When you play in a 3-4 front, the majority of your pass rush comes from the outside linebackers. The Denver Broncos have established talent at the position, but they also have young, up-and-coming talent. Of all the positions, this is one of the easier ones to project. There won’t be many, if any, surprises.
No. 1 SLB: Von Miller
At the top of the depth chart is the Vonster, Von Miller. Miller was playing rush linebacker with great success in a scheme that ran 4-3 and 3-4 looks. When entering the NFL, he was projected as a 3-4 rush linebacker and that is one reason many experts didn’t have Miller going to the Broncos. Yet, the Broncos took him No. 2 overall anyway and have reaped the rewards, despite a messy 2013 season.
This upcoming season, Miller will be a full season removed from his torn ACL, so recovery isn’t a concern. He also will be playing in a scheme that everyone thinks he will be even better in. Not only is the scheme a better fit, it is a more aggressive defense, which plays to Miller's style of play. I expect a great season from Miller—one that should have him in consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year.
Stat Projection: 50 tackles, 23 sacks, 19 QB hits, 63 hurries and 45 stops.
No. 1 WLB: DeMarcus Ware
Playing on the opposite side of Miller will be DeMarcus Ware. No surprise here. The veteran is a well-established pass rusher, with an excellent history of production in the NFL. He will be playing for a former head coach of his in Wade Phillips, who knows how to utilize Ware’s ability. The 2014 season, Ware’s first with the Broncos, was filled with up and down moments.
Going into his second year with the team, he has even more chemistry with Miller, which will help on the field. He also, as mentioned, is playing for a coach who knows him and in a scheme that plays to players' strengths. Ware could see another big year, but either way, he will play a major factor in the success of others on the defense.
Stat Prediction: 45 tackles, 14 sacks, 23 QB hits, 47 hurries and 28 stops.
Backup OLB: Shane Ray
With the starters done, the first backup is first round pick Shane Ray. Ray will eventually be the replacement for Ware, so hopefully he pans out. It should be expected that Ray sees a lot of action this year as part of a three-man rotation at the rush linebacker position.
Stat Prediction: 30 tackles, six sacks, 18 QB hits, 27 hurries and 13 stops.
Backup OLB: Lerentee McCray
The next backup is former undrafted free agent Lerentee McCray. McCray was Miller's primary backup in 2014. Although he was not great when he stepped on the field, he wasn’t bad either. He will see time on the field, though not a lot outside of special teams. Ray will take away his playing time. Unless someone gets hurt, I wouldn’t expect to see a whole lot of McCray defensively this season.
Stat Prediction: 18 tackles, one sack, four QB hits, 13 hurries and four stops.
Backup OLB: Shaquil Barrett
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The big surprise here comes with a fifth outside linebacker. However, this player is also one I can see getting time at inside linebacker. He has played all over the linebacker corps, so having him around brings essential versatility to the group as a whole and more help on special teams. The player is Shaquil Barrett. He would be active on gameday, but as a special teams player. Unless injuries occur, he likely won’t see time on defense.
Stat Prediction: N/A
That leaves some young talent not making the roster. Danny Mason, a rookie from a small school, has had flashes in practices so far. If he can keep it up, he might get a practice squad spot.
Chase Vaughn was with the Broncos a year ago. He was having a good offseason before an injury occurred. This year he seems to be building on the good showing he had a year ago.
The final player is Gerald Rivers. Rivers has played in two total games in the NFL, both with the St. Louis Rams in 2013. Of these three, I would expect only one to make the practice squad, and that is likely between Vaughn and Mason.
That wraps it up for the outside linebackers. Stay tuned for the inside linebackers.
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