As announced previously in this space, Comcast has generously agreed to support the best NFL community around -- us! As part of that effort, between now and the end of the 2010 NFL season Comcast will be sponsoring a variety of special editorial and interactive features on our site.
As opposed to their counterparts on the outside, inside linebackers typically make their impact on games via consistency instead of explosiveness. Rather than making fans jump out of their seats and exclaim "wow", ILBs make opponents wonder just how many of them are actually out there on the field or how they can otherwise be everywhere at the same time. They may not be cornerstones of the 3-4 scheme, but they can certainly become its linchpins. In the case of the Denver Broncos, this position could very well be one of the more underrated parts of any defense in football today. Please follow me below the fold for a closer look at the men battling to hold down the fort at the heart of the Broncos defense.
#55 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2004 Draft, 17th Overall
Contract: 2010: $3,000,000, 2011: $4,900,000, 2012: $5,000,000, 2013: $6,000,000, 2014: Free Agent
Born and raised in and about Sacramento, California, D.J. Williams amassed one of those highschool football resumes that appears almost comical. During his senior year, Williams racked up 130 tackles, six sacks, forced five fumbles and recovered three; he also ran for nearly 2,000 yards and scored 42 total touchdowns, including five in the air and four in returns. As one of the nation's top prospects, D.J. chose to attend Miami University in the state of Florida.
Following a limited freshman campaign as the Hurricanes fullback, Williams played linebacker for their national championship team the following year. D.J. then established himself as one of the best LB in the country as a junior and improved on that performance as a senior, garnering consideration for the Butkus Award (presented to the nation's best linebacker) both times while also earning second-team All-Big East and third-team All-American honors respectively. That strong college career compelled the Denver Broncos to select him 17th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Williams had a strong rookie season in the NFL, coming in third for the league's Rookie of the Year Award. In what would become the dominant trend of his professional career to this point, however, D.J. was asked to move - that time from strong-side outside linebacker to the weak-side. After two lack-luster but solid seasons there, he moved into the middle linebacker position vacated by veteran stalwart Al Wilson following his unfortunately premature retirement due to injury. Though he flourished at that spot, the end of the Mike Shanahan era ushered in the return of the 3-4 to Denver under new head coach Josh McDaniels and then-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. As one of two inside linebackers in the scheme, he finally gained the recognition he's long deserved, being named a Pro Bowl alternate. Though he will enter the 2010 season in ostensibly the same position as that which he executed so successfully last year, his role may change somewhat under new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. In fact, that variable should be considered when analyzing our entire linebacking corps.
Williams has been a selfless, extremely solid and sometimes spectacular performer for the Broncos and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. If anything, I'd say that D.J. still has another level that he is capable of reaching as he enters the prime of his career. He's the kind of guy that leads by example and he's done a heck of a job doing just that. Having an exceptional player such as him at ILB adds a different dimension to the 3-4 scheme that others might lack. At least at the spot he holds down, Denver has nothing to envy from any other defense around the league.
#57 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2008 Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $1.5 million, 2011: $1.23 million, 2012: Free Agent
Mario Haggan was, like most players in the NFL, a star in high school football. He led his team to a state championship and garnered all-state recognition while doing so. Haggan stayed in Mississippi for college football, attending Mississippi State University, where he eventually broke into the starting line-up as a sophomore linebacker and earned second-team All-SEC honors. Mario was similarly recognized as a junior, this time as a defensive end. For his senior campaign, he returned to his preferred position at LB and made the all-conference first team. Despite his best efforts, however, he found limited team success at the college level.
Haggan was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 228th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. After being initially relegated to the practice squad, Mario worked his way onto the active roster later that year and played on special teams. He quickly became a special teams ace and eventually the captain of that unit, playing only sparingly on defense. In 2008, he joined the Denver Broncos, where he was expected to perform in that same vein. The following year, under new head coach Josh McDaniels, Haggan finally earned a starting spot at outside linebacker and was chosen by his peers as a team captain. This offseason, however, he's been moved inside to accommodate the ascension of OLB Robert Ayers into the starting line-up.
