One of the notable bombshells from the NFL Combine was that while John Elway would pick up Todd Davis’ option, the plan is to upgrade the linebacker corps.
For many in Broncos’ Country this was a relief. Davis has been oft criticized for his slow feet and blamed for any and all issues the defense has had with tight ends over the last three seasons. While I do not believe this to be true, his athletic limitations do force some scheme adjustments that Fangio probably would like to solve in the near future.
Fortunately, there are a number of linebacker prospects in this class that could fit the bill as future Broncos. Keep in mind that what follows is not an exhaustive list so much as who I have seen thus far that strikes me as players to keep an eye on over the remainder of the lead up to the NFL Draft.
Also, I have to admit that I sit atop the shoulders of giants. I have limited access to college tape, so I’ve done quite a bit of digging through scouting reports by The Draft Network, PFF, Lance Zierlein, Dane Brugler, and Derrik Klassen in addition to what I’ve been able to dig up.
As always, the idea is to find the best fits for what I believe the Broncos want at the position. At linebacker this means an emphasis was placed on ability to stack and shed, play in coverage, and move through space. I’ve also tried to account for their future projection as well as what they’ll provide as rookies.
Without further ado:
Tier 1 - The lonely exception
As I mentioned on Cover 2 Broncos, generally speaking I do not like the opportunity cost of taking a linebacker in the first round over more important positions.
1. Patrick Queen - LSU
I have to admit that I’m a pretty bad college football fan. I don’t like watching bad quarterback play, so during the fall I tend to watch teams that aren’t hiding their passer. I also choose to watch games for draft reasons or because I really like the scheme a team uses on either side of the ball. In 2019 that meant I watched a lot of LSU, and so Patrick Queen forced his way onto my radar in the Texas game.
I was surprised to find I could draft him on Day 3 of The Draft Network’s Mock Machine, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to find him shoot his way up the board across the rest of the year. He won’t turn 21 until two days after my birthday in early August, and the arrow is clearly pointing up.
On the field he brings impressive mental processing for such a callow player. He moves like a safety through space and stands out for what he could offer the Broncos defense in coverage. Keep in mind that while the common narrative is Fangio is merely a zone coach, Todd Davis still found himself responsible for a slot receiver on about 100 snaps.
The big question about Queen for the Broncos is his ability to stack and shed. Ed Orgeron has said his run defense is the main reason he wasn’t a starter to open the year, and he’s better at slipping blocks than meeting them. I believe what he offers against the pass makes up for this weakness, but it is a big question and if Denver skips over him, that’s probably why.
Tier 2 - I like them.
Every football player has weaknesses, the following players bring some sort of notable question that makes Day 1 feel really rich. That said, with time they could be awesome.
2. Kenneth Murray - Oklahoma
It takes no special eye to notice how incredible Kenneth Murray looks running down plays to the boundary. The dude is a #@$in’ 240-pound rocket, and packs one heck of a punch when he lowers the boom on someone. All reports also suggest he is about as clean a prospect from a character perspective as you’re going to get in not just this class, but any. I suspect these two facts are the driving factors behind his top 20 hype. He looks the part and won’t embarrass your franchise.
He comes with some significant questions, however - namely reading plays. This is most notable when he’s forced to play in the box and respond to gap blocking schemes. He’s also been hidden in the passing game. Oklahoma routinely asked him to blitz, spy, or merely spot drop when they played in coverage. If you love his tape, you overlook that and say he’ll easily pick it up, but he’s late to anticipate receivers in his areas, and I wonder if he’ll ever be more than a liability there.
All told, the tools are good enough that if Elway pulls the trigger you have to hope Fangio can help him grow into what people hope for him. He’s a really fun player to watch, but there’s a very real possibility he’s always a better athlete than football player.
3. Zack Baun - Wisconsin
If you kept up with my draft ramblings last year, you’ll know I thought a lot of Justin Hollins and Malik Reed. Zach Baun is cut from a similar cloth, which makes him a bit of a tweener or hybrid. With the Badgers he played the vast majority of his snaps as an edge rusher, but his 32 3/4-inch arms and 238-pound frame and makes it entirely possible that he makes a move to off ball linebacker. I suspect with the right system and coaching staff, he’d be a darn good one.
Which brings us to the Broncos, where I think Fangio could take advantage of his ability to drop, rush, and play the edge in the short term while also turning him into a backer who can excel inside. From a philosophical point of view, the Broncos defense is built to play sound coverage and generate pressure with as few rushers as possible. This is a big reason why Fangio asked Von Miller to play more coverage last season. When opposing passers don’t know who’s coming or dropping, it creates confusion. Baun could be a weapon in this regard because he’s versatile enough to be deployed in a number of ways.
Admittedly I’ve gone back and forth between Baun and Murray for LB2 and LB3. I came out here because Murray is a cleaner fit into what Fangio asked his off ball backers to do over the tape I’ve watched of his scheme. I’d be just as excited for Baun, but it’s more projection, and it’ll take a bit more creativity to get the most out of his skillset. If Denver ran something like the Ravens’ defense he could threaten Queen.
