Early on in the season, Denver Broncos’ GM George Paton made a trade that flew under plenty of radars when he traded for linebacker Jonas Griffith from the San Francisco 49ers. A UDFA out of the 2020 class, Griffith had spent time on the Colts and 49ers’ practice squads.
Griffith attended Indiana State, where he recorded 382 tackles. 50 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions during his career. He was named a first-team All-Mountain Valley Football Conference player in 2019.
Griffith led the 49ers in special teams tackles. It was for that reason why Paton decided to make the trade for him, as the Broncos’ special teams' woes are well-documented at this point. I doubt they thought he would have to be a contributor on defense at any point this season.
However, injuries have snakebitten the linebacker position for the Broncos this season. Griffith was the seventh(!) linebacker to start for Denver this season. It’s not been pretty (look at the games against Cleveland and Philadelphia-two teams whose best offense has been running the ball) as an example.
While Baron Browning has stepped up and shined in his role as LB1, the LB2 spot has been a mixed bag. Kenny Young has flashed in coverage and in run defense, but he’s also been burned a few times and his physicality (or lack thereof) has cost him against the run.
However, Kenny Young was hurt against Detroit with a concussion. That opened up the door for Jonas Griffith to step in and fill in against the Lions and this past week against the Bengals. As time had gone on, it had begun to feel like Jonas Griffith had passed 2020 5th-round pick Justin Strnad on the depth chart, and that was evident as the staff handed the keys over to him post-Young injury.
He played well! In fact, I’d dare to say he played very well, given the very low expectations many had going into the game.
Griffith got 47 snaps as the LB2 and graded out fairly well. PFF graded him with a total grade of 81.4, with a 90.1 in coverage. I was pleasantly surprised by his tape. He played well against the run and made some good plays in coverage to the point where I’m very intrigued to see how he keeps it up moving forward.
Nice chasedown of Mixon by Jonas Griffith after shifting from the motion. Go make a play! pic.twitter.com/FkW0n9fjpS— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 21, 2021
He flashed plenty of reps like that one against the Bengals, and PFF recorded Griffith with a team-leading 7 stops against the Bengals. Griffith didn’t miss a single tackle either.
The coverage reps from Griffith weren’t perhaps anything to write home about on film, but it’s important to note that Griffith was targeted the most of any Denver defender with six. He responded by allowing just 4 catches for 13 yards. Note: on pretty much all of these he wasn’t step-for-step with the receiver and allowed a catch to him like a DB, he was just the nearest defender.
2 targets went to WR Tyler Boyd, another 2 to TE CJ Uzomah, and then one each to RB Joe Mixon and WR Ja’Marr Chase. The longest pass against Griffith went for 4 yards. His tackling was a big reason why the Bengals had a tough time breaking big plays through the air.
What does it mean long-term?
This article is meant to praise Griffith’s showing against the Bengals, and there’s not much more to read into than that. He played very well when called upon and showed some encouraging signs moving forward. It’ll be interesting to see how the staff handles him with Kenny Young coming back into the fold soon. Personally, I’d let Griffith build on what he showed and see how he does moving forward. We know what Kenny Young is at this point.
There is an important long-term lesson to potentially take away from this. Baron Browning, the team’s star linebacker, was the last pick in the third round. Josey Jewell was a 4th-round pick. Alexander Johnson an undrafted free agent. The Broncos picked up Jonas Griffith and Kenny Young for dirt cheap Day 3 picks.
What am I getting at? We’re potentially seeing how the George Paton-led front office values linebackers. Could that be a byproduct of the Fangio defense? Potentially. It could also be a hint at where the front office places its value the most. After all, we already know Paton’s views on defensive backs after the Patrick Surtain II pick. He spent two picks on safeties with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson already on the roster. Paton drafted Kary Vincent despite having a loaded corner room at the time, and then flipped him for a 2022 pick later on.
With Browning emerging, and one of Jewell/Johnson likely to be re-signed, linebacker suddenly doesn’t feel like it’s a pressing need for the Broncos. Where does that leave Jonas Griffith? Fortunately for Denver, Griffith is a ERFA after this season. In case you don’t know what that means, Griffith is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent. What that means is that he has less than 3 accrued seasons in the NFL.
“Any player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. If his original team offers him a one-year contract at the league minimum (based on his credited seasons), the player cannot negotiate with other teams.”
Essentially, if Denver wants him to stick around, they can keep him for at least another year for pretty cheap.
If he keeps building off of performances like the one he had against Cincinnati, Paton might have just struck again with this under-the-radar trade.