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Wade Phillips has brought his 3-4 defense to the Mile High City, and by definition that’s going to require more linebackers on the field and more talent and depth at the position, period.
With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware anchoring the outside pass-rush slots, the Broncos are pretty well set there – at least for starters – but there are a few more question marks inside, where Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are currently listed atop the depth chart after missing a combined 19 starts last season with foot and knee injuries, respectively. Both also played primarily on the weak side in last year’s 4-3 alignment under Jack Del Rio.
Denver signed Chargers cap casualty Reggie Walker during the offseason and have veteran Steven Johnson returning to go along with 2014 late-round draft picks Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson, but that quartet has combined for all of 13 NFL starts.
Inexperience is certainly also an issue behind Miller and Ware as Quanterus Smith and Lerentee McCray are listed as the primary backups. Both players are from the Broncos’ rookie class of 2013, but they’ve combined for zero starts, one sack and 19 total tackles over the last two seasons.
Linebacker is not as pressing of a need as re-shoring the offensive front, but the Orange and Blue will almost certainly be using a couple of their 10 total draft picks on LB help, and here are some prospects to keep an eye on:
ILB Bernardrick McKinney (6-4, 240), Mississippi State
The Bulldogs’ tackles leader in each of the last two seasons is rated as the top inside ’backer by most draft analysts, and he visited the Mile High City in March. McKinney is a physical and powerfully built player with good speed and a nose for the ball, but his coverage skills and quickness need work. He has been compared by some to the Texans’ Brian Cushing, who was drafted and played for coach Gary Kubiak and Phillips in Houston, but likely will be long gone by the time the Broncos’ second-round pick comes around if they decide to address their offensive-line needs with their first pick.
ILB Stephone Anthony (6-3, 245), Clemson
This Butkus Award semifinalist teamed with Vic Beasley to make life miserable for the Tigers’ offensive opposition last season, but unlike Beasley, Anthony very well could be an option for Denver when pick No. 28 rolls around. He was a three-sport standout in high school, and his athleticism shows in his quickness – which was on display at the Scouting Combine – and play-diagnosis speed. He does however struggle at times shedding blockers and staying with speedy running backs in coverage.
ILB Denzel Perryman (5-11, 235), Miami (Fla.)
Some early mock drafts had the Broncos selecting the two-time All-ACC selection and 2014 Butkus Award finalist in the first round, but his stock has fallen over the last few months – likely because his lack of top-end speed and quickness have become more of a concern in comparison with other inside ’backers. That makes him more of a third-down liability, but playing the run is Perryman’s unquestioned strength as he plays with good leverage and excels at shedding blockers and getting to the ballcarrier. The Broncos reportedly checked him out thoroughly at the Senior Bowl, and he might still be around when they pick in the second round.
OLB/DE Nate Orchard (6-3, 250), Utah
The 2014 Hendricks Award winner as the nation’s top defensive end has all the makings of an NFL ’tweener, and his stock has dipped a bit as a result. Orchard struggles against the run and scouts worry he’ll be overwhelmed by the powerful pro tackles, but he excels rushing the passer as his FBS-leading and school record-setting 18.5 sacks last season indicate. Pass rushers are always in high NFL demand, and Orchard would represent good value for the Broncos if he’s still there late in the second round.
OLB Max Valles (6-5, 250), Virginia
If the Broncos want to use a mid-round pick on a raw, young depth player with strong potential and ample room to grow, then this second-year sophomore who attended prep school in 2012 is a good long-term investment. Valles plays with solid strength and speed and showed the ability to get into the backfield with 12.5 tackles for losses and eight sacks this past season. With only 16 collegiate starts, he will need a year or two, though, to finish growing into his frame and get acclimated to the pro game, and that could work right into the Broncos’ needs as Ware winds down.