robert was a controversial prospect to begin with. His quiet rookie season in the NFL did little to silence his critics, but his cautious supporters found enough in it to allay their more moderate concerns. Indeed, head coach Josh McDaniels has seen fit to open up a path into the starting line-up for him in 2010 and the second-year player has seemingly stepped up to the challenge.
Ayers began his road to the NFL as an active, athletic linebacker in highschool. He was recruited to Tennessee to play outside linebacker, but quickly grew into a defensive end. After playing sparingly, but showing flashes, Robert finally earned a starting role as a senior following a productive season as a rotational player in his redshirt junior campaign. In his final year at Knoxville, he once again lead the Volunteers in sacks, tackles for loss and QB pressures; he even added an interception. Despite his paltry sack totals - nine in four years - he demonstrated that he was an effective pass rusher and solid all-around player.
Much has been made about Ayers' status as a one-year wonder in college, or the apparently difficult and akward transition into a 3-4 OLB at the next level, but he's already proven his versatility, athleticism and overall football ability time and again. Robert has yet to win over many fans, but I have faith in his development. He's the sort of player that might not fill up the stat sheet himself, but he'll help others do just that.
Dismissed by most as a bust after three uneventful seasons in Denver, Moss unexpectedly made the Broncos roster in 2009 under new head coach Josh McDaniels. Many among us have long theorized that Jarvis' best fit was as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, but his inability to crack the rotation last season seemed to spell the end of his days in Orange and Blue. And yet here we are, with the 2010 season on the horizon, he actually appears to be working his way into some playing time.
Moss burst onto the radars of college football programs from around the nation as one of the leaders of his highschool's improbable run to a Florida state championship. Jarvis then took his star to Gainesville, where he would play a pivotal role for the 2006 Florida Gators en route to the BCS National Championship. During the regular season, he complimented his solid and sometimes spectacular play as a starting defense end with critical plays on special teams, including two game-saving blocks in one game to preserve the season. He also stepped up to win the Defensive Player of the Game award from among the many standout performers in the 41-14 thrashing of the Ohio State Buckeyes in that year's Championship Game. His knack for big plays at big times foretold a tantalizing potential that captivated then-head-coach Mike Shanahan during his search for that much-needed pass rusher.
There can be no doubt that Moss has been a colossal disappointment up to this point in his career, but it's not too late for him to turn things around and the coaching staff in Dove Valley seems to believe in him. He's always had the tools, and he's now had plenty of time to both acquire the necessary skills to unlock that potential and get comfortable in his own skin. He's excited for the new season, the staff is behind him and I'm willing to give him one last chance to prove his worth to this franchise. As a situational pass rusher, he could be a real force in the NFL.
#95 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2009 Unrestricted Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $1.729 million, 2011: $2.128 million, 2012: Free Agent
Throughout his playing days, Reid has flown under the radar. In college, Darrell played three different positions - linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end - and led his team while at each of them. He went undrafted in 2005, but quickly signed a contract and caught on with the Indianapolis Colts. Though he was listed as a defensive tackle for them in their undersized Tampa-2 defensive scheme, he was once again called upon to be a jack-of-all-trades. He even played some fullback for the offense near the goal line, but where he really excelled was in special teams coverage units.
While some wondered where he would fit in the 3-4 defense in Denver, it's not difficult to see why coach McDaniels wanted Reid on the roster regardless. Darrell is exactly the sort of team-first, versatile player that the new administration seems to cherish. Though he may never contribute much to the position under which he is officially listed, he does a lot to help otherwise.
As the depth in pass rushers continues to improve, it's difficult to see slots left open at outside linebacker for players like Reid. That said, Darrell's an ideal fit for a franchise in transition looking to establish a new philosophy on the field and in the locker room. Guys like Reid have a way of hanging around the NFL for long periods of time and, while lesser fans may be perplexed by their staying power, we can all appreciate the hard work that goes into those lengthy careers. It's nice to see that special teams is not "the forgotten third" for the coaching staff of our Broncos.