4. Akeem Davis-Gaither - Appalachian State
If you’re looking for a linebacker who can wear a lot of hats for a defense, there’s very few who can do it better than ADG. According to PFF he logged 250+ snaps at slot corner, edge, and in the box last season. He even played a handful of snaps at safety and cornerback. Before you say “well he’s just a small school guy,” go check out his game against South Carolina. The dude can straight up ball.
There are a number of things that really stand out when you watch Davis-Gaither play. First and foremost, he has the kind of competitive toughness I want in future Broncos. Check out the game I linked above and you’ll see him come through in the clutch in a huge way. While he wasn’t able to work out at the Combine, his tape shows a player who has the lateral mobility and quickness to easily move through space. Combine that with his mental acuity and you get a clear idea of how he finds a way to influence the ball from all over the defense.
Even at 224 pounds, ADG finds a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks and displays good bend around the edge. I also found him to be a pleasant surprise in coverage, and he has the tools to grow into a useful defender in man as well as zone in the league.
When it comes to projecting him to the Broncos, I expect he’d need to put on a few pounds and get stronger to thrive in base personnel. Like Murray, he’ll need to do a better job of maintaining control in pursuit so he doesn’t overrun plays. Like Baun, the fact that he wasn’t used strictly as a backer in college means there’s some projecting involved as he enters the league.
But all told, he’s one of my favorite players in the 2020 NFL Draft.
5. Willie Gay Jr. - Mississippi State
If you told me three years from now that Willie Gay Jr. is on a Hall of Fame track and clearly the best linebacker from this class, I’d believe you.
If you told me three years from now that Willie Gay Jr. is out of the league, I’d believe you.
The Bulldog blew up the NFL Combine. There’s simply no other word for it, he put on a real show. The thing is, talent hasn’t even been the biggest issue. After all, he was considered the LB3 recruit coming out of high school and chose MSU over blue bloods like LSU and Michigan. The trouble began once he got to campus, and he wound up being suspended multiple times. My understanding is one of them was for cheating on a chemistry test, while the other is tied to punching his backup quarterback.
When he was able to reach the field, he showed the kind of promise that’s easy to fall in love with. He has stupid range, is a mean SOB to ball carriers, and flashes the kind of upside in coverage that will leave you drooling. The bigger questions aren’t surprising considering his lack of playtime: technique, consistent mental processing, and discipline.
All signs point to an early Day 2 pick for Gay, which implies he’s passed the interview process with flying colors. Coaches have a tendency to believe they can fix any prospect, and if Elway grabs him I’ll keep my fingers crossed. He has perhaps the highest ceiling in this class, but it’s no sure thing he reaches it.
6. Logan Wilson - Wyoming
Thanks to Caddy to the Lama, I had more access to Wilson’s tape than just about every backer on this list. I made a point to really focus on the games where he played against tough competition. The more I’ve dug into the rest of this class, the more I’ve liked it.
Wilson isn’t quite the freak athlete Murray is, but he’s no slouch in space. One thing that I really like about him is that he’s played a ton, and it shows in how quickly he can read and process information on the field. Unlike many of the players above him, he’s shown throughout his tape that he can stack and shed. He’s also reliable tackler and useful in zone coverage with the way he anticipates.
The biggest issues facing him is that he’ll need to play within himself a little better to avoid over pursuit, and his lateral mobility is closer to solid tan elite. He has the tools to be a solid option on backs and tight ends in man, but it’s a projection across how he was used in college and the jump in competition. A lot of his ball production came against trash can quarterbacks.
In the end, I like Wilson because he has a high floor and has the necessary traits to take over as LB3 very early on in his career. From there it comes down to what the Broncos plan for Davis and Alexander Johnson, but I have little doubt that he’d be an asset on coverage units and a rather large upgrade on Josey Jewell.
Tier 3 - Pick your poison
I’ve gone back and forth on the following three players. Each offers enticing traits, but bring a significant question or two that gives me pause.
7. Troy Dye - Oregon
If you’re looking for a linebacker who displays the potential to pick up and run with AFC West tight ends, you’ll probably like this Duck an awful lot. His high school career as a safety shows in his range and how he’s able to reliably make sound tackles in space. When he anticipates a block he has the length and punch to keep himself clean. He also displayed the grit to play through a broken hand as a senior.
For such an experienced player it’s a bit troubling that he’s so often late to process what’s happening. At Oregon he had enough athletic ability to make up for it more often than not, but it’ll be tougher to do in the league. He looks more like a safety than a linebacker, which could hurt him in the Broncos defense where he’d have to work through trash.
I’ve gone back and forth on Dye, and if this winds up too low on him so be it. In the end, I just can’t ignore that both Brugler and Zierline mentioned questions about his ability to work at his craft. That more than anything else knocked him down my board a little. One thing to keep in mind is the Fangio connection with Jim Leavitt, who coached both Dye and Hollins at Oregon. If Denver’s interested in the Duck, they’ll have all the access they’d want into his work ethic.
