There has already been a great deal of discussion about what position/player the Broncos should draft at 25 or if the Broncos should trade down and out of the first for more picks in 2012. One option for the Broncos that has been discussed is to take a MLB prospect in the first round - Hightower. To get a good idea whether or not this will happen we need to assess three things:
1. What the Broncos already have on their roster at MLB (and we are weak here)
2. What players will likely be available who could play the Mike in the NFL
3. What Fox and Del Rio have historically looked for in Mike backers
Make the jump with me and let's dig into the position that is referred to as the "QB of the defense"
The Mike LB in the 4-3 has to be able to play side-line to sideline. He has to be able to cover TEs and RBs effectively in the passing game. He has to be able to fend off blockers (at least nominally). He also has to take good angles to the ball carrier and be able to diagnose/read plays quickly so that he can get to the point of attack. With that in mind let's look at who we have on the roster.
Guys currently on the roster who can (theoretically) play the Mike backer
Joe Mays - 5'11" 250
Mays started 12 games for the Broncos in 2011. This was his first experience as a full time starter. The reviews on his play are very mixed. Statistically he tallied 75 total tackles (64 unassisted) and had 2 passes defended. I have seen it posted, although I can't find the reference, that he missed 21 tackles in 2011. If that is the case he has one of the worst miss % in the whole league. That is not a good thing from your Mike. I like stats, so I looked around at some of the sites that rate players to see where Mays fits compared to other 4-3 MLBs. According to Advanced NFL stats he ranks 47th out of the 198 guys who played LB in the NFL last year (using WPA). If you use EPA/g he ranked 92nd last year. His tackle factor (what % of his team's tackles does he make relative to the average for his position) was 0.83. That means he wasn't involved in as many tackles relative to other Mike backers in the league as a %. To put that in perspective look at the tackle factors for some of the stub MLBs in the league from last year - Fletcher 1.58, Laurinitis 1.44, Willis 1.42, Lewis 1.31. Those guys made many more tackles relative to the average Mike. Mays had 3 QB hits in 12 starts and zero sacks. He had 8 TFL, which was 40th among NFL LBs however many of those above him were pass rush specialists. The league leader Ware (OLB in a 3-4) had 26. Von had 21. Urlacher only had 9. Laurinitis had 11. Ray Lewis only had 4. After looking at all of the data I could find on Mays, he is not the answer at Mike and the Broncos need to relegate him to backup/ST/goal line roles.
According to Pro Football Focus, one of the reasons why the Broncos D was playing better this year relative to 2010 is improved tackling. Through the first 11 games, the Broncos had missed the 4th least number of tackles in the league - 47 missed out of 564 attempted. If the 21 missed tackles for Mays are to be believed, then Mays alone was responsible for something like one quarter to one third of the team's missed tackles (depending on how many the Broncos missed in the final 5 game). That is pathetic.
Mario Haggan - 6'3" 274. Mario was the spot starter of the LBs. He played some for Mays and some for Miller. Haggan, despite his size, is much better in coverage than Mays (although that's not saying much). Haggan had 23 total tackles and one INT in 2011. Haggan did start one game. Advanced NFL stats rates Haggan very poorly for his 2011 work. Hagan is also very big relative to the the Mikes that Fox and JDR like for their defenses (more on this later)
Nate Irving - 6'1" 240. Irving was active for all 16 regular season games but rarely was on the field outside of special teams play. He recorded 4 total tackles (3 unassisted). He was a beast coming out of college and from all accounts is a great tackler with side-line to side-line speed and good coverage ability - a three-down Mike as opposed to Mays who is a true two down guy. However, the worry is that if Mays was as bad as some at MHR think he was in 2011 and Irving didn't get any pt at MLB, we may have a bust on our hands. The optimists among us hope that Irving's lack of pt stemmed from no training camp and being a rookie at a position that usually takes players a year (or more) to adjust to in the NFL. Time will tell. I'm hoping for the best.
Mike Mohamed - 6'3" 245. Mike was only active for two games and was cut and resigned at least once during the year. As a 7th round pick he was a long shot to make the roster and probably will never be more than a special teams player, but as Chris Harris showed, Mike could turn into our Mike.
