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Broncos roster review: Rookie LB Justin Strnad

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Denver’s rookie alphabet soup continues with the talented 5th round linebacker out of Wake Forest.

After failing to trade back into the 1st round for ILB Patrick Queen, the Denver Broncos pivoted to other needs and other options, and 150 picks later Denver drafted Justin Strnad out of Wake Forest. Strnad joins fellow 5th round pick Justin Hollins as a potential future starter at ILB alongside Alexander Johnson.

#40 Justin Strnad

Age 23 Height: 6’3” Weight: 238 lbs.

College: Wake Forest

A four year player, two year starter for Wake Forest after redshirting his freshman year, Strnad collected 244 tackles, 147 of them solo, across 41 games. 22.5 of those tackles, nearly one in ten, was for a loss. He also notched 8.0 sacks in his college career to go with 4 interceptions (3 of them in 2017) and 10 pass defenses. A torn bicep unfortunately cut his final collegiate season short after 7 games. He and guard Netane Muti, whom Denver selected just 3 picks later, form an interesting roll of the dice by the Broncos: talented players who fell in the draft due to injuries that teams had little or no chance to evaluate.

The Good

Strnad is a rangy, fast inside linebacker who shares a trait common to many of Denver’s recent draft picks: great football character. He has a non-stop motor and a passion for the game, to go with a good football IQ.

His movement skills in space, motor, and football intelligence combine to make a player who’s comfortable in zone coverage and one who has a knack for cluttering up throwing lanes. Physically, he’s got most everything you want in a potential 3-down linebacker: great lateral mobility, fluid movement, and great pursuit.

That pursuit ability is particularly valuable for his potential to flow to the ball from the 2nd level of the defense and make tackles in the open field when the ball carrier has broken loose. Strnad also has a good enough first step and sharp enough acceleration to potentially carve a role for himself as a blitzer when the defense is trying to disguise its coverage.

The Bad

The first question mark with Strnad, and the reason he fell in the draft, is the torn bicep he suffered in 2019. While that’s an injury a player can certainly come back from, shedding blocks was already one of the weaker areas of Strnad’s game. He’ll need to prove that he can disengage and flow to the ball carrier against NFL competition.

The other big question mark for Strnad, one that makes him an unusual draft pick for a Fangio-coached team, is that while he’s an eager, even explosive tackler, he’s not really a very good tackler. He had more than his share of missed tackles in college, often due to poor or inconsistent technique. My guess is that Fangio saw his issues as ones that can be solved with some NFL coaching and time to season and develop.

The other note that may or may not be a talking point in Strnad’s career is that he’ll turn 24 a week or two before his first NFL game. He’s on the older end for a rookie, which really isn’t a problem for a 5th round pick, but which might bite him in the butt if he earns a 2nd contract someday.

Final Word

Justin Strnad, like Netane Muti, is an almost startlingly talented player to pick up in the final hundred picks of the draft. He has some legitimate starting talent if he can develop, and he’s coming into a good situation that will allow him to sit and learn behind Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson for a year while he rehabs. At which point, he’ll presumably compete with his fellow Justin to fill the role that Davis will very likely vacate after 2020. In the meantime, ST work may be important for him if he wants to be active on gameday. Josey Jewell, at this point, probably is not a factor in that conversation due to his athletic limitations.

If Strnad pans out, he’ll help Alexander Johnson continue a now longstanding tradition of great ILB play from Day 3 or undrafted players- a lineage that includes 2008 UDFA Wesley Woodyard, 2012 6th round pick Danny Trevathan, 2012 Jaguars 5th round pick and Broncos waiver-wire pickup Brandon Marshall, and 2014 UDFA and waiver-wire pickup Todd Davis.

Or Strnad may flame out. You never know for sure with any player, much less a day 3 pick who will start his career still rehabbing an injury. But even if he does flop, guys like Strnad are exactly the type of player you gamble on late in the draft, with no regret regardless of the outcome. If they don’t pan out, you haven’t lost much. But if they hit, the value they offer is incredible- even moreso with a guy as passionate and driven as Strnad.

To be honest, I approached this post ready to be down on Strnad, if only due to a lingering worry that we’ve overhyped our draft class a bit. A 5th round pick ought to be a convenient target for some tempering of expectations, but the more I read up on Strnad the harder that got. At pick 178, he’s practically the definition of low risk, potentially high reward.