When the Denver Broncos kept nine linebackers to start the 2014 season, I have to admit I thought they were a bit crazy. Special teams are obviously a key part of things, as was a training camp injury to last year’s leading tackler Danny Trevathan, but using nine roster spots on linebackers seemed odd considering the Broncos spent the majority of last season in a nickel defensive look with only two or three linebackers on the field at a time.
That decision has already paid dividends for the Broncos, who have seen nearly a dozen different linebackers make it on the active roster at one point or another this season. Leading tackler Brandon Marshall came out of nowhere, but is injured right now with a foot sprain, so he could very well miss the final two games of Denver’s regular season. Trevathan was recently placed on injured reserve, and middle linebacker Nate Irving was placed on injured reserve as well.
Sadly, it has turned out to be an injury plagued position for the Broncos, but every player that has had their number called has been ready for action. Right now, the elder of the non-pass rush group is former undrafted free agent Steven Johnson, who is 26 years old and has played 147 snaps this season, fourth most among all linebackers on the team.
In the Broncos’ win against the San Diego Chargers, Johnson played significant snaps, as well as rookie Todd Davis, a player acquired from the New Orleans Saints off of waivers after Nate Irving was placed on IR. Davis has played in six games with the Broncos, playing just under 70 special teams plays and 29 snaps defensively.
The Broncos also have rookies Corey Nelson and Lamin Barrow, two guys they drafted this year that have played much more special teams than defense. Nelson has seen 82 snaps defensively this season, and Barrow 49.
Let’s have a look at this trio of young rookie linebackers the Broncos will trot out against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, and what their impact could be.
Todd Davis, Rookie, Sacramento State
Davis was a player the Broncos had targeted from the New Orleans Saints, and for good reason. He is a rangy playmaker with better than advertised athletic ability who admitted to media that his poor pro day numbers at Sacramento State were due to the fact that he simply wore his own body down before the workout for pro scouts.
As a result, it was determined he was a strong UDFA option, but not enough to get drafted coming from a smaller school. Davis was picked up after Irving’s injury, and saw some play on special teams right away. Against the Chargers, he played his most significant role and looked good both in coverage and against the run. He’ll likely get the first shot at snaps among the Broncos’ three rookie linebackers.
Corey Nelson, Rookie, Oklahoma
When I reviewed the game tape from college, Nelson to me was the most impressive player the Broncos picked up on day three of the 2014 NFL Draft. He has an impressive array of skills and fell in the draft due to a pectoral injury that caused him to miss much of his senior season. At Oklahoma, he showed an ability to play sideline-to-sideline, cover receivers, and blitz effectively.
I love his upside, but thought he might have been a practice squad candidate for the Broncos. They obviously liked what they saw and he now leads the team’s rookie linebacker group in defensive snaps. Filling in for injured players, Nelson has done some good things defensively but has made his mark on special teams this year.
Lamin Barrow, Rookie, LSU
Barrow was picked in the fifth round by the Broncos, a player that John Fox was allegedly pacing the draft room in hopes of getting. Barrow has excellent athletic ability, but has been the most rough around the edges rookie the Broncos have at linebacker. He was kicked out of the Jets game, and has seen the lowest number of snaps of any linebacker other than Todd Davis, who has only been with the team for six games.
Barrow had the highest expectations coming out, possibly even competing for a starting job in the offseason. It’s been slow-going for him, but the Broncos’ eye for talent at linebacker indicates to me that he’ll be alright. This is now his time to step up with all of Irving, Trevathan, and Marshall out due to injury.