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Linebacker Shaquil Barrett has been flying under the radar

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DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Shane Ray will be the trio of Broncos pass rushers atop the depth charts set to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. But the battle for the back-up roles are already underway this off-season, and former Colorado State Ram Shaquil Barrett has the potential to earn playing time in 2015.

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After a productive collegiate career, three days of the 2014 NFL Draft came and went and Shaquil Barrett, one of college football's best defenders didn't hear his name called. That doesn't mean teams weren't interested in his services. He garnered interest from a handful of teams, but for Barrett, there were only two contenders - the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos.

A decision had to be made, and it wasn't an easy one. Barrett was close to long-time Steeler linebacker Joey Porter, who had served as a coaching assistant during Barrett's time in Fort Collins. But the prospect of staying close to where he had made a name for himself also had a great deal of appeal.

Soon after the draft, Barrett signed with the Broncos as an undrafted college free agent.  The learning curve to the NFL was steep and with a defensive roster filled with talent, he ended up missing the cut for the final roster, but was retained on the practice squad because team operatives saw potential in him.

Week after week of the season passed by, and Barrett was finally promoted to the 53-man roster when former fifth-round pick Quanterus Smith suffered an injury late last season. But he was a game-day inactive for the only opportunity he would have to get that overwhelming feeling of joy a young player feels as he runs onto the gridiron for the first time at the pro level.

While last year essentially was a "redshirt" season to get acclimated to the rigors and challenges of the NFL, expect Barrett to compete and earn one of the back-up linebacker positions for the Broncos in 2015.  After all, adversity and overcoming challenges aren't foreign territory to him, in fact it is quite the opposite.

Barrett's path to the NFL is a little different than most. His collegiate playing career started at the Division II level with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he started 10 games and recorded 82 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks while playing inside linebacker for the Mavericks under coach Pat Behrns. When UNO decided to drop football as a sport after the season ended, Barrett took his services to Colorado State University and never seemed to miss a beat.

As a sophomore he saw most of his action at inside linebacker and racked up 99 tackles, 4.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. His tackle numbers decreased in 2012, which can be attributed to a position switch to a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Regardless, Barrett had 67 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and his sack total increased to 3.5 for the season.

Barrett saved his best for last and took college football by storm, accruing 80 tackles, 20.5 and a whopping 12 sacks during his senior year, which earned him first-team All-Mount West Conference honors and subsequently was the 2013 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year.

Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
2011 Colorado State MWC SO LB 12 45 54 99 4.5 2.5 1 52 52.0 1 4 1 15 1 1
2012 Colorado State MWC JR LB 12 34 33 67 7.5 3.5 1 49 49.0 1 2 0 0 0 2
2013 Colorado State MWC SR LB 14 38 42 80 20.5 12.0 1 0 0.0 0 2 0 0 0 4
Career Colorado State 117 129 246 32.5 18.0 3 101 33.7 2 8 1 15 1 7
Provided by Sports-Reference.com/CFB: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2015.

Consistent progression on a year-to-year basis is clearly seen with Barrett, which is one of the reasons I believe he can make a name for himself at the NFL level.

While he is clearly not the best athlete on the field, he certainly plays fast and has a penchant for scoring defensive touchdowns and seemingly is always around the ball.  His football intelligence is high and instincts for the game are tremendous.  He is more than a one-trick pony and is equally as strong against the run as he is rushing the passer.

With experience at inside linebacker and as a pass rusher standing up or down in a three point stance, he is an intriguing player who has the ability to thrive under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips 3-4 scheme, where he would likely see a majority of his playing time as a protypical LEO backer.  Phillips has a long history of being a teaching coach who does his best to put young players in positions where they can flourish.

As of now, Kenny Anunike and Lerentee McCray are Barrett's main competition for the reserve role at outside linebacker. Anunike was also an undrafted college free agent out of Duke in 2014 who was stashed away on injured reserve last season but reportedly has looked much improved and instinctual in the early off-season process of 2015 and was cited by Antonio Smith as someone to keep an eye on.

McCray, another undrafted prospect, is a third-year player who was sidelined his rookie year with a knee injury and saw reserve action in 13 games in 2014.

A short comparison to all three of their collegiate careers shows a significant difference in the quality of play, at least from a statistical standpoint, though numbers don't mean everything. And it is for certain all three will be hungry and eager to do whatever is necessary to solidify himself on the final 53-man roster this offseason.

Based on versatility and a history of improvement on a year-to-year basis, I firmly believe Barrett will have an important role to play for the Broncos in 2015, whether it is on special teams or in special packages that highlight his skills.

Moreover, Barrett has the ability to start in the league and play at a high level for a long time.