The Broncos’ off ball linebackers were a reliably solid unit in 2020. Alexander Johnson saw his role expand to take on more blitzing as Fangio adjusted to life without Von Miller. Josey Jewell stepped into the void when Todd Davis was released in September and overperformed expectations.
Together with the safeties, the duo served as the most consistent part of the Broncos’ defense as they combined to play more than 1900 snaps.
Both Jewell and Johnson return for 2021 with contracts that expire after the season. Questions about their futures as well as John Elway’s attempt to acquire Patrick Queen in the 2020 draft does mean there’s a real possibility George Paton is looking for a dynamic three down linebacker.
Is Baron Browning the Broncos’ next star in the middle?
Could make a strong case @OhioStateFB Baron Browning (6031v, 241v, 33 arm, 81 wing) is highest ceiling OLB in 2021 draft. Potential do-it-all ‘backer stood out as edge-setter, rusher, & dropper at @seniorbowl. NFL teams see him as Day 1 starting SAM. #TheDraftStartsInMobile pic.twitter.com/rd46mDwjbz— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 20, 2021
At a glance
Talent has never been the question for Baron Browning, but it’s easy to look at his gifts and wonder why he didn’t make a bigger impact for the Buckeyes.
Rival’s 9th ranked recruit in the 2017 high school class found his way to the field as a true freshman and played in 43 career games during his time at Ohio State, but only made 10 starts during his career.
Baron Browning is a LB prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.98 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 5 out of 2118 LB from 1987 to 2021.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 30, 2021
Splits projected, times unofficial.https://t.co/9u2aj8ZlSN #RAS pic.twitter.com/teVgAT1x01
Why he fits the Broncos
- Started 10 of 43 games with experience at Mike, Will, and Sam in the OSU defense. He also saw playing time as a situational edge rusher.
- In 2020 he shifted from more comfortable outside role to Mike because of injury to a teammate.
- Very good athletic ability, explosiveness, long speed, with good lateral quickness.
- Good competitive toughness. His motor runs hot, which makes him a threat until the whistle.
- Good play strength shows up when he’s asked to attack the line of scrimmage or uses his length to shed opposing blockers.
- Solid between the tackles with the length, strength, and explosiveness to become elite if he can improve at reading the action on the fly. When he reads the play, he’s shown he can be very good at ripping through holes into the backfield, leveraging gaps, and stacking a blocker.
- Very good against outside runs, as his burst allows him to eat up space on his way to the ball carrier. Could become a sideline-to-sideline missile if he can do a better job sifting through trash and shedding bodies.
- He’s a very good tackler with the long arms, grip strength, and explosiveness to prevent leakage after contact.
- Good in zone coverage and can quickly gain depth, he shows the fluidity in space to be a nuisance with his ability to break on the ball. He’s shown a willingness to obstruct receivers and could inflict pain in the contact window.
- Good in man coverage with the frame and mobility to stick with backs and tight ends at the next level.
- Good ball skills. He’ll go up and battle at the catch point.
- He’s a very good blitzer with the explosiveness, short area mobility, and length to threaten from inside or outside the tackle box.
If the Broncos are looking for a backer who can contribute as a pass rusher, Baron Browning will intrigue. pic.twitter.com/nR6hYTanN7— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 28, 2021
Reasons for concern
- Surgery for shoulder labrum prior to 2017 season.
- Recruiter left nine days after he committed to OSU which hurt plans to maximize him during collegiate career. A projection into a 3-4 defense after he never found a real home position with the Buckeyes.
- Rotational piece for much of his career and saw less time against heavier personnel sets.
- Mental processing is adequate. There’s flashes of what he could be if he does a better job anticipating and reading the opponent but he’s too often reactionary. These issues haunt Browning’s tape and lead to moments of hesitation in the passing game and run game. I do wonder if the lack of a true home during his collegiate career hurt him here.
- Needs to do a better job consistently using his length to protect himself and shed blocks.
