Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – D.J. Williams burst out of his stance and put a lick on one of his teammates during a block-and-shed drill with the rest of the Denver Broncos linebackers Monday.
It sure beat the standing around, decoying and sprinting he’s had to do so far.
“That was a great freakin’ block by D.J.,” declared his position coach, Richard Smith, who briefly halted the proceedings to admonish the other linebackers to take note and adjust accordingly.
Seeing Williams let loose came as no surprise given that Denver’s leading tackler in five of his eight pro seasons has been relegated to the back of the line at Broncos training camp.
Williams is facing a six-game drug suspension to start the season plus an Aug. 15 drunken driving trial that could add even more games to his punishment, so the Broncos are getting his replacements ready instead.
Coach John Fox declared at the start of camp that Williams won’t get any work with the starters as he awaits his suspension, so he’s spent his time watching backups prepare for more than rotational roles at weakside linebacker.
Wesley Woodyard is getting first crack at Williams’ job, followed by backup middle linebacker Nate Irving, who made just one tackle in his first pro season last year, and head-turning rookie Danny Trevathan.
Woodyard, a fifth-year pro, is coming off his best season yet, one in which he piled up career highs in tackles (97), starts (seven) and forced fumbles (two) while replacing middle linebacker Joe Mays on passing downs and making spot starts for an injured Williams.
“He’s a veteran guy, he’s done it before,” Smith said. “So, on the depth chart he’s penciled in there right now at No. 1. But these things are evaluated not only in practice but in games. So, we’ve got enough preseason games to find out who’s going to be the starter at that position.”
Woodyard signed a two-year $3.5 million contract this offseason. That may not be starter’s money in today’s NFL, but Woodyard has his sights set on joining Mays and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller atop the Broncos’ depth chart, regardless of Williams’ status.
“Whether or not he was sitting out, we’re all coming in here to compete for a starting spot,” Woodyard said. “Any time I have an opportunity in front of me, I want to take it and run with it.”
The versatile Irving fell behind in training camp last year and never pushed for meaningful playing time, but the Broncos still are high on him.
“His value to our team is huge,” Smith said. “Right now, I’ve got him playing all three positions. After Mario Haggan left and went to the Rams, now Nate’s the backup to Von Miller (at strongside linebacker). He’s also got the opportunity to compete at the ‘mike’ and right now I’m giving him an opportunity at the ‘will.’ Because our philosophy is we’re going to start the top three linebackers regardless of who they are.”
Travathan, a sixth-round pick from Kentucky who led the SEC in tackles each of the last two seasons, could leapfrog both Irving and Woodyard to win Williams’ job, Smith said.
Travathan slipped in the draft, Smith figures, because of a poor 40-yard time at the NFL combine, but he said Travathan was nursing a slight hamstring strain that slowed him down.
“He was much faster on film,” Smith said. “You watch him on film, he was a playmaking machine. It might be a steal in terms of where we drafted him. This guy’s an extremely instinctive football player. He’s done a great job during OTAs. Right now he’s running with the 2s, and he’s going to be helping us in our sub package.
“Maybe he’ll be able to unseat everybody at that ‘will’ linebacker position and be an every-down player,” Smith said. “If it happens, that’s a big load on a young guy. Maybe he can handle it; we’ll wait and see.”
Trevathan said he’s gotten plenty of advice from the veterans while working with the first-team defense.
“Those older guys are always going to be behind us to help us with whatever we need, even D.J.,” Trevathan said. “D.J. is a guy that has really been helping me. We play the same position. So, it’s been a real blessing to have that guy behind me.”
No matter who wins Williams’ job, the Broncos are going to need better play from their other linebackers in 2012. Mays missed too many tackles last year, and Miller realizes he needs to cut down on his mental mistakes to stay on the field more.
Smith said new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme should help Mays bounce back this year.
“A year ago, he had some missed tackles, which he wasn’t happy with, nor was I. But what happened was some of these holes were large,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to do some things a little differently up front which I think will diminish those issues.”
Miller won top defensive honors but knows he can improve against the run, too.
“He had a few times where I had to take him out of the game because of some sort of issues. Right now, what I see, he’s bigger, stronger and faster than he was a year ago,” Smith said. “First of all, he’s got freak athletic ability. So, that’s not coaching; that’s genetics. That guy’s a beast, OK? That stuff is all natural. What I like about him is his focus, his attention in the meetings, on details he’s getting much better. He still has some improving to do.”
And he knows it.
Even though he tied the rookie franchise record for sacks with 11½, won Defensive Rookie of the Year and started in the Pro Bowl, Miller worked hard during the offseason to cut down on his mental miscues and hone his technique. He even took up yoga with pal Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.
“I always felt limber and agile. I feel like Gumby right now,” Miller said.
Smith predicts an even better second season for Miller, who played the last six games with a broken right hand.
“It’s going to be exciting if he can stay healthy,” Smith said. “Right now, he’s a better first- and second-down player that he was a year ago. This offseason program that we had here, we had a chance to walk through things and talk through things, and it was very helpful for him.”