With free agency beginning March 11, we continue our look at NFL free agent prospects by examining the linebacker position. As I covered earlier today, the Broncos appear set at outside linebacker. Von Miller should be healthy and ready to rumble in training camp, while Danny Trevathan was a Trevelation in 2013. The real hole is in the middle, and while the Broncos can head into camp with the likes of Steven Johnson and L.J. Fort competing at Mike, there's no one that is a sure thing.
Names to Know
Wesley Woodyard, Broncos
Strengths: Knows the system, was groomed by Denver, and had a fantastic 2012 season. Woodyard has great straight-line speed and a lot of athleticism that makes up for his relatively small size. A natural leader, Woodyard was the first Bronco since Floyd Little to be a team captain in each of his first five seasons in the league.
Weaknesses: He's a little under-sized at 6-0 and 233 pounds. His pre-snap reads aren't always correct. An asset in pass defense, particularly in pass coverage; his pass rush repertoire is mainly situational.
His neck stinger in October 2013 seemed to set him back the rest of the year, and he was benched. Perhaps the move from weakside to middle linebacker also played a factor, meaning Woodyard could succeed if he is brought back and the Broncos slide him back over the Will. Perhaps Denver would shift Trevathan to middle linebacker in that case.
Brandon Spikes, Patriots
Strengths: A young, productive run-stuffer who would add a physical element to Denver's defense. The Patriots' 2010 third-round darft pick isn't great in pass defense, but that's not what the Broncos need anyway. The important of a three-down middle linebacker has been lessened in Jack Del Rio's nickel third down defense, making Spikes a possible fit as a two-down, downhill hard-hitter in the middle of the Orange Crush.
Weaknesses: There are a few character concerns; Spikes was suspended for a PED violation in 2010, and he muddied the waters in 2012 with a joke involving homosexuality. But for the most part, if the Broncos can afford Spikes, those issues are var enough in the background where I could see the Broncos pursuing Spikes.
Daryl Smith, Ravens
Strengths: Daryl Smith was long thought to be the best linebacker in the NFL you had never heard of, mired as an outside linebacker in Jacksonville until his shift to Baltimore this past season - and the middle linebacker position. Smith picked up the transition without a hitch, filling in for Ray Lewis in Baltimore this year with 123 tackles, five sacks, and three interceptions. Smith is also a superb pass defender - he set a Baltimore Ravens franchise record with 19 passes defensed in 2013 - meaning he could replace some of Woodyard's productivity and responsibilities in nickel packages.
Weaknesses: Smith didn't play great against the run in 2013 at middle linebacker, grading -13.1 in rush defense according to ProFootballFocus.com. Age is the other obvious concern (32 in March), but John Elway hasn't shied away from a rent-a-vet mentality in the past. A groin injury knocked Smith almost entirely out of the 2012 season. All that being said, Smith's greatest "weakness" on this list might be simply the fact that he's priced himself out of Denver's wallet. He seems to be a hot name in free agency this year after doing well on a one-year "show me" deal in Baltimore.
Brian Orakpo, Redskins - There isn't a need at outside linebacker, and Orakpo will be out of Denver's price range.
Donald Butler, Chargers - I don't expect the young and productive Butler to hit the open market. The Chargers are reportedly interested in locking up their 2010 third round pick, and Butler is mutually interested.
Karlos Dansby, Cardinals - Incredibly productive in Arizona, I wouldn't mind the Broncos taking a look at Dansby if he hits the open market. Schematically the 32-year old's experience has been in the 3-4 of late, but he excelled in his first stint with the Cardinals in a 4-3 under base defense not unlike Denver's scheme. He's an every-down linebacker with versatility against both the run and the pass. He'd be stellar in Denver.
Top 10 Free Agent Linebackers
Both outside and inside, as ranked by Rotoworld.com.
|Outside Linebackers||Inside Linebackers|
|1. Brian Orakpo
2. Jason Worilds
3. Shaun Phillips
4. Mike Neal
5. O'Brien Schofield
6. Rob Jackson
7. Erin Henderson
8. Jo-Lonn Dunbar
9. Keith Rivers
10. Jonathan Casillas
|1. Donald Butler
2. Karlos Dansby
3. Brandon Spikes
4. Daryl Smith
5. Jon Beason
6. Wesley Woodyard
7. Arthur Moats
8. Perry Riley
9. Kavell Conner
10. London Fletcher