Going into the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Broncos had already amassed quite a haul after a great deal of trading and no longer had any picks left on the board. That was, of course, until they spotted a couple of diamonds in the rough slipping through towards the end of the draft. Denver quickly struck up yet another deal - this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - and acquired two additional picks with which they selected cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson out of California and Jammie Kirlew of Indiana. Management clearly saw something in both of those prospects that made the loss of a 2011 5th round pick worth the opportunity to secure their services. A closer inspection of Jammie's resume and scouting report make it clear why he might well be worth that cost all on his own.
Like many standout performers in high school, Kirlew starred on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Though Jammie (pronounced "JAY-me") received plenty of praise for his play at tight end, he would eventually settle in as a defensive end at the next level. Following his successful high school career in Orlando, Florida, he went on to play college football at Indiana. There, he lived up to the term "student-athlete" by perennially being selected to the Big Ten Conference's Academic Team while also slowly rising to the top of the depth chart and excelling on the field. After playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman and showing flashes of his ultimate potential while starting all 13 games as a sophomore, he was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award (presented to the best defensive end in college football) as a junior and was the Hoosier's MVP as a senior. Moreover, his impressive performance went well beyond the stat sheet and classroom, as he was nominated for prestigious awards for sportsmanship and charitable work.
Like Robert Ayers before him, Kirlew is the sort of pass rusher that made his presence felt beyond just occasional sacks, but rather with consistent, disciplined pressure. Jammie will also be making the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. While he lacks the physical tools of the elite players at that position, he gets the most out of what he has and that's been plenty throughout his playing days so far. He's been compared by some to Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts - in part because of his relentless motor - which is ironic because he's looking to bookend Elvis Dumervil, who in his day has been likened to Mathis' stellar teammate, Dwight Freeney. It may be a long, winding road to playing time in the NFL for Kirlew, but he certainly has the right stuff to see his way through it.
#58 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 Free Agent
Contract: Terms Unknown
In high school, Atkins was a standout defensive end fated for greatness at that position. His four seasons at Miami University did nothing to dispel that destiny. While moving all around the defensive line for the Hurricanes, Baraka was the quintessential stat-sheet-stuffer. His play during his first season earned him Third team freshman All-American honors, which he followed up with honorable mention All-ACC recognition as a sophomore. His junior campaign saw a dip in production as he was moved inside full-time, but he bounced right back up to honorable mention All-ACC status as a senior when he returned to his preferred position of defensive end.
After that impressive college career, Atkins was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 4th round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Baraka saw very limited action over the next two seasons before being cut despite showing some of that promise from his amateur days towards the end. He was then quickly signed by the San Francisco 49ers to fill a momentary void in their roster, but he was waived just weeks later before the end of that same season.
Now a Bronco, Atkins is looking to reassert himself as the sort of game-changing pass rusher that wreaked havoc on opposing offenses when he played for Miami. In Denver, he'll certainly find the freedom to do just that, but it is up to him to earn any amount of playing time in what is beginning to appear to me as a crowded stable of capable outside linebackers. He's an impressive physical specimen with plenty of spark in his resume, so don't be surprised if he manages to make an immediate impact if he can make his way onto the field in 2010.
#48 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 College Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $320,000, 2011: $405,000, 2012: $490,000, 2013: Free Agent
First thing's first: I'd like to wish Kevin Alexander a very happy birthday, seeing as he turns 23-years-old today! Alexander continues a coincidental subplot in this particular positional breakdown, in that a seemingly inordinate number of the Broncos outside linebackers played their highschool football in the state of Florida. It's no secret that the Sunshine State is a hotbed for athletic talent, especially on the gridiron, so perhaps this revelation should not come as such a surprise. Like most of the other players reviewed thus far, however, Kevin had to leave his home state in order to continue his playing career.
