As you all know by now, during Tuesday's practice, linebacker Danny Trevathan was carted off the field with what has now been identified as a fractured shin. The 24-year old linebacker will miss 6-8 weeks with the injury, but as he told Josina Anderson, he intends to make that timetable closer to 4-6 weeks.
Regardless of his commitment or intentions, Trevathan is likely to miss the first three games of the Broncos season, aiming for a return after the Broncos' Week 4 bye; anything more would be considered extra.
With Trevathan likely to miss games against the Colts, Chiefs, and Seahawks, the Broncos have a large gap in their defense to fill. The young linebacker was sixth in the league for pass rush productivity as a 4-3 OLB, second in run stop percentage, ninth in tackle efficiency, and ranked fourth in pass coverage (all stats from PFF).
The question now is who will step into the gap that has been left, and whether they can fill that lion-sized gap. Trevathan is the team's starting weak-side (Will) linebacker, the most talented coverage backer that the Broncos have, and his presence as both a pass rusher and cover linebacker will be missed. John Elway preached the Broncos' motto from last season when injuries arose:
Who are the most likely candidates to be the "next man up"?
Brandon Marshall (not the Bears one), is next in line behind Trevathan on the Broncos' current depth chart. Marshall, who has split his first two seasons in the NFL between the Jaguars and Broncos, registered just 15 snaps in the 2013 season for Denver and did not play a single regular season snap for Jacksonville the previous year. In Denver's first preseason game of 2014 against the Seahawks, Marshall played well over 33 snaps; the third-year linebacker made two tackles, including one run stopped for less than a yard, while also adding a hit on the quarterback. Marshall not only displayed an ability to get to the quarterback, but also showed adeptness in coverage, allowing just one of the two passes thrown towards him to be completed.
Verdict: The sample size on Marshall is small, as it is with the rest of the linebackers competing for the position, but he has shown serviceable talent in the chances he's been given.
At age 27, Chaney is the oldest of the possible Trevathan stop-gaps, and has the most NFL experience. Chaney, who was drafted in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, has played 45 career games between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons. He managed just one game in a Falcons uniform in 2013, but Chaney started all 16 games for the Eagles in 2011. In that full season, Chaney recorded three interceptions, 67 solo tackles, 24 assisted tackles, and one sack. Although he is three years removed from those numbers, and an entire season removed from any NFL action, Chaney is the player on the Broncos depth chart with the most NFL experience.
Verdict: Chaney's success in 2011 may have Broncos fans wishing for the four-year vet to take the reins, but unfortunately his career numbers of 2011 were accumulated as a Mike linebacker (MLB), an entirely different position. Chaney is unlikely to be the replacement for Trevathan.
Drafted in the seventh round of this year's draft by the Broncos, Nelson showed promise in the 21-16 preseason win against the Seahawks. Nelson is third on the Will linebacker depth chart, behind Marshall and Chaney. The rookie out of Oklahoma played well in limited snaps in his Broncos debut, but his performance was marred by a 25-yard reception on the only pass that was targeted for his man. Other than that, Nelson played fairly well, making four tackles and a run stop in just 13 snaps.
Verdict: Nelson's debut was fairly impressive for a seventh round draft choice, and it is apparent he has been working hard to make it at the NFL level; however, he has an uphill battle to crack the starting roster with a number of guys ahead of him.
Barrow could find himself inserted into the starting lineup in one of two situations because of this injury. The fifth round pick could be inserted into the position himself if he shows the ability to make the transition from MLB (his current spot on the depth chart); or he may find himself starting at middle linebacker (see next name for explanation). The fifth-round Broncos pick in 2014 is being touted highly for his work in training camp thus far and is looking like the draft steal that Denver thought they were getting when they chose him in the fifth round. In his first game in a Broncos uniform the rookie showed effectiveness in the run game (two run stops and three tackles on 27 snaps), but had a rough time in coverage, allowing two of three passes his way to be completed.
Verdict: Pass coverage is a large component of play at the weak-side linebacker position, and Barrow will not be able to fill the void if he continues to have issues in coverage. This next scenario, however, could present an opportunity for Barrow to see the field...
Could this injury spell the end of Nate Irving's pursuit of the starting middle linebacker role? Irving has shown exceptional promise up the middle, especially in the Broncos first preseason game last week, but Trevathan's injury may put a temporary hold to that. This scenario would involve Irving moving to WLB and Barrow starting at middle linebacker. Irving has played on the other side as the Sam linebacker at times over the past two seasons for the Broncos, despite being drafted as a middle linebacker in 2011, so he has shown some versatility in his career. In fact, Irving's pass rushing productivity was the highest of any Broncos linebacker in 2013, and his coverage numbers were good enough to rank 10th in outside linebackers who played more than 100 pass rush snaps.
Verdict: Irving's versatility, and the fact that the coaching staff seems to find reasons to move him out of the middle linebacker position, may mean that he becomes Trevathan's replacement, while Lamin Barrow occupies the starting middle linebacker position.
The most likely candidates to take over Danny Trevathan's position as the Broncos' starting Will linebacker are Brandon Marshall or Lamin Barrow. Marshall is confident in his ability to fill in, as told to Broncos.com analyst Andrew Mason, " I'm familiar with the defense, I have a couple years in the league, so I know what the NFL is about. I'm definitely ready if the time was to come." Marshall's head is most definitely in the right place, but he will have to prove his merit in the remaining training camp sessions and preseason games. Lamin Barrow is confident that he can get the job done as well, and reportedly received some first-team snaps during today's practice once Trevathan went down. Barrow told Mason that the coaches have been "cross-training" the young linebackers, making sure that they are able to play any of the three linebacker positions, if need be. Barrow will have to straighten up the pass coverage weakness (or anomaly) that was shown in the Seahawks game if he hopes to start as the Will, something that will be seen as the preseason progresses.