Aug 23, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Texans running back Alfred Blue (44) drives against Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall (54) and outside linebacker Nate Irving (56) as center Ben Jones (60) falls to the turf in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
The Denver Broncos released their initial 53-man roster on Saturday as the NFL’s mandated cut down day went down to the wire for some players. It’s a sobering day for many, who will be told thanks for your efforts, but it’s just not a fit for us right now.
For the Broncos, 22 transactions were made, and when all the rubble cleared, one position group stood out to me as the most intriguing. Perhaps due to the injury to Danny Trevathan — or perhaps not — the Broncos decided on keeping eight linebackers on their final roster:
Von Miller, Nate Irving, Brandon Marshall, Lamin Barrow, Lerentee McCray, Steven Johnson, Corey Nelson, and Trevathan
I felt like in making my roster projections that picking seven linebackers was almost a stretch of realism to think the Broncos would have that many players at that position group, but John Elway and company shocked pretty much everyone and kept eight. There’s an interesting trend being started here, and we’ll get into that, but let’s look at the surprise player in this group…
Corey Nelson, Rookie, Oklahoma
Corey Nelson, the rookie out of Oklahoma played well in the preseason and earned his way onto the roster. After missing much of last year at OU due to a torn pectoral injury suffered against Notre Dame, Nelson nearly went undrafted before being picked by the Broncos in the 7th round, and wound up working his way onto the team. He may be a gameday inactive, or the Broncos could very well opt to have him become their next great special teams ace as Nelson is a phenomenal tackler who tracks the ball really well.
As of now, he’s not quite ready to hold up against NFL backs and tight ends in coverage, but that potential is there with his speed and overall athleticism. When the Broncos drafted Nelson, I had to dig up full games on YouTube from his time at Oklahoma because there are no cutups of just him on film. Make no mistake about it, he stood out on tape for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his versatility to blitz on third down as well as make plays in coverage and on special teams.
The Broncos saw in Nelson a guy that could contribute right away, and that’s precisely what he’ll do.
Why Eight Linebackers?
The blueprint for the Broncos’ defense is founded on versatility. The Broncos’ current group of linebackers pride themselves on their ability to make plays in a variety of ways. Von Miller, for example, is the most dominant player on the defensive side of the ball but he’s not a one-trick pony as a pass rusher. Miller knows how to set the edge against the run, and how to muscle his way in the trenches even as a 250-ish pound player.
Danny Trevathan has proven one of the most versatile players on the entire defense, leading the team last year in tackles and interceptions. He is one of the best cover linebackers in the league, but he’s also a guy the Broncos can depend on in other areas.
Players like Steven Johnson don’t contribute as much defensively, but provide phenomenal value on special teams. Rookies Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson will undoubtedly be key players on special teams, as will Von Miller’s backup Lerentee McCray, who has quietly become one of the Broncos’ possible breakout players this year coming off a rookie season where he was on IR.
I think the Broncos are trying to set a tone in the front seven, not necessarily loading up their roster with big, speedy guys who can kind of cover but hit pretty well. They have loaded it up with bigger, speedy linebackers who can cover pretty well and hit hard, able to play both working upfield as well as dropping in to coverage.
That’s not to say the Broncos don’t need ballhawks in the secondary, it’s just that they’ve been a lot tougher to come by than you would hope. I really like this strategy of loading up at linebacker, fortifying your special teams with speed and tackling ability, while also giving yourself some really good depth and combination of veterans and youth out there, even though no one was drafted earlier than 2011.
Linebacker Love Runs Deep
Not only did the Broncos feel they had eight linebackers worth keeping on the active roster, they had a ninth that they were hoping would slip through waivers after a heck of a preseason. Shaquil Barrett, the ninth LB on the roster, was one of the team’s undrafted free agents this year and signed to the practice squad on Sunday.
With Barrett in tow, the Broncos have three linebackers from the class of 2014, as well as a pair from the 2013, 2012, and 2011 drafts respectively. This is a young, talented, insanely deep unit that the front office is clearly very excited about.