While, at first glance, Haggan appears to be quite a big ILB, I think it's a good fit for his skill-set. He's a tough, hard-nosed player that will have no problem shedding some coverage and pass rushing duties in exchange for the dual responsibilities of plugging holes and blowing up plays from the inside. There can be no doubt that he'll give it his all in the execution of that new role and I think he's already established that betting against him is a bad decision. I look forward to his continued steady contributions for the defense.
#51 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 Free Agent
Contract: 2010: Terms Unknown, 2011: Free Agent
Ayodele continues the trend of low-key acquisitions at the inside linebacker position for the Denver Broncos. After beginning his college career at Coffeyville CC, Akin transferred to Purdue University and quickly blossomed into a star for the Boilermakers. As a defensive end, he received second-team All-Big-Ten honors following his sophomore and junior seasons, and moved up to the first team after his senior campaign. Despite playing only three seasons there, he remains Purdue's second leading sack artist of all-time.
After being selected with the 89th overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, Ayodele went on to have four productive seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Unfortunately for him, Akin peaked in his second professional campaign and was out of favor by the end of the 2005 season. He then caught on with the Dallas Cowboys and, in his first experience in the 3-4, had another solid season before his production fell off the following year. In the past two seasons, he played for the Miami Dolphins with moderate overall results. Now in Denver, he's expected to continue to contribute in limited scenarios, but he could expand that role if his performance warrants it.
Ayodele's calling card as an ILB in the 3-4 has been his pass coverage, but he's also shown some consistency with his tackling numbers per game and flashed game-changing potential with turnover creation. If Mario Haggan's move inside fails or even falters, I'd expect Akin to be right in the thick of the race to replace him. As things stand now, don't be surprised to spot him on the field at key times or against particular match-ups regardless of his official role. He could turn out to be one of the most important non-starters on the roster in 2010.
#59 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2008 College Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $475,000, 2011: Restricted Free Agent
Here's a man who might be without a natural position in the National Football League, but who is otherwise a sure-fire NFL player. It's rare to find a "tweener" that's seemingly halfway between being a safety and being an inside linebacker, but that's exactly what Woodyard is. If there's anything that he is, wholly, it's a fan-favorite: and for good reason!
Wesley Woodyard was the brightest star - Georgia's Defensive Player of the Year according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution - on a high school football team that would go on to win almost as many championships (2) in his time there as games lost (3). After playing outside linebacker in high school, Woodyard switched from safety to inside linebacker as a freshman in college and never looked back. In the following three full seasons at Kentucky, Wesley was named to the second-team Sophomore All-American team and he lead his squad in tackles every season. Despite that stellar resume, questions about his future role led to his being undrafted in 2008.
In his first season in Denver after signing on as a college free agent, coaches found it impossible to keep Woodyard off the field. Wesley excelled in special teams coverage units and made the most of the starting opportunity presented to him by an injury to D.J. Williams. As he had been at the college level, he proved to be an impressive tackling machine. His tenacity, awareness and unrelenting motor made him an effective starter. Despite that, he was once again relegated to a support and special teams role last year and will likely serve as such again in 2010.
It's hard not to root for a guy like Woodyard. I know for a fact that I'm not alone in wondering why Wesley's not given an open-ended opportunity to start, but I've come to the conclusion that he's likely most effective in shorter bursts. It's a luxury to have a player like this on our team and it speaks volumes to the depth at this position. In a lot of ways, he represents what the new management wants out of its depth: versatility, self-sacrifice, hard work and preparation.
