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GIF Horse: Did the Broncos steal Kenny Young from the Rams?

Why did the Rams give up their starting linebacker for so little?

Detroit Lions v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

On Monday the banged up Broncos sent a 2024 sixth round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for linebacker Kenny Young and a 2024 seventh round pick. The trade is a curious one for both clubs. The Rams are on the short list of Super Bowl contenders in the NFC, which raises questions about the motivation behind a cap cutting maneuver. Does $1.3 million in cap relief justify weakening the middle of their defense? The Broncos look like they’re circling the drain after their fourth straight loss, which makes any move to acquire yet another expiring contract peculiar. Will Kenny Young solve their issues in the linebacker corps. in time to make the playoffs?

Kenny Young was being phased out of the Rams defense

After starting six games for the Brandon Staley Rams in 2020, Kenny Young looked like the reliable veteran early this season. He played almost every snap in three of the Rams first four games, racking up 20 tackles and a sack along the way. For a former fourth round pick who the Baltimore Ravens gave up in the Marcus Peters trade, things were looking up.

Over the last three games, however, Young’s role began to diminish. After LA’s 37-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals he began to lose playing time as the Rams mixed in a heavy dose of dime and their 3-3-5 personnel. In LA’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks Young played 10 less snaps than Troy Reeder, a 2019 undrafted free agent who brought more heft between the tackles. In week six he found himself in a rotation with both Reeder and Ernest Jones, who the Rams acquired with the 103rd pick of the 2021 draft. Things became even more extreme in the week seven victory over the Detroit Lions when Young only played 55% of the defensive snaps.

No one seemed to notice at the time, but the writing was on the wall.

The Rams use off ball linebackers less than the average 3-4 base defense.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down

Denver was down bad at linebacker

After season ending injuries to Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, the Broncos entered their Thursday night contest against the Cleveland Browns in desperate straits. Former fifth round pick Justin Strnad made the fifth start of his NFL career beside former Rams practice squad backer Micah Kiser. It was an abject disaster from the opening drive, one made worse after nine snaps when Kiser’s groin injury forced undrafted rookie Curtis Robinson into his first NFL action.

Kiser joined Jewell and Johnson on Injured Reserve after the game, which meant the Broncos’ depth chart was down to Strnad, Robinson, and practice squad backer Barrington Wade ahead of their week eight matchup with the Washington Football Team. If Baron Browning was cleared to play after his concussion, he could become a factor, but counting on a 2021 third round pick to make a significant impact after he missed the lion’s share of OTAs, training camp reeked of desperation.

So George Paton made a call to Les Snead and gave the Rams a way to turn an expiring contract into cap relief.

What does Kenny Young bring to the Broncos?

Young is a 4th year player who has started 19 of 53 games played in his NFL career. Over his time in the league, he’s played under three different defensive coordinators, including Brandon Staley, who’s defensive system has significant overlap with the Broncos defense under Vic Fangio. Standing 6’1” and weighing 236 lbs., Young is a good athlete. His arm length meets the baseline threshold for an inside linebacker and he combines it with good foot quickness, lateral mobility, and top end speed. He displays solid explosiveness and balance for the position.

Young displays solid mental processing throughout the tape studied, as he appears to recognize offensive tendencies pre-snap and does a good job sharing what he sees across the defense, making him a reliable communication hub in the middle of the defense. He displays patience to sniff out the ball post-snap, trusting he has the athleticism to scrape over the top or fall into his pass responsibility without issue. Young displays solid competitive toughness with his down to down consistency along with the kind of short memory that prevents mistakes from snowballing on him.

Young is at his best as a run defender when he can chase plays down in pursuit. He does a good job against outside zone away from him as he’ll hold down his gap until he no longer needs to before getting on his horse to run to the ball carrier. Young also displays the discipline to play to his help, funneling the ball to other defenders if he can’t make the tackle himself. Young is a solid tackler who tends drop his hips to make a sound tackle when the back is running right at him, and doesn’t abandon pursuit if he’s the second player to the ball. He will join in the action to deliver a blow.

Coverage is an area where Young’s strengths are on full display. He is solid in zone coverage with the easy hip fluidity to get depth on his drops and while doing so he does a good job eyeing both the quarterback and receiver. He will leverage space to close off easy completions to his assignment and has the trigger to make a break on the ball. He is solid in man coverage with the ability to match and mirror most tight ends and running backs wherever they go. He also looks capable of sticking on slot receivers who do not possess very good or elite athleticism with minimal trouble in the short and intermediate areas of the field.

Young does not come without his faults. His adequate play strength limits his ability to stack and shed blocks and leads to giving ground against downblocks at the point of attack. In the film studied he occasionally skips under a block instead of defeating it. All signs suggest he will concede leakage when he tackles burlier backs such as Antonio Gibson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Josh Jacobs.

While Young is a solid in pass coverage, he is not as strong as his physical skillset would suggest. There are instances where he will misread an opponents route and concede open targets. He does not have the ferocity to dislodge a catch once it reaches a defenders frame with any sort of consistency. There are also instances where he will mistime his break to undercut a receiver, which leaves him out of position to make the tackle after the catch is secure.

Lastly, Young is not going to make anyone in Broncos Country forget about Alexander Johnson as a blitzer. He lacks the pop in his pads and the heavy hands to create wins against backs during their blitz pick up. His production as a pass rusher comes from scheme and hustle.

Did George Paton steal Kenny Young?

In a word, no.

Across the three games I studied Young, he looks like a replacement level linebacker. One who has a better reputation than film in part because he’s the kind of toolsy sideline to sideline player who stirs casual observers’ imagination.

The Rams parted with him in order to create cap space and an opportunity for other players who have a long term future with their team, and did so for minimal benefit because Young does not provide anything to Los Angeles they can’t replace with their remaining personnel. Troy Reeder and Ernest Jones are better run defenders at the point of attack and leaning into more six DB sets would bring better coverage players onto the field. The fact Young is a better athlete than Reeder or Jones is notable, but the front office and coaching staff surely decided his remaining cap hit is too onerous to justify.

This isn’t to say Kenny Young is a bad addition for the Broncos defense. For a roster desperately clinging to any last semblance of hope at the postseason, he should seize a significant role and it will be disappointing if he doesn’t make a noticeable impact immediately. While there’s little chance he actually solves the ongoing issues at the second level, he looks like a huge upgrade over Curtis Robinson and Micah Kiser. If he can pick up the different verbiage in the Fangio system quickly enough, he could prove himself as a better player than Justin Strnad.

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