A very interesting position to say the least, because there is such a blinking neon light in the grouping. In every single interview this offseason that John Elway has mentioned the middle linebacker position he has failed to mention the most veteran of players in the group: Joe Mays.
This omission has led many fans to believe that Mays will not be a part of the Denver Broncos 53 man roster when all the dust settles after that fourth training camp game at home versus the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, despite signing a veteran middle linebacker, Elway has only mentioned two players at the position: Nate Irving and Steven Johnson.
The team does not even list Steven Johnson as a middle linebacker on the official website.
So, what gives?
Ht 6-1 Wt: 245
Age: 24 Exp: 3
Incoming Camp Status: Starter
Nate Irving shows that the Broncos are truly committed to 'Next man up'. Or does it? A trend since the Foxway administration has taken over has been to get the first and second rounders in immediately (Von Miller, Orlando Franklin, Rahim Moore, Derek Wolfe and this seasons Sylvester Williams and Montee Ball) and red-shirt those later round guys.
Well, it is the year the Irving gets to step up. Have you seen the film Unbreakable? Bruce Willis's character-- that is Irving; except I think that Irving is hard enough to actually say "What, again," to Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction mash-up!). I often compare Irving to a cannonball and there is no doubt in my mind that Denver has something special in the young linebacker.
Camp outlook: Though, there are those on staff here that disagree with me, I issue a challenge: name one linebacker drafted before the fifth round under John Fox that has been a failure. Will Witherspoon, James Anderson, Jon Beason, Tim Shaw and Von Miller-- that is one heck of a track record (and no, 2010 doesn't count, unless you really believe that John Fox wanted Jimmy Clausen as their first pick in that draft).
Having such a cannonball at the defense's second level should allow for much more creativity, as well as sacks and ultimately turnovers for last year's second best defense. I don't see a challenge to Irving's position on the roster aside from Steven Johnson.
Ht 6-1 Wt: 237
Age: 25 Exp: 2
Incoming Camp Status: un-tested #2, special teams tackle leader
Johnson was Denver's 2012 special teams tackle leader, and a training camp and preseason all star. In the 2012 preseason Johnson had 13 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack. He was basically wrecking havoc every six and a half times he touched the ball carrier. In the regular season he shored up those numbers with ten tackles and another forced fumble on special teams.
Both Irving and Johnson were All Americans and it will be interesting to watch them go blow-for-blow throughout training camp and the preseason. Johnson, like Irving had his steep climb to the NFL, consecutive seasons of health and NFL training can only mean good things for Johnson.
Camp outlook: I heard that you guys like Wesley Woodyard, if that is true, then you're going to love Steven Johnson. Watching Johnson ball is like seeing a head on car crash, except this semi truck is wearing an orange #53 jersey. What will be most interesting is if the team can figure out a way to get the two together on the field at the same time, which may be possible as Johnson is not strictly listed as a middle linebacker.
Ht 6-4 Wt: 258
Age: 29 Exp: 9
Incoming Camp Status: Special teams enforcer, backup middle linebacker
Here is something that you don't know about Stewart Bradley: In 2009 Sports Illustrated named him an All Pro. So what happened? Injuries, they have decimated Bradley's career as he journeyed from an SI All Pro to a regular at the trainer's table. Those fans of Nebraska will remember him well and should probably speak up in the comment section.
As a rookie, in the first start of his career Bradley recorded his first sack, first interception and single highhandedly stopped the New Orleans Saints from scoring four times in a row from inside the five-yard line.
Bradley has played journeyman in his previous five seasons, with three with the Philadelphia Eagles and the last two with the Arizona Cardinals.
Camp outlook: It is hard to see Bradley not at least making the roster, the Broncos have room and need for him. However, his last two seasons have not seen him take many plays as a middle linebacker. They have been predominantly on special teams.
Ht 5-11 Wt: 245
Age: 27 Exp: 6
Incoming Camp Status: Roster bubble
Pop-quiz Broncos fans! Who is the sixth highest paid player on the roster? Did you guess Joe Mays? If you did, you cheated, but you were right. Mays was demoted as the starting middle linebacker in 2012, after reportedly continuously incorrectly relaying the defensive play call from the headset to the huddle.
Cutting Mays would cost Denver $833,334 in dead money, but with his current cap figure being $4,166,667 the savings would be $3,333,333. Now, the only thing that is not entirely clear is why the Broncos have yet to pull the trigger on that roster cut. Mays may be in a situation similar to what Willis McGahee was in, where Denver has to prove that he is healthy in order to not get stuck with an injury settlement.
Camp outlook: While his contract is screaming to at least be renegotiated-- if not alleviated completely, it may serve the Broncos well to try to retain Mays in some shape. Irving has a history of concussions, Johnson is two seasons from an ACL tear and Bradley hasn't been healthy completely since 2007.
That and the Houston Texans (who Denver faces in Week 16) quarterback Matt Schaub is likely terrified of Mays.