As Wade Phillips confirmed in his Tuesday presser, the Denver Broncos are moving from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. The move makes sense and not just because its Phillips’ forte. The Broncos arguably are better suited to it, with the personnel they have.
The outside linebackers are in place – Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos also have two natural 5-technique defensive ends in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. The cornerbacks, Chris Harris, Jr, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby, are all suited to back up an aggressive front seven. And T.J. Ward is a quintessential box-clocker at strong safety.
The only missing components to a 3-4 switch, or question marks, are at nose guard, inside linebacker and free safety. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the ILB position. Danny Trevathan is under contract for 2015 and Brandon Marshall is an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA), making his return to the team probable.
Nate Irving, who projects better as a 3-4 ILB, will be an unrestricted free agent and it’s unclear at this time whether the new Broncos coaching staff will want him back. As for Trevathan and Marshall, both are prototypical “Will” linebackers in a 4-3 defense.
The key to their success is speed and instinct, rather than size and power. They excel at being free on the edges to pursue and make plays, while their defensive line consumes blocks. Switching to a 3-4, there are questions about whether they can effective transition to ILB.
The Broncos will attempt to coach up Trevathan and Marshall to play in the new defensive scheme but Phillips and company will also review their options in the free agent market and in the draft. One player who would be a great fit would be the Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Craig Robertson.
Robertson clocks in a 6-foot-1, 237 pounds. He enters 2015 as a restricted free agent, which means that once the Browns decide that they're going to tender him, a competing team must exceed the dollar amount offer (at least $1.323M) to acquire him. As a former undrafted rookie free agent out of North Texas, compensation in the form of a draft pick would probably not be required.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Broncos targeting a linebacker in the draft. Guys like Denzel Perryman, Paul Dawson, and Eric Kendricks have been mocked to the Broncos by draftniks at various points in the draft. All three of those guys would likely be worth the investment, but none of them could immediately contribute like Robertson could.
If you watched any Browns games in 2014, you probably noticed Robertson jump off the screen when they were on defense. The guy is a playmaker. He started games at the Mo and Mike linebacker spots in the Browns 3-4 defense.
Robertson had 99 combined tackles in 2014, but 37 stops at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. He is always around the ball, which is an instinct you want in a linebacker. He also is good in coverage, with 4 passes defensed and 2 interceptions last year. This earned him a +2.2 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.
One of the attributes that sets Robertson apart from his peers is his intensity. He’s a tenacious player and that type of swagger and spirit could be used in Denver. He also has experience playing with his former Browns teammate, T.J. Ward. But that’s neither here nor there.
At 27 years old, he’s played three years for the Browns, tallying 277 tackles. If the Broncos went out on a limb to sign him, they'd get a proven player, who has shown great growth and production in three short years.
Robertson would be much cheaper than signing a Rolando McClain, or Patrick Willis, if the San Francisco 49ers part ways with him. And he’s three years younger than Willis. Robertson has shown great durability, playing in all 16 games in each season with the Browns.
Durability is huge for 3-4 ILBs, who spend much of their time colliding with guards and centers, as they attempt to stack and shed. That's the biggest concern with Marshall and Trevathan. Do they have the size to withstand the punishment?
Robertson would be a great fit in Phillips’ defense. The only downside with him is his age. At 27, he’s likely halfway into his pro career, even though he’s only entering his fourth season. For a rookie, he was old. A draft pick in the 2015 draft would give the Broncos at least four more years than what Robertson could probably offer.
Because signing Robertson would not represent relinquishing a valuable draft pick, it's not improbable that John Elway would make an offer. It's rare that a restricted free agent garners a competing offer, but anything is possible. Craig Robertson would be worth the investment.