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Denver Broncos On The Brink: Shaquil Barrett, Outside Linebacker

Chad Jensen is spotlighting young Broncos on the brink. But are they players on the brink of stardom or failure? Today, we focus on outside linebacker Shaq Barrett.

Since 2011, the Denver Broncos have had an embarrassment of riches at edge rusher. Most NFL teams are lucky to have one proficient pass rusher, but Denver's outside linebacker corps has consistently been two, three and sometimes four-deep. 

Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil ruled the edge together from 2011-12. In 2013, the Broncos entered the season with Miller and veteran Shaun Phillips — Dumervil's post-faxgate replacement — before Miller's season was cut short by a six-game suspension and a torn ACL, causing him to miss Denver's playoff run and appearance in Super Bowl XLVIII. Phillips still posted double-digit sack totals, carrying the load for most of the season. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1778698-wolfe-focused-on-being-mo... In 2014, the Broncos received an influx of pass-rushing talent to compliment Miller, after letting the one-year mercenary Phillips depart. DeMarcus Ware was signed — the Dallas Cowboys all-time sack leader. The Broncos also signed undrafted rookie free agent Shaquil Barrett out of Colorado State

Barrett's rookie campaign was a tumultuous one. He was waived just prior to the start of the season and signed to the practice squad. He would go on to be promoted to the active roster and subsequently waived twice that year. 

However, in 2015, with a full offseason to hone his physique, Barrett clearly separated himself in training camp. The addition of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator and the move from an even front to the 3-4 under also helped Barrett's cause tremendously. 

Barrett was miscast in Denver's 4-3 scheme under Jack Del Rio. Under Phillips' attacking, one-gap approach, it didn't take long for the Broncos to realize they had a true diamond in the rough in Shaq Barrett. He made the final roster out of training camp in 2015. 

In Phillips' defense the No. 3 and 4 rush linebackers see the field. With Miller and Ware as starters, Barrett saw extensive playing time, along with rookie first-rounder Shane Ray. Being four-deep at rush linebacker allowed Phillips to keep Miller and Ware fresh, while Ray and Barrett gained valuable experience.

When Ray went down with a knee injury, and Ware was sidelined short-term, Barrett received his first start in a Week 6 road match in Cleveland. Although the Browns would take the eventual Super Bowl-Champion Broncos to overtime, Denver emerged victorious — in no small measure due to Barrett's inspired performance. 

Barrett totaled nine combined tackles (six solo), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his first start. The Broncos would go on to finish the 2015 regular season as the league-leader in sacks, with Barrett chipping in 5.5. 

In 2016, expectations were high for the defending World Champions. Barrett also had high individual expectations but, unfortunately, he didn't quite meet them. He took a step backward in production, finishing with just 1.5 sacks for the season, once again serving as Denver's No. 4 rush linebacker. 

The box score stats for Barrett were disappointing, however, he still made an impact when asked to rush. He had a 10.2 pass rushing productivity, via Pro Football Focus, which ranked him 18th among 3-4 OLBs (including playoffs). He picked up 15 QB hurries and two hits, to go along with his sack totals. All in, he had 19 QB pressures. 

So, even as a No. 4 OLB, Barrett still finished in the top-20 in pass rushing productivity at his position league wide. He wishes he could have gotten to the quarterback more, but he still made his presence felt when he was on the field. 

Shane Ray took a giant leap forward, finishing second on the team with eight sacks. But Barrett struggled to make a similar impact in the pass rush, despite seeing 418 snaps on defense (36.5 percent). But when he was on the field, his motor and hustle were on full display. 

Compared to Ray, Barrett has always been the stronger player against the run. Although the Broncos — as a defense — took a huge step backward, finishing No. 28 against the run in 2016, Barrett continued to shine in that department. His strength and physicality on the edge have been a boon to the Broncos, but Barrett also has sneaky athleticism and the ability to knife through traffic to the ball-carrier. 

PFF also looked kindly on Barrett's productivity against the run. He ranked 9th among 3-4 OLBs with 8.6 run-stop percentage. He picked up 16 run stops on 185 run snaps. 

He finished with 36 combined tackles (23 solo), a forced fumble and two passes defensed. Barrett has also been a key contributor on special teams, unlike Ray.

Heading into 2017, Barrett is on deck to see significantly more snaps on defense. DeMarcus Ware is gone, which most directly benefits Shane Ray, but it will also trickle down to Barrett. 

As a former undrafted rookie, Barrett plays with intensity and with a chip on his shoulder. He'll need to hold tight to that inner fire because the Broncos have once again flooded the roster with viable young edge rushers. 

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Vontarrius Dora is looking to make a big leap in his second year with the club, after impressing in the 2016 preseason. Veteran Kasim Edebali — who was signed to a one-year deal earlier this year — will push the bottom of the depth chart and undrafted rookies Ken Ekanem and Deon Hollins will also add to Denver's competition at the position. 

The Broncos tagged Barrett with an exclusive rights free agent tender, which will pay him $615,000 in 2017. He will be a key component to Denver's defense and if he can find a way to produce with his increased opportunities, he could earn a significant pay increase with a restricted free agent tender next year — if the Broncos choose to tag him. If Denver doesn't tag him, Barrett will hit the open waters of unrestricted free agency in 2018.

Barrett represents tremendous value to the Broncos and outside teams are well aware it. GM John Elway has fielded more than one call from interested teams around the league, sniffing around Barrett to find out what it would take to acquire him via trade. So far, Elway hasn't received an offer for Barrett that matches how the Broncos value him.

We saw what Barrett is capable of in 2015 playing both the weak (Will) and strong (Sam) outside linebacker positions. Heading into his fourth season as a pro, Barrett is feeling a sense of urgency to produce.

The Broncos won't control his rights forever and if he wants to capitalize on a big free agent deal at some point in the near future, he'll have to produce more seasons like the one he had in 2015. With the edge Barrett plays with, I like his chances of turning the corner in 2017 and really coming into his own. 

Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.

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