Where does D.J. Williams fit?
The nine-year veteran linebacker returned from nine games of suspensions on Monday, but doesn't have an obvious, immediate home on the defense -- even though he's played all three linebacker positions in his career.
His previous spot, weakside linebacker, has been capably filled by Wesley Woodyard in recent weeks. Woodyard did so well that, in Week 8, he earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, when he sacked, intercepted and forced a fumble from Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Woodyard leads the Broncos in tackles with 77 -- no one else on the team is within 25 stops of him -- and is the only player on the team with at least one interception, sack and forced fumble.
The spot Williams held in 2007, middle linebacker, has been claimed by veteran Keith Brooking, who replaced Joe Mays in October and immediately stabilized the run defense. In the five games Brooking has worked in the middle, Denver has allowed an average of 68 rushing yards per game and just 3.2 yards per carry.
The spot Williams manned in 2005 and 2006, strongside linebacker, now belongs to Von Miller, arguably the best front-seven player in the AFC not named J.J. Watt. The success of Woodyard, Brooking and Miller is difficult to ignore, even if it means that Williams is a potential odd man out for the first time in his career.
"They played pretty well, a lot of energy out there. We had the veteran, Keith Brooking, came into the leadership role," Williams said. "Woodyard is playing well. My opinion, Von's probably been the best defensive player of the year so far. He's picked his game up, a lot of energy and a lot of knowledge to the game. So, as a whole, the corps have been playing pretty well."
So either the Broncos dislodge a starter playing at a high level relative to their expectations -- and disrupt an improving defense that has allowed just six touchdowns in its last 14 quarters -- or they let Williams languish in nothing more than a rotational role, which would mark the first time in his career that he hasn't been a starter.
Williams seems to be realistic about his chances. The Broncos held him out of practice during most of training camp, consigning him to an adjacent field where he ran wind sprints while his teammates went through full-team and seven-on-seven work.
"I hope sooner or later that I could get back to the role that I had before I left," he said. "I realize it's going to be difficult just to jump back into that, but I'm ready to go whenever they throw me out there."
If he does assume a key role, the Broncos hope that his pattern of making questionable decisions has ended. From a DUI arrest in 2005 and subsequent conviction to his suspensions this year for a violation of the league's PED policy and a driving-while-ability-impaired conviction, to tweeting a picture of a formation from the Broncos' playbook this year to tweets that stretch the boundaries of good taste, Williams has been a headache far too often for Broncos' officials.
"I did the crime, gotta do the time. It's over with now," Williams said.
But had Williams turned his star potential into elite performance and Pro Bowl appearances, some of his indiscretions could have been forgiven. But he never turned the corner, and eventually settled in as a good, but not great, starter -- who might not even have that designation anymore.
The Broncos need Williams to be a good soldier, no matter what his role ends up being. Williams, apparently chastened by his nine-game absence, seems to understand that.
"They decided to keep me around, I'm thankful for that," he said. "So, now that I'm back, I'll just do what I've got to do to help the team win."