While at Clemson, Alexander proved to be a durable team leader on a unit that was consistently ranked among the nation's top 25 defenses. Though he only broke into the Tigers starting line-up as an upperclassman, he made the most of his rotational opportunities as an underclassman as well and he really blossomed as a starter. His stats don't necessarily shine out of context, it's important to note that he was among the top performers for his team across the board.
Though some saw Alexander as riding the coattails of his more heralded highschool teammate, C.J. Spiller, Kevin was considered a solid prospect in his own right and he made the most out of his time at the college level. He's yet another four-year player who has shown the loyalty, dedication and development that the management in Denver really admires. It's difficult to imagine Kevin hanging on to a slot on the Broncos active roster as the spaces get cut down, but he could have it in him to stick around in some capacity.
#47 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 Waiver Claim (New England Patriots)
Contract: Terms Not Disclosed
After playing his high school football in the state of Texas, Davis returned to his place of birth to play - Los Angeles, California - at the college level. He arrived in L.A. as a tenacious defensive end and, after sitting out for a year, he played in all of the Bruins' games as a redshirt freshman. The following year, they briefly experimented with him at outside linebacker before injuries to the rest of the team forced them to move him back to his natural position. Back at DE, though undersized, he flourished. As a junior, he gained national recognition as an All Pac-10 performer and he even made a few All-American lists. He managed to replicate that success in his senior campaign, during which he was on the watch list for just about every major award for defensive players in college football. He earned a degree from UCLA and remains one of the best pass rushers in school history to this day.
Davis was selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft (88th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hoping to capitalize on his impressive pass rushing skills, he was converted to outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for all involved, the transition did not go smoothly and, after being largely inactive, Bruce was waived in 2009. He was then claimed by the New England Patriots, who kept him on their practice squad until they too waived him this past May.
Some may look at Davis as a bust, but he remains the same guy who excelled at such high levels in college. Bruce really hasn't been given a chance to sink or swim yet, but he'll get an honest look now. This may be his last opportunity to make his NFL dreams come true, so he's going to have to give it his all. There's really no pressure on him in Denver, at least not that of the lofty expectations that followed him from his days at UCLA. He's likely another candidate for the practice squad with the Broncos, but if he can latch on, he has the goods to make the long journey on to a pro roster one day.
After taking a closer look at the eight men who are in the running for the limited active roster spots available to outside linebackers, I have come to the conclusion that I know one thing and believe another. What I "know" is that the depth at this position is largely comprised of some rather open question marks. What I "believe" is that those questions will be answered in a positive manner sooner rather than later. Obviously it helps to have a stalwart like Elvis Dumervil anchoring the position, but he can't go it alone. If the Broncos can find the right player to bookend the unit opposite him, then the rest of the league is in serious trouble.
Though I was initially apprehensive about Robert Ayers, I've become cautiously optimistic on his pro prospects. He obviously has the inside track for the starting spot alongside Doom and I think he's really going to open some eyes with his performance on the field this year. Jarvis Moss, once an afterthought at best and a derisive icon of poor personnel judgement at worst, has apparently worked his way into some playing time and might well be on the verge of the breakthrough that I thought would never come. He might never develop into the star that we once hoped for, but he could turn into the game-changing situational pass rusher that we need.
Behind those three, management has added a healthy dose of youthful competitors that fill the mold that they've held up as their desired archetype: smart, tough, versatile, team-first leaders. Unspoken, but clearly present among those desired attributes as well, is play-making explosiveness. I think all three of the newcomers have what it takes to hang around and develop into contributors at some point.
Whereas just last year I was concerned about what the transition to the 3-4 scheme might mean for our pass rush, I think we're all eagerly awaiting another stellar performance from this group in the upcoming season. I hope that this preview provided you all with a fresh take on all of these guys, because this bunch is young and on top of their games. The talent is definitely there and the staff seems to think they're ready; what say you Broncos Nation?