With the beginning of training camp just over a month away, it appears the Broncos have achieved the every-offseason goal of improving their team.
Denver drafted a strong defensive tackle in Derek Wolfe, re-acquired another in Justin Bannan, and re-negotiated the services of a third in Ty Warren. The addition of dynamic running back Ronnie Hillman will help add both depth and playmaking ability at the position. They acquired a handful of pass catching tight ends and three quality defensive backs via free agency. Oh yeah…they also signed a quarterback who can make a decent case for being the greatest of all time.
Yes, top-to-bottom, 1-to-53, the Broncos look to be much stronger in 2012. However, if you subscribe to the “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” ideology, the Orange & Blue have some seriously disconcerting issues at the linebacking position.
Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller returns and, hopefully, will take a big step from One-Trick-Pass-Rushing-Pony to stronger all around Bronco. However, thanks to the (illegal) performance enhancing exploits of D.J. Williams, the team will be without the services of the former first round selection for at least the first six games of the season. Even upon his return, it’s not as if the underachieving, twitter-happy Williams will deliver anything other than the mediocre results and general lack of playmaking we have seen in his career thus far.
Of as much concern is the fact that the Broncos will be relying on Joe Mays to man the middle. Mays is a strong enough player to make a living in the NFL—and he is a good teammate, to boot. However, serious doubts exist regarding his ability to start at middle linebacker for a legitimate contender. Originally thought to be a hole plugging run stopper when he arrived via trade from Philadelphia, Mays struggled to challenge runners at the point of attack (see Toby Gerhart steamrolling Mays in the Broncos game at Minnesota last season).
At the moment, the Broncos expect Wesley Woodyard to fill the vacancy left by D.J. Williams. A more than competent special teamer, Woodyard demonstrated substantial shortcomings as a linebacker last season. He, more or less, lost his role in the regular rotation after struggling mightily against New England during their December 18 match up in Denver. Not that anyone looked particularly good against the Patriots exceptional tight ends last season, but Woodyard struggled even more than most.
Bottom line, while the Broncos look to be a much improved team from the one that finished .500 and earned the first playoff victory the franchise has seen since 2005, there are some noticeable deficiencies at the LB position. This apparent weakness doesn’t automatically spell doom for Denver (see the aforementioned Patriots Super Bowl appearance in spite of a weak defensive unit). However, it is certainly an area that, if not neutralized, could severely limit the Broncos chances at contention.