#58 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $755,000, 2011: Free Agent
Greisen was set to join the Denver Broncos on the field last year, but an injury put him on injured reserve for all of 2009. This season, Nick is gearing up to finally have an impact with his fourth professional franchise. Following a productive four-year college football career at Wisconsin - which culminated in first-team All-Big-Ten honors as a senior - he was selected by the New York Giants with the 142nd pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Greisen played for the Giants for four years, serving mostly as depth at linebacker, but also contributing as a special teams player and occasionally starting. He did most of his damage in his final two seasons in New York, racking up 164 tackles, four forced fumbles and three sacks. He spent the next three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars (one) and Baltimore Ravens (two) without an opportunity to truly shine. Along the way, however, he picked up valuable experience and honed the mental aspect of his game.
Now fully recovered from the serious knee injury that cost him his 2009, Greisen has joined the Broncos with the intention of regaining lost time. Nick's versatility and success in special teams give him a chance to make the active roster, and his experience, intelligence and past production might push him over the top in that race. He might not be called upon to do much for the defense itself, but he's proven in the past that he's up to that challenge as well. Once again, it's become clear that the depth at inside linebacker will be called upon to contribute to more than just their position.
#49 / Linebacker / Denver Broncos
Acquired: 2010 College Free Agent
Contract: 2010: $320,000, 2011: $405,000, 2012: $490,000, 2013: Free Agent.
The Bishops have football in their blood. Devin's father, Dennis, played in the now defunct USFL and his brother is currently on the Green Bay Packers roster. He began his college football career at City College of San Francisco, where he was a junior college All-American as a sophomore. After sitting out for a year following his transfer to California and eventually playing only a limited role as a redshirt junior there, he really blossomed as a senior and earned an award as the most courageous defender on the team. Despite lacking elite physical tools, his skills and demeanor convinced the Broncos to sign him as an undrafted college free agent this offseason.
While I don't expect Bishop to stay on the active roster, I imagine that he could be kept on the practice squad if he does enough to impress the team. Devin has experience in the 3-4 with the Cal Bears, so that's a plus. He's an intelligent young man who has the heart to surprise people if given the opportunity to perform.
I believe that replacing Andre Davis with Mario Haggan will be a doubly positive move for the linebacking corps; Robert Ayers should be an improvement over Haggan outside and Mario might well be better than Andre was inside. With a bonafide star like D.J. Williams anchoring the inside linebackers, you don't need another playmaker quite like him to line up beside him. What Haggan should provide is consistency, leadership and work ethic.
Behind the starters, we now find plenty of interesting names. Guys like Wesley Woodyard, Akin Ayodele and Nick Greisen would do well as starters in a pinch, but they'll likely make their impact on special teams and in situational play while they work for an opportunity to expand those roles. Regardless, t's nice to see that, once again, special teams is getting the attention it deserves from the management in Dove Valley. Keeping all three might be too much, but their versatility (Woodyard has experience at safety, Greisen can play outside, etc.) might make such a decision possible.
It might have been nice to secure the services of one of the many draft prospects at inside linebacker that many off us fawned over this offseason, but I won't lose any sleep over their absence from this roster. D.J.'s contract is a hefty financial commitment to this position, so perhaps we all should have tempered those wishes from the beginning. That said, I'm unequivocably happy with what we do have in tow right now. It's clear to me that this position is begin to reflect the sort of roster that the new administration eventually wants in place and I like it. They may not be flashy, but they all get their jobs done - that "s" is not a typo, by the way - and their teammates love them for it. I have faith in this group. And so, without further ado, I yield the floor to you and ask: what do you think of the 2010 Denver Broncos' depth at inside linebacker?
Comcast is a proud supporter of MileHighReport. You'll get your Denver Broncos games as a part of over 120 NFL games Comcast provides in HD, as well as On Demand game recaps from every NFL game every week, faster Internet speeds, and stunning HD. With Comcast and NFL RedZone, you get every touchdown from every game every Sunday afternoon! Call 1-800-COMCAST begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 1-800-COMCAST end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 1-800-COMCAST end_of_the_skype_highlighting or visit http://www.comcast.com.