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Three Candidates Have Emerged To Replace Danny Trevathan At Inside Linebacker For The Broncos

The Broncos lost their leading tackler in free agency, but there are a trio of players competing to take his spot. MHH Analyst Will Keys examines the leading candidates to start opposite Brandon Marshall.

Although the 2015 Denver Broncos defense will always be remembered primarily for its dominant pass-rushers and patented “No-Fly Zone” secondary, it was the steady performance of the inside linebackers that the set the Super Bowl Champs apart as the best in the league. 

But now that last year’s leading tackler Danny Trevathan has bolted to Chicago, someone will need to distinguish themselves in camp and fill his cleats in 2016.

The leading candidate to win the job alongside the newly-paid Brandon Marshall is Todd Davis, a former Sacramento Sate Hornet, whose slight frame and inability to run fast enough in a straight line without pads allowed him to slip undetected through the 2014 draft.  Later that year, he was finally picked up by the New Orleans Saints in the dead of summer, notched three tackles in three games, and was shown the door in November.   

Davis was a free agent for just a day before GM John Elway and company snatched him up and put him to work for the remainder of the 2014 campaign.  Brandon Marshall’s foot injury against San Diego forced Davis into action as he cracked Jack Del Rio’s starting lineup against Cincinnati and Oakland to close out the regular season. Again in 2015, Davis performed admirably in spot duty, starting another two games and totaling 11 tackles in Wade Phillips’ historic 3-4 defense.  When Bears head coach John Fox (in his attempt to form a roster comprised solely of former Broncos) lured Trevathan to Chicago, Todd Davis immediately became Denver’s presumptive thumper to carry the torch next to Marshall at linebacker. 

However, Davis will only emerge from training camp with the distinction of starting inside linebacker if he can beat out another undersized and unheralded prospect for the job.

Zaire Anderson earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of the Broncos’ practice squad in 2015, but is getting talked up by teammates as a big-time contributor going forward into this season. 

“Mark this name; Zaire Anderson,” running back C.J. Anderson told Vic Lombardi in a March interview.  “How they found Brandon Marshall is how you guys are [going to] hear about Zaire.”

Anderson, like Davis, went undrafted despite surpassing 100 tackles his senior year as a Nebraska Cornhusker, mainly due to his sub-six-foot stature and 220-pound frame.  But after an eye-opening training camp and preseason, the Broncos quietly stashed him away on the practice squad. 

A year later, Anderson is primed for a promotion to the 53-man roster.  He lacks the volume of live reps that Davis has benefited from over the past two seasons, but is overflowing with potential and likely has a higher ceiling than Davis. 

Neither player has the skill-set that Trevathan brought to the middle of the Broncos defense over the past four years.  Rarely does an inside linebacker have the versatility to lead the team in tackles multiple times and have the sideline-to-sideline speed to keep up with tight ends and running backs in the passing game. 

But the beauty of Denver’s absurd level of talent and depth on defense is that it allows players to focus on what they do best.  Because all three levels are more than competent, no one player has to make up for their lesser teammates and do more than what they’re capable of within the scheme. 

This is what sets Denver’s defense apart from other talented units like Green Bay, who had to move Clay Matthews to the middle to save their porous run defense at the expense of their ability to rush the passer. 

Anderson or Davis will likely be called on to simply play within themselves, plugging holes in the running game and playing mostly zone on passing downs.  With Trevathan out of the picture, safety T.J. Ward will probably see the most snaps lined up against the likes of Olsen, Gates, Gronkowski, and Kelce. The biggest credit thus far to the play of Todd Davis and Zaire Anderson is the fact that out of their eight draft picks in 2016, the Broncos did not select a single linebacker.  This vote of confidence from the front office and coaching staff speaks to the starter potential the two inside linebackers have showcased on the practice field. 

Both players have the classic characteristics of an Elway-era starter; overlooked in the draft and eager to prove their true value in practice.  Between guys like Marshall, Chris Harris, Jr., and Shaquil Barrett, they should fit in perfectly.

At this point, Davis’ experience gives him the edge to exit camp as the starter.  Plan on seeing Anderson mixed in and getting plenty of snaps, especially in short yardage situations. 

The fight for inside linebacker, along with the several other heated positional battles that will be waged in August, will make this year’s Broncos training camp wildly important in deciding the starting lineup in 2016.  Whoever has the honor of proudly announcing their name and alma mater to the NBC audience in the 2016 opener against Carolina, “Todd Davis—Sac State” or “Zaire Anderson—Nebraska,” will have truly earned it.  

Another player challenging for the spot will be third-year man Corey Nelson, who has battled his way onto the 53-man roster in both of his seasons since being picked up in the seventh round out of Oklahoma

The Broncos kept Nelson on the roster over Anderson in 2015. He contributed on defense, especially in nickel spot duty, totaling 16 tackles and a sack for the Broncos defense. Like Davis and Anderson, Nelson is undersized at 6-foot-1 and just 227 pounds. 

But if he can prove himself capable of shedding blockers between the tackles, a skill Trevathan excelled at, Nelson's prospects to earn a starting job are good. 

Will Keys is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

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