Linebackers shuffle as Broncos adjust to life after Al Wilson

ENGLEWOOD (AP) - Not often do two teammates make lateral moves that are deemed promotions.

The Denver Broncos could have just that oddity on their hands this season if Nate Webster can follow the lead of D.J. Williams, who moved over from strong side linebacker to the middle when the Broncos released captain and perennial Pro Bowler Al Wilson over the winter.

Free agent Eddie Moore was going to get first crack at Williams' old job, but he failed his physical and was waived when camp started.

So, Webster, Warrick Holdman and D.D. Lewis are getting the first long looks at the position and Webster, an eighth-year pro with 11 career starts, is making a strong case with some of the camp's biggest hits so far.

Yet, he's still a big question mark coming off a season in which he played just three games in Denver after recovering from a bum right knee that all but wiped out his 2004 and '05 seasons in Cincinnati.

"Nate has some great football instincts," coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's one of the reasons he was a top player coming out. He's a very physical player, and we'll give him a chance to see how he adapts to the system and how he plays consistently. We know he can make plays. He's a natural, but can he be at the right place at the right time? That's what we have camp for."

Webster defiantly predicts he'll show everyone he's the man for the job.

"I'm going to help them make the decision," he said. "I'm up for the challenge. I've been fighting all my life."

He'll have to stay healthy. After playing in 63 of 64 games in his first four seasons in Tampa Bay, including every game for the 2002 team that won the Super Bowl, Webster played just four games in two years with the Bengals.

In 2004, he led the team in tackles (26) through three games as the Bengals' starting middle linebacker before tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee and missing the rest of the season. He played in just one game the following season.

He acknowledged he was still thinking about his knee last season in Denver when he played in just three games, starting twice when Wilson was injured.

It's no longer an issue, he insisted.

"It's not even in my mind right now. That's a blessing for me to come out here and not even think of it and just play ball like back in the day like I used to," Webster said.

Webster said he's making a smooth transition to the outside because he brings strong credentials from the middle.

"To me, (middle linebacker) is the heart and soul," Webster said. "You've got to be real physical to be hanging in that middle. You've got a lot of guys coming at you. At (strongside linebacker), you're kind of like on an island. You know who you're going to go against even before the down. Most of the time, it's the tight end. The physical aspect coming from the middle is just a plus."

In April, the Broncos released Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowl player and their defensive captain for the last six seasons, in a mixture of health and salary cap concerns. He injured his neck against Seattle on Dec. 3 and failed a physical that negated a trade with the New York Giants. He was scheduled to count more than $6 million against their cap this season.

Wilson was the team's leading tackler last year and also the undisputed leader in the locker room. He spoke at the funerals for cornerback Darrent Williams and running back Damien Nash, both of whom died in the offseason at age 24.

D.J. Williams knows all eyes and ears will be on him now as he tries to fill that multifaceted void.

"I've got some huge shoes to fill," he said. "Al played the position well last year. They expect me to be that caliber of player."

The Broncos need him to do his best imitation of Wilson's leadership, too.

"You've got to keep all the guys up. You can never be down because the defense needs a lot of energy," Williams said. "This year I'm a lot more vocal. Last year, I may give one or two calls or checks. This year, I'm speaking in the huddle every down and when the huddle breaks, I'm lining up guys and giving off checks.

"There may be days that I may be down, but I can't show it. I can't act like that because the guys feed off that. Every day I have to be up and keep every guy up because I have to be the tone-setter."


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