The guys who we might take in the draft to play MLB
I'm going to assume that Keuchly and Brown (who really isn't a Mike) are gone when we pick at #25. IMHO we should stay far away from Burfict (unless he's there in the 5th), but I will list him here anyways.
So here are the top guys listed as ILBs from which we could choose if we want to go LB in the 1st. Presumably some of these guys will be available in the second, third and fourth as well.
Dont'a Hightower - 6-4, 260, 4.78 40yd. Alabama. Hightower is big and can run well. He was the captain for one of the best, if not the best, defense in college football. He missed most of his sophomore year with an injury, but other than that he has been very durable. He's projected as either the #2 or #3 best MLB prospect in the draft. He finished his college career with 21 TFL, 5 sacks, 7 PD, 1 INT. No mention is his coverage skills. Member of two national championship teams.
Audie Cole - 6-4, 248, 4.84 40yd. NCSU. Cole played beside Irving two years ago and moved over to MLB when Irving graduated. He has a good combination of size/speed/instincts. He plays fairly well in the passing game and is usually stout against the run. His limitations can be found in the link. In 51 career games he had 328 tackles, 32 TFL, 14 sacks, 8 PD, 1 INT. Three year starter for the Wolfpack.
Vontez Burfict - 6-3, 250, 4.67 40yd. Arizona State. Burfict has the physical tools to be the next Ray Lewis, but if reports are to be beleived, he is not smart enough to think his way of out a brown paper bag. This led to him getting benched during his final season at AZ State. He plays with reckless abandon, but I don't think his game is going to translate well to the NFL level. This line alone from his bio should scare the Broncos enough to pass on him unless he is there late.
"He's not as instinctive as his reputation might lead you to believe, has a soft build and hasn't shown any real improvement since first stepping onto the ASU campus."
Finished his career with 37 games played, 228 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 11 PD, 1 INT
Bobby Wagner - 6-0, 241, 4.80 40yd. Utah State. Wagner started 3.5 season in college and was a tackling machine - 441 in 48 games. He impressed at the Senior Bowl and could really jump up the draft board with a good combine. Wagner played against weaker competition in the WAC than the other three guys mentioned (although it could be argued that the PAC-12 was as weak as the WAC this year). Wagner could play either MLB or OLB at the NFL level, and I have seen him listed as light as 230. Finished his college career with 29.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 9 PD, 4 INT.
James-Michael Johnson - 6-2, 240, 4.68 40yd. Nevada. Another WAC LB. Johnson reportedly has the same in-line speed the Burfict has. Johnson has one blaring weakness - man coverage - according to CBS sports, which sounds to me like he is a two-down Mike, ala Mays. Also like Mays he is not a good tackler in space. he has many positives, but these are the reasons he is being mocked in the 4-5 rounds in some drafts. His stock could jump if he runs really well at the combine
These are the guys who are projected to go in the first 4 rounds. Some sites also have Mychal Kendricks from Cal going in the 5th round, but I'm getting tired of discussing these guys so you can look him up here if you really are interested.
Only Keuchly and Hightower are getting first round grades at this points from most mockers.
So now here is what Fox and Del Rio like for their Mikes. Keep in mind that Del Rio played the position in the NFL.
These are the LBs who have been drafted by either Fox or Del Rio and their height and weight numbers
The average listed weight of these guys is 239, the largest was Seward at 253 and he was taken in the 5th round and has never played much. Beason and Von were first rounders (Beason was the #25 pick) and next four guys on the list were taken in the 3rd round.
So here are the guys who have actually started for Fox and Del Rio is Mikes along with their height and weight
The average weight of these guys is 237 and that is skewed by Mays and Morgan. The takeaway from this is that both our HC and our DC like the Mikes smaller and faster. With that in mind, Fox and Del Rio would be going against their history to draft a big MLB like Hightower. Cole, Wagner and Johnson all seem to fit the basic mold for what Fox and JDR like in Mike backers.
I hope you enjoyed this - I learned quite a bit while putting it together.