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Here’s how the Broncos could address the inside linebacker position this offseason

The Denver Broncos inside linebacker group was a steady force on defense. Should they stick with who they have going into next season or make some drastic changes?

NFL: Denver Broncos-Training Camp Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The inside linebacker position group is how we’ll close out the week here on Mile High Report. We’ve covered the secondary in the first two posts here, so we’ll continue working towards to the trenches on defense early next week before heading over to the offensive side of the ball.

We are really enjoying this series of posts and I hope you all are as well. I think the discussion and debate in the comments section is really helping us look at all of the angles within each position group as we near the start of free agency. At the end of all this series of posts, we’ll take a look at the whole picture and analyze what new Denver Broncos General Manager, George Paton, could do to field a competitive team this season and beyond.

Broncos inside linebacker position group

Player Position Height Weight Age Contract Status
Player Position Height Weight Age Contract Status
Calitro, Austin ILB 6' 01" 239 27 RFA
Jewell, Josey ILB 6' 01" 234 26 Signed through 2021
Johnson, Alexander ILB 6' 02" 244 29 RFA
Watson, Josh ILB 6' 01" 236 24 Signed through 2021
Jones, Joseph ILB 6' 01" 235 26 UFA
Strnad, Justin OLB 6' 03" 238 24 Signed through 2023

Tim Lynch: With Alexander Johnson a restricted free agent in 2020, the team should tender him no higher than a second round. They might even want to go the C.J. Anderson route and decide if they want to match an offer instead.

I also think they can resign special teamer Joe Jones to a veteran minimum type deal, but he is probably replaceable. Josey Jewell really impressed me last season with his awareness, but his lack of athleticism is a liability at times.

This is a position group that needs to be addressed in the NFL Draft. Are there any guys out there that you two think Denver should target outside of the first round?

Joe Rowles: When I looked at the Vikings history since George Paton joined the organization in 2007 they drafted the vast majority of their backers on Day 3. The two big exceptions were Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr.

As of yet I haven’t gotten to the late round guys but I would bet that’s something the new boss starts to do over the next couple years to try and build up the depth at the position. I have watched some Micah Parsons though, and while I think he may be an odd fit if the Broncos want to pair Johnson with a Patrick Queen type he is one of the better edge defenders in this class and also a standout run defender.

Scotty Payne: I think the Broncos are OKAY at the off the ball linebacker position. Alexander Johnson is an RFA who should be back at a reasonable price and Josey Jewell was a pleasant surprise this year as well. Not a great unit, but definitely serviceable.

I would expect some more athleticism to be added to the group. They nearly did trade back into the first round of the 2020 draft for Patrick Queen but instead drafted Justin Strnad later in the draft. He ended up missing the entire season so we’ll see if he can compete this offseason.

A thing to keep in mind is that Johnson turns 30 in December so he isn’t a long-term answer at ILB and while Jewell played well, his athletic limitations will always hold him back from being anything more than he currently is. So adding a sideline to sideline guy with elite foot speed should be a priority.

Micah Parsons at 9 is always an option. If not, Jeremiah Owusu-Kowmoah would give the Broncos a more modern day off the ball athlete for Vic Fangio. I’m a big Nick Bolton fan as well. I think we’ll see another young guy added but how early will be the question.

Joe: One thing I’m really curious to see is how important last year’s LB usage is to this year’s offseason. When Von Miller went down Fangio adjusted by blitzing his backers more. In 2019 Johnson blitzed 50 times in 12 games according to PFR’s charting. Last year he hit 115. Jewell was also sent 58 times.

Scotty: I would like to see the Broncos get faster and more versatile. Jeremiah Owusu-Kowmoah is a favorite of mine for that very reason. He can even potentially play the box safety role in certain sub packages. It would give Fangio an athletic chess piece on defense.

Joe: Owusu-Kowmoah would be intriguing for a number of reasons. Like Isaiah Simmons last year, I have questions about his ability to play in the box as a real linebacker in the Fangio defense. With Notre Dame his best plays happen when he’s running in space around the second level or playing as an overhang. The closest position fit for these strengths in the Broncos’ current defensive scheme is their nickel.

If Paton drafted Owusu-KoramoahI don’t know how he plays in this defense. The Broncos base out of a 2 high structure with their safety, so it isn’t a clean fit. Maybe if the long term plan is to move back to a defense that features a box safety.

Scotty: He’s not a traditional linebacker, but we need to start adding some new-age LBs into the mix. We have seen smaller backers make that transition recently as well. Darius Leonard and Deion Jones are two recent names I think of when I watch JOK. Patrick Queen whom they were interested in last year is another. Get JOK around 225-230 and I think he’ll be fine.

Parsons obviously is another. He gives you edge/LB versatility, but he’s an opt out guy, so we will have to see how much that throws a wrench into everything. The tools and size are all there though.

Joe: Oh I’m all for chasing a hybrid. I just wonder about how important a player’s run defense is going to be in that evaluation because most of these new age guys don’t play the same type of backer role that the Broncos utilize right now. That’s all.

Scotty: I gotcha. Fangio looks for a more traditional LB but with more and more time spent in sub-packages, JOK could be a standout on defense for awhile. Now comes the million dollar question... Is an off the ball LB worth a top 9 pick? Value and history says no.

Tim: Yeah, I am not a big fan of that option with the ninth overall pick. For a Top 10 pick on defense, I look at cornerbacks and edge rushers in that range. If the plan is to go defense in the first round and those two position groups aren’t the route you intend to go, then trade back and stockpile picks.

Joe: That’s one thing I keep asking myself with Micah Parsons. He’s technically a linebacker. But he was recruited to Penn State as an edge. Does George Paton see shades of Anthony Barr and take him at 9?

What I would do

I would stand pat at the position. Bring back Jewell and Johnson as the starters, but draft a guy to develop behind them in 2021. If they target a first round linebacker, I’d very much like to see them trade back from the ninth overall pick in that situation. Ideally, we’re talking about a Day 2 type pick there. I am totally comfortable rolling with the Jewell/Johnson combo next season, but the depth behind them is definitely a concern.

What do you think the Broncos should do with their inside linebacker situation? Let us know in the comments section below. And that’s it for this week. Be back with this series of posts on Monday!