It turns out when Vic Fangio expressed his desire to upgrade the range and versatility of his nickel and dime personnel at the NFL Combine, he really meant it. In adding Mark Barron the defense will have a former safety turned backer. His range and athleticism will be a noticeable upgrade on Josey Jewell, Todd Davis, and Alexander Johnson’s.
This alone will not make him an upgrade on the current roster. Joining the team this late in training camp puts Mark Barron behind the curve on learning the playbook. It’s a major concern, as Fangio’s defense asks a lot from the backers. Just ask Corey Nelson. Last year he went from a camp cut by the Eagles to the Broncos starting lineup in a week to predictable results.
Serious question: why is Corey Nelson (56) starting for the #Broncos over Alexander Johnson? pic.twitter.com/FAI5fyDl0H— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 11, 2019
Why sign Mark Barron, then?
On last week’s Cover 2 Broncos KOA’s Ryan Edwards told me and Jeff Essary that Josey Jewell had become a bit of a punching bag. The offense made a point to find ways to isolate and attack the former Hawkeye in space. With weapons like Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Jerry Jeudy, that’s easy to do. So it isn’t damning for Jewell to have issues against the Broncos’ pass catchers.
What had to scare Fangio in light of Justin Strnad’s injury is how close Jewell was to playing significant snaps against teams like the Chiefs and Raiders. As it stands, if Todd Davis’ calf injury lingers into the season he may play critical downs against the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This won't be a popular tweet, but Josey Jewell is a bit of a liability in coverage. #DENvsLAC pic.twitter.com/c05YuWPrcu— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 18, 2018
The hope has to be Barron can get up to speed fast enough to play coverage downs if Davis needs to work up to speed or simply can’t suit up. I’m still in the process of finishing my own tape study for Barron due to a family trip this weekend, but it’s easy to see how Fangio could weaponize his range as Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler did.
One thing I can’t help but mention about this signing is how it points to the Broncos’ future at the linebacker position. After all, Mark Barron fits the kind of skill set of every other backer the Broncos kicked the tires on this past offseason.
Before Free Agency, NFL Insider Benjamin Allbright said the Broncos had interest in Joe Schobert. A former Edge player turned off ball backer, the former Brown was strong in coverage but lacking as a run defender. Ultimately, his price became too high and the Broncos’ moved on.
Elway confirmed that the Broncos tried to trade back into the first round of the NFL Draft.
First of all, we did try to get back in the back end and there wasn’t—people didn’t want to fall back as far as we were, so we couldn’t get back in. There was some attempt to get back in, but we were unable to do it. We’re happy with where we are. We still have four picks tomorrow, so we’ll see how things go.
If the Broncos were going after Patrick Queen as suspected, he’d be another linebacker who moves through space like a defensive back. What made the former LSU such an intriguing target was how good he also looked against the run. Alas, the Baltimore Ravens drafted him at 28.
Through the early days of camp Justin Strnad began getting rave reviews and quickly ascended to the second team reps. When the rookie went down for the season, DNVR’s Andrew Mason provided insight into how the Broncos had been using him in his first camp.
Strnad had also been doing some good work in the box & as a sub-package blitzer in practice, showing signs that he could eventually develop into an every-down LB, and not just a sub-package coverage specialist. (2/2)— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 24, 2020
Losing rookie Justin Strnad to a season ending injury confirmed what may have always been inevitable. The Broncos will make linebacker a priority in the 2021 offseason.
Linebacker is a big 2021 need
There’s little doubt the Mark Barron signing is an admission of failure with the current backups behind Josey Jewell. Last week Fangio said he was looking for a guy he didn’t need to worry about at inside linebacker. Looking. He hadn’t found him yet.
That goes for everybody really. Joe’s been here long enough now. He ought to be getting closer to that. Hollins just got put back there. He needs a couple days before we start drawing any conclusions. Who was the other guy you brought up? Josh has been out there every day. He’s doing well. Josh’s just got to learn the defense better. I think inside linebacker—and when I say learn it better, not his assignments but just the execution after the ball is snapped. Inside linebacker in any system is on the hardest positions to master. There’s a lot of stuff going on quickly that you have to dissect and show up in the right places. He’s a work in progress right now in that regard.”
The Broncos may be able to practice patience with any backup backer they’re intrigued by due in part to the new Practice Squad rules, but if Fangio is still worried about them it can’t bode well for their future. Barron makes it obvious he felt a need to find someone to start in the meantime, if nothing else.
Questions even hang around the starters. Both Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson are playing out the last year of their contracts in 2020. Odds are only Johnson will return in 2021.
Davis is better in space than his biggest detractors believe, but coverage will never be the strength of his game. While his ability to read the field and lateral quickness help Davis overcome his lack of long speed on most plays against most teams, he’s a glaring weak link against the Kansas City Chiefs.
This past spring makes it clear Fangio wants to add more range to the second level of his defense. Justin Strnad could still be the answer, but no one really knows. What’s clear is after two years that ended in injury make it foolish to count on the fifth round pick alone for answers.
Covid-19 means Micah Parsons has fallen out of the public eye for a year. Without a Big Ten schedule, he has no games to play. Remember his name for the spring. Write it down now.
Alabama’s Dylan Moses is one to watch. He was touted as a top linebacker prospect for the 2020 draft only to see his junior season end with an ACL injury. The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid called him a “Supremely unique athlete at the position.”
There’s also players like UNC’s Chazz Surratt and Georgia’s Monty Rice in this year’s class. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame also intrigues. While linebacker wasn’t considered a strength of the 2020 Draft, it looks as though that shouldn’t be the case in 2021. The Broncos would be foolish to ignore it.