We've had nearly 24 hours to digest the fact that Al Wilson will not be wearing #56 for the Broncos next season, or any other season. While the reasons for that swirl, the Broncos have to move forward, and in the NFL if you are looking back you're not moving forward. No matter what our feelings today, we have to look forward, and it starts with what's left of the Broncos linebacking corp.
Losing a player like Al Wilson is going to leave a void, both on the field and off. Wilson was the emotional leader of the team and someone else is going to have to take over that role. There is plenty of leadership on the team, between Rod Smith and John Lynch that the Broncos shouldn't be without a solid voice.
On the field, it gets a bit more complaicated to replace a 3-time Pro Bowler at middle linebacker. RIght now D.J. Williams seems the most logical to replace Wilson inside. There are others that will have to step up if the denfese is going to be successfull. In no particular order, let's take a look at who's left, their 2006 stats, and what they'll have to do.
Ian Gold(91 tackles, 1 ff) -- Gold has been a solid contributer for the Broncos in both his stints in Denver. While he has never really regained his top form from 2002, the only season he eclipsed the 100 tackle mark. Gold started strong in 2006, with double-digit tackles in 2 of the first 3 weeks. His production trailed off after, breaking the 7 tackle mark only twice the rest of the year. It is safe to say that Gold will now be the leader of the group, and his performance will need to improve in 2007 in order to fill the Wilson void.
Louis Green(8 tackles, 1 ff) -- Green has seen limited action in 3 years in Denver after a standout career at Alcorn St. Green has become a solid special teams contributer for Denver, and his role will likely increase with Wilson's absence. Green has good size(6-3, 228) and speed to be a solid contributer, and the Broncos recently rewarded him with a 3-year contract extension.
TJ Hollowell(No Action) -- Hollowell hasn't seen much action in his two seasons in the NFL. After a yesr with the Jets the Broncos signed him before the 2006 season. While inactive for every game in 2006, it is safe to say TJ will see action on special teams in 2007, especially if Green gets more action on the first team. Little should be expected from Hollowell in the immediate future.
Cameron Vaughn(No Action) -- Vaughn, an undrafted rookie from LSU, was also inactive every week in 2006, but the Broncos seem high on his future. Still rough around the edges, Vaughn does has all the pysical tools to be an impact player. Only time will tell if Vaughn can break into the lineup, but my feeling is he'll be a solid special teams contributer in 2007, with greater things to come in the future.
Nate Webster(11 tackles) -- Webster was on his way as a linebacker, signing a lucrative contract with Cincinnati before the 2004 season only to see it all come crumbling down because of knee injuries. Webster missed 13 games in 04, then all of 2005 before being signed by the Broncos prior to last season. Webster spent much of the season getting back into game shape, though he did start the season finale against San Francisco. I get the feeling the team saw enough of Webster to feel confident he could be a major contributer next season, even with the proposed move of D.J. Williams inside.
D.J. Williams(76 tackles, 1 sack) -- Take money and health out of the equation, the main reason Al Wilson is no longer a Denver Bronco is to get Williams on the field more often. After an awesome rookie campaign, Williams digressed a bit the past two seasons and never seemed to fit in to Larry Coyer's defensive schemes. It became obvious right off the bat that it was going to be different for Williams under new D-Coordinator Jim Bates, who loves to coach aggressive, freak athletes like Williams. It appears to many that Williams will get the first crack at replacing Wilson inside, a better fit, in my opinion, than the outside. Williams was known for running himself out of position, but on the inside should be freed up to just go make plays, sideline to sideline, similar to Brian Urlacher in Chicago. Whether or not Williams can handle the mental aspect of being a middle linebacker remains to be seen, but there is little doubt Williams can physically do it all.
To say the situation at linebacker for the Broncos is thin woould be a major understatement. There is plenty of time for more moves, with guys like Jonathon Vilma reportedly available(we can only dream), and of course the draft, expect the Broncos to add depth. There is some intrguing talent on the roster, though untested, and until guys like Hollowell, Louis Green and Caeron Vaughn get into real-game action the situation at linebacker will be one of concern.