A Mix of Good and Bad
The thing about our 'backers going forward, is that Bob Slowik, our new defensive head-honcho, will have to make a few choices.
He will have to choose between versatility, provided by some players to our nickle coverages, and comprehension, players with a grasp of the playbook. He will have to choose between a guy who makes his tackles, but who hesitates, and a guy who never hesitates, but always misses his tackles. He will be choosing between tangible size and intangible heart.
In the end, he will be choosing between the future, and now. If he chooses now, we might get off to a hot start with our linebacking corp. They will be fast and powerful, but with time, they will be exposed. If he chooses the future we may fail to gain purchase in the early goings of the season, sacrificing early momentum for the hope that eventually sound technique and consistency will win out, but by then it may be too late.
Or, he may choose to balance both ideas on the edge of a razor, which could cut either way, or neither. Or, if handled incorrectly, as our defense has been for the past several years, it could cut both ways.
Lets look at the players poised on this thinnest of edges amongst the Broncos' hopeful, and see what case they have made for their future.
My early vote for our starting MLB, Niko has had his ups and downs. The NPLB analysis points out that he can help this team if he is on the field, especially when it comes to stopping the run. He shows tremendous instincts when he gets into the garbage around the line, and sometimes you are left to wonder just HOW he managed to slice through and get his hands on the tackler. The other solid trait that he brings is his tackling. Whether he is a hard hitter is still up in the air, and for my money, a starting MLB better be able to lay some wood when he gets the chance. But in every other respect his tackling is exactly what you should hold a MLB too. It is sure and consistent, and it is a breath of fresh air to see the SAM take out a FB with Niko right behind him. It gives me a confidence that I haven't felt since Al manned the middle.
But Niko had his share of mistakes so far in the preseason, including misreading his gaps, and worst of all, playing tentatively. You see it on the (very few) blitzes that get called, where he looks slow and uncertain, two things he isn't, judging by his physical displays on special teams. You also see it when he is reading playaction. He has a knack for staying at home and not overcommitting, and he definitely reads 90% or better of his plays very well, but sometimes his patience borders hesitation, and you are left to watch him choosing a proper angle for pursuit rather than seeing a tackle for a loss.
He seems to be getting his guys into a good position, and though DJ has more familiarity with Webster, he and Niko are getting the plays in and the guys lined up. When Niko was in with the starters I saw only a handful of instances where players seemed unsure on their assignments, and those were nickle formations, where Niko isn't normally in. Niko has seen only 3 reps in the nickle so far this preseason, and he was able to hold his own, though he was brought on a blitz one of those times, and showed his tentative side, unable to effectively penetrate to the QB after hesitating near the line. In goalline situations he led the second team LBs to an above average overall performance against Green Bay, and if he had lined his guys up a yard closer to the LOS, Rodgers wouldn't have gotten through on his sneak. That Niko laid back a little is a telling sign that he needed more room within which to read the play, something that only experience can change.
Above all, however, Niko is fundamentally a sound player, still adjusting to the speed with which he must read, register and react to the offense. He executes so consistently that there is no drop off whether he is in with the starters or second teamers, and he is the only LB, including DJ not to receive the lowest grade on at least one play. In the end he grades out as one of the top backers because he never follows a bad play with another bad play, or a worse one. I can't say when he will pick up all the nuances and be able to change games, but I can say that he won't hurt this team if he is on the field. Is that good enough Broncos fans?
Overpursuit has almost become a cliche statement when it comes to Webster. One of the most fiery, amped up players on the roster, his enthusiasm would be a boon to his teammates on the field, a constant source of energy and the vitriolic shock that is sometimes needed. But that same enthusiasm leads to his #1 most critical flaw: he is constantly getting himself out of position like a youngster in need of ritalin.
In the Green Bay game he missed 3 tackles by leaving his feet completely. There is only one position from which a tackler has any reason to leave his feet to make the tackle and that is when he is in pursuit from behind or beside. Nate left his while in FRONT of the ball carrier. The reason for this isn't that he is going for a big hit, which may be an excusable, if not acceptable, rationale. The reason is that Webster-cliche, overpursuit. When he overruns the play, as he is wont to do, he gets out of position for even an attempt at a sound tackle. The result is a last second lunge, in the general direction of the ball carrier. Sometimes such a move will come close, sometimes it won't, but it will sure as hell never be a tackle. This is a major risk to have on the field for the defense. A fundamentally unsound risk that jeapordizes any defensive philosophy.
Overpursuit haunts him when he is reading his gaps as well, something which he doesn't seem to have the best grasp of yet, either. When a blocker gets his hands on you and you have overpursued the gap, it is no matter at all to continue to redirect you right out of the play. When Webster was in with the backups, this was more evident, with the gaps being much more difficult to maintain. He wasn't much help.
