Hiring a coach with the track record of John Fox, bringing back John Elway in an official capacity, and dumping remnants from the McDaniels Regime are rebuilding steps, but where it really counts is on the field … and there’s only so much a draft and free agency can rectify in that regard.
Instead, the Broncos will start with a close look at their roster in an attempt to find guys who can fill roles. A guy who quietly impressed in the 2010 season could be a huge asset, especially if his skill set transitions well alongside their move to a 4-3 defense.
Secret Superstar Number Two? Linebacker Joe Mays.
The Chicago, Illinois native entered the league in 2008 as a sixth-round selection of the Philadelphia Eagles. As a rookie, he didn’t see much action at all, with his sole contribution being a special teams assist in the Divisional Playoff victory over Dallas. Not the most noteworthy of rookie years, but you wouldn’t expect much from a guy that was the 200th player taken in the draft.
Year two actually provided an opportunity for Mays as the Eagles’ linebacker group encountered a seemingly endless string of injuries.
It was, however, an opportunity missed. After losing a camp battle for the middle linebacker spot, Mays got on the field for just 75 snaps. In those, the former Great West Defensive Player of the Year managed just one defensive stop.
Still, while he struggled to make a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball, Mays was getting good work in on special teams. He finished the year with 15 tackles in that department (and no missed tackles); good enough for 10th overall in our kick coverage rankings.
So he had a role, but his primary problem remained: the Eagles were stacked at linebacker. They had Stewart Bradley returning from injury, they brought in the always underwhelming Ernie Sims, and they already had talented guys like Moises Fokou, Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither vying for time.
Buried on the depth chart, Mays found himself trade bait. The Eagles swapped him out and brought over J.J. Arrington to add some depth to their offensive backfield. Somewhat suddenly, Mays was on his way to Denver and their 3-4 defense.
Initially, it looked like more of the same from the now former Eagle. Through the first nine weeks of 2010, Mays got on the field for just 33 snaps – even though he got a start against Oakland in Week 7. He wasn’t having his usual impact on the special teams side of things either, and it looked like number 51 was once again going to be spending most of his Sunday afternoons on the sideline.
Then injury struck again. First, Robert Ayers went down, and the resulting reshuffle meant Joe found himself starting next to D.J. Williams in the middle. Before Ayers could return, Williams’ knee gave way and, unlike in the 2009 training camp battle, the former North Dakota State star grabbed hold of this opportunity.
We’d heard from his Eagles days about what a vicious hitter and vocal player Mays could be, and, with a new chance, he set about establishing this straight away. He finished Week 10 against the Chiefs with eight tackles – seven of which were defensive stops preventing first downs or significant yardage. There was more of the same the next week with six more tackles (all of which were defensive stops) and two assists. A week after that, when the Rams visited Mile High, he put seven tackles on the board (five defensive stops.)
It wasn’t just the tackle numbers and where he was making those tackles that impressed. Mays was showing an ability to shoot gaps, win at the point of attack, and was generally causing havoc with his aggressive play. In that Chiefs game, he made life particularly miserable for Ryan Lilja and against the Chargers, he spent the day destroying Jacob Hester in one-on-one battles.
It was clear from seeing him in just a quarter of the season that when you got Joe Mays going downhill, he was tough for blockers to handle. Unfortunately, he didn’t fully get the chance to establish himself before the injury bug got to him too, landing him on injured reserve after Week 13.
Not All Covered
To get the full picture, it must be understood that Joe Mays is what he is – a prototypical two down linebacker who shouldn’t be trusted in coverage. The Broncos saw this and made an effort to take him out of passing situations, but even doing so couldn’t completely limit his exposure (he was on the field for 88 passing snaps.)
If there was ever a play to sum up Mays in coverage, it came in Week 12 against the Rams. With tight end Billy Bajema stuttering on a shallow path across the formation, Mays – his eyes squarely in the backfield – displayed no awareness of the threat and made no attempt to affect an otherwise uncovered route that resulted in a touchdown. In a game where he would also completely ignore a receiver running through his zone, his lack of comfort in coverage was highlighted.
Know Your Limitations
Sometimes it’s better to just accept the player for his strengths while recognizing his weaknesses. We’ve seen a thumper like Curtis Lofton improve himself in coverage but lose some of what made him such a special player in run defense. Will the Broncos, as they re-tool, risk the same by forcing Mays into situations where he’s not likely to succeed?
The smarter play would simply be to plug Mays in at middle linebacker for early downs and let him do what he does best. A move that also works to the benefit of D.J. Williams (who struggled when the Broncos asked him to play the MIKE in their original 4-3) and he’s got more upside than anyone else on the roster.
With so many holes to fill, it makes a lot of sense to see if Mays, in a contract year, can reproduce the best of his 2010 performance across a 16 game schedule. Though, with a new coach and new defensive scheme on the way, there’s also the possibility that his solid four-week stretch gets overlooked as pieces are re-assembled in Denver.
If given one more chance to play a major role, Joe Mays will no longer be the most hidden weapon on the Broncos roster.