But with three games left on his suspension, the Broncos now know he’ll be available from Week 11 onward, since Williams’ sentence will not begin until at least February — after Super Bowl XLVI.
Williams is back at Broncos headquarters, since this three-game stretch of his overall nine-game suspension is for the driving-while-ability-impaired conviction, which means he can be at team headquarters to seek guidance from the support systems teams and the league provide to players who violate the substance-abuse policy. (Violators of the performance-enhancing drug policy do not have the same benefit, which is why Williams had to stay away during Weeks 1-6.)
The team has been welcoming.
“Everybody goes through mistakes; everybody goes through things. But we know him as a teammate and what he brings, and the type of guy he is,” defensive end Elvis Dumervil said Monday. “Sometimes people make mistakes, but he’s definitely a great guy to have in the locker room. Having his presence here is tremendous, so we’re excited to get him back in the room with us.”
But what will become of Williams when his suspension ends and he can return to full-scale work Nov. 12, the day after the Broncos’ trip to Carolina?
Option 1: Return Williams to the weak side on a full-time basis.
This isn’t necessarily the most likely choice, so you Wesley Woodyard devotees can calm down — especially since the club’s confidence in Woodyard has never been higher, as evidenced by his participation in 100 percent of the snaps at San Diego on Oct. 15.
Williams has a size advantage on Woodyard (13 pounds), which helps against the run, but if the Brooking-Woodyard combination at middle and weakside linebacker continues to work against the run, it doesn’t matter as much.
With Brooking and Woodyard working together along with strongside linebacker Von Miller, Denver finally shut down Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews in recent weeks. Both had recorded three consecutive 100-yard games against the Broncos, but were held to 34 and 74 yards, respectively, in Weeks 4 and 6. Both were held under 3.5 yards per carry. In Weeks 3 and 5, Brooking and Joe Mays were the 4-3 linebackers on the weak side and in the middle, respectively; in those games the Broncos were gashed for 152 and 251 rushing yards, respectively.
Option 2: Move Williams to the middle.
If this happens, you might see Brooking return to the weak side on base-package downs, with Woodyard playing alongside Williams when the Broncos go into the nickel package. This would be the same type of rotation Denver used last year, except Brooking would replace Mays, who was benched at San Diego in Week 6.
Williams hasn’t played middle linebacker since 2007 — the only season in which he worked there full-time, which works against this possibility. But if Woodyard flourishes and Brooking gets hurt in the next few weeks, the Broncos might see this as the way to get their three most athletic linebackers on the field in the base package.
Option 3: List Williams as a backup, but have him be one of the two linebackers in the nickel package, paired with Woodyard.
This would be a reversal of last year’s role, and would leave Woodyard taking the bulk of the snaps, not Williams. Whether this happens might be up to Brooking and how he fares — both from a health and performance perspective — at middle linebacker.
His performance against the run against Oakland and San Diego offers evidence that he can continue to stabilize the middle, although the Saints’ emphasis on three-wideout sets — they’ve run 52.1 percent of their 2012 plays with three receivers — means Brooking could be de-emphasized in favor as the Broncos go nickel heavy Sunday, which means he might not see extended action again until the Week 9 trip to Cincinnati.
If the Broncos wanted to keep Woodyard fresh, they could also use Williams in his place on some 4-3 base package downs. That might be the best option as the Broncos look to spread around the workload even more than they have in recent weeks.
Option 4: Cut ties and move on.
This might provide a short-term emotional boost to fans and those in the organization who have grown weary of Williams’ questionable judgment away from the locker room and the field. But it would be the least pragmatic choice and does the Broncos no good down the stretch.
Even if the Broncos’ linebackers remain healthy for the next three games, there’s no guarantee of good health beyond that. The benching of Joe Mays at San Diego — remember, he saw no defensive snaps, so he was out of the linebacking rotation altogether — doesn’t speak well of the team’s confidence in its early-season middle linebacker. Brooking has stabilized the unit, but he’s a 15-year veteran who has already dealt with a hamstring strain and a concussion since joining the Broncos in August. None of the other backups have started in the NFL.
Why would you jettison someone who you know can play capably — and will not be a locker-room problem? Although the two alcohol-related driving convictions, playbook tweet and PED suspension are troubling signs of a pattern, within the confines of team headquarters, he doesn’t cause a fuss to his teammates and coaches and goes about his work as you’d expect a player to do.
You’re not going to find a better option available during the season than Williams, and by the offseason, the market opens up, and the Broncos can plan for life without Williams if they see fit.
There is no rational, tactical justification for a contending team to cut someone who, at minimum, can be a better backup option than anyone else they could find.