Against Green Bay, after Webster had missed his third tackle, Denver went exclusively to nickel and dime formations for the remainder of the starting defense's time on the field. Webster is not a standard nickel contributor. While it is the preseason, and there may be many things that Denver was looking to see in making the decision to pull Webster for the remainder of the game, my guess is pretty simple and straightforward: they had seen enough.
DJ is the Broncos only every down backer. As the chosen "microphone" helmeted player, he really has little choice, though his record over four season certainly warrants confidence. But so far in the preseason I have been a little disappointed in what I perceive to be a lack of effort on his part. I don't think for an instant that that is what is occurring here, but I do believe that there is no time like the present to establish the momentum that will carry you forward. Right now DJ, while technically sound, seems almost too laid-back. Part of that may come from his familiarity with his weakside position, which he has slipped on like an old boot, and I fully expect that boot to start kicking some serious tail down the line. But more significantly, I think he has been told by his coaches that he is going to be reserved throughout the preseason, and as a result, he reserves himself a bit as he plays. He doesn't burn himself out pursuing plays from behind that are obviously going nowhere, and he doesn't close from a distance with his trademark speed and ferocity. In fact, to scout him now, I would say he is a slow player, something that I KNOW isn't true.
One thing is certain, and that is that DJ is not currently being optimized to the best of his ability. He was brought on a blitz on only one play so far, and he was only half-hearted on that attempt. For all intents and purposes DJ is being kept under wraps, and I expect to see him unleashed in oakland to get this year off to a good start. But for now we can only watch and wait, and hope that the Broncos intend to use him the way we have always dreamed of him being used: to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Winborn has been given starting SAM duties in the absence of Boss, and to be perfectly honest, my concern over Boss' backup situation has been assuaged. Winborn is certainly up to the task.
He has been showing good patience, getting quality reads on plays and not overcommitting or biting on playaction. Like Webster and Niko, his best plays have come when stopping the run, though he shares Niko's preponderence for letting his patience morph into hesitancy. Particularly evident on blitzes, Winborn was brought several times, from inside and outside, and he simply wasn't quick enough to be disruptive, and could be easily redirected in his rush, a sign of not being fully committed to his angle. He did however show a great ability to take on blockers in rushing lanes, and created some ideal situations for the following backers.
An area that Winborn needs to work on to be more effective at SAM, is not looking into the backfield as much as he does. On the first play from scrimmage Rodgers made an easy completion and got some easy YAC because Winborn had gotten peeled off the route by running into the official. Trying to keep up with the play by watching the QB is something that all raw players will do, and Winborn is certainly new to the SAM responsibilities, at least with Denver. But only players with Champ's vision and feel for the defensive backfield can do it consistently without getting burned or tripped up. Winborn has a decent feel for the underneath zones that he is responsible for, but ends up peeking whenever he moves laterally back across the play, or roughly half the time. He was given numerous reps in the nickle with DJ, and as the Green Bay game progressed he looked better and better in coverage. I never saw him in man on a TE, but rather zone, as far as I can tell, so it remains to be seen how he may be exploited, but unlike Boss, Jamie is a player who should perform much better in a zone.
As of now, Winborn is an effective backup to Boss at SAM, with little dropoff in runsupport, but leaving something to be desired in the passing game. The misread gaps, unfortunately, is something that I don't really think time will heal with Jamie, though his ability to meet his zone obligations is something I do expect to improve. In the meantime, we have an option if we lose Boss, and that matters.
It may not come as a surprise to MHR faithful, but Woodyard is climbing the ranks of our LB corp and forcing this team to consider him seriously in terms of retaining a quality backup. In Woodyard's case, he is backing up DJ, and in two preseason gmaes he has shown the tenacity and tackling ability that got so many people onto his bandwagon. he consistently turns in an above average performance, doing a little bit more, for a little bit longer, with a little bit more energy than everyone else around him. Against Dallas he showed some versatility as a blitzer, being one of the TRUE blitzing threats that the Broncos have shown this preseason, with speed and power. He was also given limited nickle reps against Dallas, and made a strong showing in coverage against Green Bay. The defensive gameplan has showcased his lateral ability, the best among our backers, outside of DJ, and he looks to be putting the "stiff hips" issue behind him.
He is moving well in garbage, something that he always had the vision to do, but now he is slipping around bigger faster players, and some might even say that he is doing it better than he did in college. While it remains to be seen how consistent he would be against first teamers, there is no doubt he has been growing and learning since arriving in Denver.
