Barring a late addition, the Broncos roster is, for all intents and purposes, set. That means it will be up to a trio of veterans at the inside linebacker position to return that unit to elite status in the league.
During their 2015 Super Bowl run, the Broncos had a dynamic duo at inside linebacker in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan playing well in both stopping the run and pass coverage. The outstanding play from both paved the way for the Broncos defense to operate well against both the run and the pass.
In the 2016 offseason, the Broncos lost Trevathan when he signed a four-year, $24-million contract with the Chicago Bears. Most assumed that the Broncos defense could still be elite, playing into the strengths of their elite secondary, the “No Fly Zone.”
While the Broncos pass defense was still excellent in 2016, their run defense dropped from being ranked third overall in the NFL in 2015 to 27th in 2016. Trevathan’s presence was clearly missed.
As Marshall battled through injuries in 2016, playing in only 11 games, a legitimate concern about depth at the position arose.
Many fans and media members hoped that the Broncos would draft Alabama linebacker Rueben Foster when he slipped on the day of the draft due to a diluted drug test at the combine and injuries concerns.
But, as the offseason came and went, the Broncos did not address the inside linebacker position. Clearly, they expect Marshall, Todd Davis and Corey Nelson to increase productivity over last year at the inside linebacker position.
While the defense as a whole struggled against the run, the team’s talent at the inside linebacker position shows promise for improvement heading into the next season.
Davis, entering his fourth year in the league, took a big step in filling the void left by Trevathan. He became a full-time starter after starting just two games in 2015. He finished second on the team in tackles with 64 solo tackles in 15 games.
Though Davis shows promise in stopping the run, where the team really struggled was lacking a linebacker who could cover opposing tight ends or receivers over the middle of the field, an area where Trevathan excelled.
That’s where a player like Corey Nelson could step in and make an immediate impact.
Starting just six games last season, Nelson registered 40 solo tackles and also defended an impressive five passes. Nelson, who started his career as a special teams contributor, has shows flashes of potential, particularly in coverage.
Nelson needs to polish his technique before becoming a full-time starter, but his solid play during Marshall’s absence last season showed promise for a player looking to take a big step forward in 2017.
Fans should also keep an eye on third-year linebacker Zaire Anderson throughout offseason workouts.
Anderson, who spent the entire 2015 season on the Broncos practice squad, saw limited playing time last season. He played just 4.88 percent of Denver’s defensive snaps in 2016, starting one game as Marshall and Davis dealt with injuries.
Staying put at the inside linebacker position may not be as exciting as signing a big-name free agent or drafting a blue-chip prospect like Foster, but general manager John Elway must feel comfortable in the depth and talent of these players to pass on alternative options at the position.