I’ll readily admit that I’m guilty of overlooking Phillip Lindsay last spring. I saw the Broncos draft Royce Freeman in the third round and went bananas over him, even proclaiming that he’d be a dark horse for Offensive Rookie of the Year. I’ll own up to that and still think Royce will be pretty dang good, but strive to be better this year.
My goal is to study up on all of 2019’s potential UDFA surprises. To make the roster, one of the rookies will need a mix of good health fortune, talent, and the opportunity to show it in the lead up to the regular season.
Everyone knows Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are stone cold locks for the starting lineup, barring injury. After that, things get a lot murkier with Shaq Barrett in Tampa Bay and Shane Ray looking for tryouts.
I’ll be the first to tell you I believe in Holland, but he’s relatively unproven in space. It’s an underrated skill for the Broncos new D, but one that can’t be dismissed. The Bears edge trio of Leonard Floyd, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Lynch played over 200 combined snaps in coverage last year. While they’re still asked to rush on most downs, versatility is a key piece of the puzzle. That’s one reason the trade for Dekoda Watson makes a lot of sense. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath:
So why Watson, you may ask. Well, here’s a thing worth remembering when it comes to player trades in the NFL. A team is making the pick based on previous knowledge. When the incoming player is a star like Khalil Mack or OBJ, it’s easy to gamble on talent fitting the scheme, but lower tier players take a lot of guess work. A prior relationship with a guy like Watson meant Elway knew who he was bringing into the locker room, so there was comfort there. Beyond that, Watson gives Fangio a well-rounded veteran who can fill the number 3 edge role in 2019 while the younger rushers develop.
Watson gives Fangio a player who has played a 16 game schedule and brings special teams experience. While the coaching staff has said that Justin Hollins will earn time at inside, I do suspect he’ll be a factor on the outside. Watson means he won’t be forced into too much too soon.
When it comes to off ball linebacker, Todd Davis and Josey Jewell currently look set at the starting spots. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Hollins could enter the mix, but there’s definitely an opportunity to make an impression.
Could Malik Reed?
When I’ve watched Reed’s tape, he looks exactly how I’d expect an edge rusher to look in his first season playing off the ball. He has a very quick first step and does a good job of deking out blockers to dip and bend the edge. Reed does not possess a lot in terms of hand moves, and with his arm length (only 31”), it may be too much to ask for.
Nevada moved Reed around as a chess piece a lot in 2018. He was used off both edges and as a true off ball player. In pursuit, he will get caught in trash and need to improve upon this at the next level. He does put forth an admirable effort to chase down plays. While a 4.8 40 time isn’t going to wow you in the middle of draft season, he’s fast enough in pads to force stops. That said, he still shined the most coming off the edge in 2018 where he can beat opponents with his first step and pressure the passer. In this regard he looks like a natural, albeit one with notable physical limitations.
I looked at Vic Fangio’s defensive players the last 3 seasons and the one who most closely resembles Reed is another undrafted player: Isiaiah Irving. Signed by the Bears after going undrafted in 2017, he found his way to playing time just last season. Like Reed, Irving came out of school a defensive end who lacked the kind of length you hope for. He saw most of his defensive snaps in relief of Mack.
Reed was more productive at Nevada than Irving at San Jose State, finishing his career with twice as many sacks (22 to 11) and 16 more tackles for loss. Reed also chipped in 11 forced fumbles, or 10 more than Irving did.
With that in mind, Reed is an inch shorter and 15 lbs lighter than Irvin. His tape suggests he won’t survive as a pure edge rusher in the league and will need to be a situational rusher who provides depth as a true linebacker if he’s to make it on defense. That means he’ll need to play off the ball and cover.
I found that he does look a bit out of sorts when asked to drop into space and run with pass catchers. It’s not for lack of trying, and he should get better at this with more reps and comfort. In time, if Fangio asks him to cover short zones, he could be okay. His short area (6.89 3 cone, 4.35 short shuttle) quickness isn’t bad.
At present, Reed’s NFL ceiling looks like something resembling Nick Kwiatkoski, the Bears 2016 4th rounder pick. The former Mountaineer was a high school safety who bulked up to play linebacker at West Virginia. As such, he was a bit more comfortable in space as he entered the league, but had similar limitations against blockers. In 2017, he played well enough to get some hype from places like Pro Football Focus for his ability to rush the passer. In 2018, he was eventually supplanted by Roquan Smith. If Reed can grow into a player who’s a strong situational rusher, capable tackler, and adequate in space, it would be a huge boon for the Broncos defense.
Luckily, Reeds enters the NFL at a time when nickel personnel and hybrid defenders are more valuable than ever. A former team captain, all reports suggest Reed is a hard worker. He was rewarded with the Wolf Pack’s Co-MVP following his Senior season. He chose a coaching staff renowned for making the most out of linebacker prospects, and the Broncos need depth at both the inside and outside linebacker spots.
It certainly looks like he’ll have every opportunity to prove he belongs.