Right now he is at his best against the run, showing flashes in his ability to get through garbage and find the ball. That sort of football "nose" is a tremendous intangible and just one of many reasons to be excited about Woodyard. I was also impressed with how clean he keeps his feet and legs: even when fighting through trash he is protecting himself, no doubt the secret to his success at Kentucky. That he can display the vigor in pursuit and tackling that he does, yet still reserve patience and balance to keep himself in a play, is a great sign for his future.
If there is one concern for Woodyard it is that he plays behind DJ, who is about to begin a stint as a perrennial probowler. Denver will be at the maximum of their ingenuity and creativity trying to find ways to get him involved. What he brings can change games.
One of three backups we are trying at SAM, we will probably end up choosing between Beck and Green. To date, Green has the pedigree, while Beck has found himself the victim of circumstance. I think he is making a great case for himself in the Broncos preseason, however.
Denver gave him the second half reps against Dallas, and he did well. In run support, he was awesome, as his +25 above indicates. He is not that caliber of a player in terms of consistency, but he was able to produce in very limited reps, a key for a guy trying to make the roster. He didn't look raw at all, showing some seasoning in his ability to read gaps and penetrate the line. He is one of our bigger backs, and lives up to the notion that the bigger guys should be able to get off of blocks easier. He is a solid tackler, and shows flashes of being a heavy hitter. Against the run, he will be quite an asset going forward.
But his coaches will have to weigh his only adequate performance in zone coverage, and decide how much of a liability that may be in the AFC West. He proved ineffective on limited blitz and nickle reps, a sign that he is unsure of his responsibilities, and while he will probably not bring a lot of undue harm to the Broncos in limited play, at his current level he would only provide a stopgap. My best guess, and this is in now way definitive, is that he will be of limited effectiveness if he is asked to do short term relief of a player. I expect him to be a more viable option when he is put into a game with an opportunity to help establish dominance over the run, thus putting him in an advantaged position, or allowing Denver to run primarily nickle once his work is finished.
Thinking about Jordan's shortcomings at this early juncture, reminds me of my concern for the Broncos going into 2008. I can't help but think that this will be a team that has difficulty hanging onto leads, and I worry about our depth down the line when it comes to bringing in guys who can bring some good pass defense to the table. The backers are a part of that problem.
Green has made a solid case for himself after only limited practice reps this offseason. His strongest trait is definitely his consistency across the board. He also showed good awareness on an interior blitz, creating a good QB pressure and forcing an errant throw. He was adequate in limited nickle reps and he has past experience as a backup, so there is some seasoning on this player.
By playing up more than he played down he turned in one of the best LB performances of this preseason. Like Niko he never let his performance slip below a certain level, though he also didn't show the flashes you are looking for that indicate star potential. He would be a short term answer, with limited upside, but would make a solid roster choice in 2008.
He fights off blocks well, and most of his better plays involved shedding blocks to disrupt the running lane or to make tackles. He does seem to get hung up in trash around the line, though he had a good showing on the goalline with Woodyard and Niko. Of all of his down plays, they were along the lines of misreading gaps or biting on playaction. His recognition obviously needs work, and this is a strong symptom of limited reps with his teammates in practice.
The coaches will end up having to choose between Beck and Green more than likely, or they will have to sacrifice depth elsewhere. Both players have made great cases and will get a final preseason game to put themselves in a good spot. It should be a good contest, and I will be looking to see which player brings the "will" to compete with more ferocity and desire. Because that is the one that is going to make this roster.
The Dallas game treated us to a glimpse of our deep MLB depth, with Larsen closing out the game. After what I saw there, I am looking forward to whatever time he manages to get against Arizona.
I can't speak for his recognition, but he did seem to have a good feel for the gap responsibilities, and of getting his guys into position. He got pushed around a little at the point of attack, and he showed some hesitancy, but he was noticeably "un-raw", that is to say, he looked like a player who needed some work in the filmroom, but his technique was generally sound. In a pinch, this kid could play with the pros.
In a way, it could be a bad thing that he looks to have a little polish to him--those players are traditionally sniped from practice squads early. Based on his work against Arizona, we will probably get a better idea of how he would fare if he went to waivers. Of course, if he sees limited reps there it could mean a couple of things: first, of course, could be the intense battle ahead of Larsen for the starting MLB spot, though that has been decided in my mind. Webster brings a fundamentally dangerous problem into the game, and it isn't the kind of thing he can turn off and on at will. Niko should be the starter. The other thing limited reps for Larsen could mean is that Denver doesn't wnat him on too many radars, and neither do I, so that is all I'm gonna say about it for now. ;)