In the end, Dye could be a real weapon in the modern NFL. It’s harder to find players with the length and range to contribute like he does against the pass. When they’re good enough at it, you take the weaknesses without much complaint.
8. Malik Harrison - Ohio State
Let me start by saying I’m almost positive Harrison will go earlier than some of the guys above him. He fits the mold many teams look for in a linebacker because he’s big, strong, fast, and is rock solid against the run. In the league he should be able to help in the box by meeting blockers or shooting gaps, and has the straight line speed to chase plays to the perimeter.
I’m lower on him because like Kenneth Murray, he was hidden in coverage by pure spot drops, spying, or blitzing. Unlike Murray I also wonder about his lateral mobility, which makes it less likely that he can suddenly get coached up and turned into some sort of coverage player.
Considering that Fangio’s defense is held together with Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson in coverage, it wouldn’t be a death knell if the Broncos took Harrison as I do believe he’s more proven between the tackles than many of the players above him on my board. I just don’t think he can be more than a guy on passing downs and that doesn’t excite me in a league that throws more than 60% of the time.
9. Markus Bailey - Purdue
It doesn’t seem far fetched to guess no other linebacker in this group will be hurt more by the lack of medical checks than Bailey, who is recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee. More than once in the last month I’ve heard the national draft analysts mention how teams are somewhere between hesitant and adamantly opposed to using draft capital on players without their own medical grades. Perhaps Bailey’s checkup at the Combine is good enough, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if he falls a lot further than his tape suggests he should.
If Bailey can return to the form we last saw him at, he’d bring the kind of skillset that’s easy to fall in love with. He’s a quick processor who anticipates what opponents are trying to do and throws his body around with reckless abandon while still accomplishing his assignment. He’s also adept in coverage and was used out in the slot on opposing receivers, the Boilermaker’s coaching staff trusted him to hold up in space.
Any conversation with Bailey has to start with his knees because the most recent ACL is the second time he’s torn up a knee. He blew up the left one and redshirted his freshman season. Two serious soft tissue injuries in the lower body is a legitimate reason for pause with any prospect. Bailey is more solid than exceptional when it comes to his athleticism and ability to change directions, which leads to some reasonable fears about his leap into the pros.
A two time team captain and one of the leaders of the lunch pail crew, I like him a lot more than this ranking implies. At worst he offers the kind of character and reliable production Elway’s recently placed an emphasis on. Assuming the knees don’t derail him, I’d say his floor is solid backup and special teams contributor, ceiling is reliable starter you can win with.
10. Davion Taylor - Colorado
Upside is the name of the game when it comes to the Buffalos’ speedy linebacker. He’s one of the best players in space in this class and offers the kind of potential to grow into a real difference maker in coverage with the sideline to sideline range to erase issues on the second level like few others.
Problem is, his inexperience creeps into just about every other aspect of his game. He has one of the more peculiar routes I’ve ever seen a player take to the NFL, and because he played so little growing up, his ability to diagnose and anticipate are really inconsistent. On top of that he’s still figuring out how to take on blocks and form tackle. He’s also a bit undersized compared to what the Broncos currently have at linebacker, so the fit into base personnel may not be a perfect fit.
He’s the kind of speedy backer I user control in Madden because I can make them look like a superstar. He’s not the kind of player you’d trust the CPU to run with any degree of competency just yet. I got him here for a couple of reasons. A) Fangio’s made magic with toolsy backers in the past and the ceiling is quite intriguing. B) All reports suggest he’s an A+ kind of worker and character guy, which leaves you hoping he’d put in the work to improve.
In short: Early on he could be a special teams gunner who brings athleticism to the coverage units. If he develops he could be a rangy sub package backer who improves the pass defense.
Tier 4 - The other guys
The other linebackers I’ve dug into that look like they could make sense for the Broncos.
11. Jordyn Brooks - Texas Tech
Basically a poor man’s Kenneth Murray. Go back and read those weaknesses, you don’t overdraft a poor man’s Kenneth Murray.
12. Joe Bachie - Michigan State
With a little polish, this Spartan will be a warrior between the tackles and will need protection in coverage. Ideally, he’s a special teams contributor and depth backer.
13. Jordan Phillips - LSU
Has the athleticism and build to be a decent backup and special teams player. Will need to improve in coverage to be more than a liability on defense. I’d take a chance on Day 3.
14. Evan Weaver - Cal
Could sneak his way into the starting lineup because he has the mental makeup and attitude coaches will love, but ceiling is capped by athletic limitations.
15. Mychal Walker - Fresno State
Tweener with the twitch and type of mentality to make it as a special teamer. Anything more will depend upon his ability to get stronger and better at stacking blocks.
16. Justin Strnad - Wake Forest
Better than his measurables, but he’s a 24-year-old who looks better in space than the box. Broncos won’t be the best scheme for him if he’s going to be more than a special teamer.