ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Joe Mays started five games in 2010 for the Broncos and one game in 2009 for the Philadelphia Eagles, so it’s not as though being on the first team is anything new to him.
But it’s a little bit different when you’re an opening-day starter.
Unlike the last two seasons, the fourth-year middle linebacker isn’t in the lineup because of another player’s infirmity or ineffectiveness; he’s there because he’s the best the team possesses at his position, and has been since the first snap of training camp.
“It feels good,” Mays said. “It feels good to have coaches that believe in you, teammates that believe in you; they actually want you to go out there and succeed.”
That’s a pleasant place to be for Mays, especially in light of where he thought his career stood when the Eagles pulled him from a training-camp meeting in July 2009 to inform of his trade to Denver.
At that point, all signs indicated that the Eagles might move Mays to safety — not exactly a development that augured well for the 5-foot-11, 250-pounder.
When Mays was called from the meeting, he thought he was being waived. In fact, he was traded to the Broncos for running back J.J. Arrington, which came as a relief but appeared on the surface to be a swap of surplus players.
Mays proved himself to be more than that — much more. He made the team, started five games, and while far from perfect, played with a kinetic fervor that evoked images of other sub 6-foot linebackers like London Fletcher and the late Sam Mills (who, coincidentally, was a linebackers coach on John Fox’s staff in Carolina prior to his 2005 death from cancer).
Mays did so well this summer that when Fox was asked Aug. 31 which players had stood out in camp, he singled out Mays for how well he transitioned to the Broncos’ new defensive alignment.
“Playing in the 3-4 is a little bit different than playing in the 4-3, and I like the way he’s gone about his business thus far,” Fox said.
Given that Mays has spent most of training camp playing behind a perpetually shuffling defensive tackle tandem because of injuries, Fox’s words are high praise, and illustrate why Mays senses something different than previous years.
“It’s just the vibe that I get from the guys here,” Mays said.
“That was the biggest thing for me — having people that believe in me and have faith in me to go out there and play ball, and I have that here.”
The ongoing defensive tackle injuries means that Mays will be challenged early and often — beginning with a Raiders team that averaged 296 rushing yards per game against the Broncos last year. For the Broncos to get into the third-and-long defensive situations that play to the defense’s pass-rushing strength, Mays can’t afford to miss tackles.
The Broncos have faith in Mays to stop opposing running backs who get past their defensive tackles — or at least hold up the runners until a swarm of defenders arrives. Mays won’t have a better — or sterner — chance to justify that faith than he will Monday night.