- He doesn’t have the ankle flexion to play a true edge role in the NFL and it will take effort by his play caller to make the most of his talents as a pass rusher.
- He may be best utilized in a very defined role which puts an onus on the coaching staff. Usage may always be a huge question about him.
What I’ve seen / heard / read
“He chose Ohio State and despite never having the production that’s expected out of a 5-star recruit, he really took a step forward in 2019 with 43 tackles and 5 sacks. The combination of size and speed that he possesses is impressive. He’s got the ability to sink and flip his hips when dropping into coverage. Beyond that, he matched up well against tight ends at the Senior Bowl. There’s a chance that he plays the role of a WILL but he’s got the ability to play off-the-edge and rush the passer. Keep tabs on his name for the second day of the draft.”
“Browning has played both Mike and Will linebacker in his career, but his combination of size and athleticism will give him a higher ceiling as a Mike. playing inside a 3-4 defense will allow him to show his best traits in both areas. His playing time at Ohio State has been up and down due to his inconsistencies against the run, but he showed improvement as a true three-down player in 2020. His coverage abilities are better suited as a Mike, as the added responsibilities as a space backer could expose some weaknesses. He has a great skill set and just needs to further develop is instincts to match his raw athleticism. Additionally, he should be a force on special teams.”
“Baron Browning is a very good athlete with burst, tackling ability, and a high motor, but he will need to improve on the mental aspects of the game and develop more strength at the point of attack. He projects best as a three down Will linebacker who can contribute in a multitude of ways.”
Watching Browning can be a frustrating exercise, as you keep waiting for all the physical tools to match up with better instincts and feel for the game. He’s experienced at both Mike and Sam spots for the Buckeyes with the ability to cover, rush and step downhill against the run. He has very good speed and keeps the motor running, but he’s late out of the driveway due to a lack of play recognition and anticipation. More often than not, he plays what is in front of him rather than staying ahead of the play, so he becomes more of a background player than solo star. Based upon size and traits, Browning might be in consideration as a backup 3-4 outside linebacker and core special teams player with rush and coverage potential.
Baron Browning is an enticing prospect when accounting for his dynamic athletic profile and flashes of production via splash plays throughout the course of his career at Ohio State. Browning has all of the physical skills needed to be a standout starter at the pro game, but his irregular play across multiple spots in the linebacker group during his time in Columbus has left some irregularities and inconsistencies in his game. With that in mind, Browning finished his career with excellent play down the stretch with the Buckeyes and his role in coverage. Browning should shine in a familiar role at the pro level; illustrating the needed discipline in zone coverage drops and as a pressure player in blitz scenarios for a team looking to boost their mid-level defense.
Browning flashed dominance and potential as the next great linebacker to come from Ohio State during his sophomore season, but he never truly elevated his game or consistently played at a high level. He possesses the athleticism and versatility to be used at a multitude of linebacker positions in a multitude of defensive schemes, but he must brush his instincts and play to his ceiling on every snap.
Browning will not be for everyone. If you want a vanilla 4-3 WILL linebacker, you’re going to be dramatically selling his value and ceiling short—and while Browning has admirable rally skills to the football, his impact plays will need to come with a more diverse usage than simply playing him off the ball and telling him to go find it.
Is Browning for your favorite team? That depends. Do you run a lot of three-deep zone coverage? Do you offer a high blitz rate to your defense? Are you in need of an early-down linebacker who can stay on the field on third downs? (That last one should be yes for everyone, by the way.) If so, then yes, Browning is probably going to be on your favorite team’s radar.
Ohio State’s Baron Browning Shifting to “Natural Position” of Outside Linebacker As Senior Year Spring Practices Begin | Eleven Warriors
Luke Fickell wanted Browning to become the next great outside linebacker in Columbus, and he bought in. Yet when Fickell left to become Cincinnati’s head coach, Browning got moved to middle linebacker. He spent two years there under Billy Davis and remained at Mike when Al Washington took over the position group last year. But as Browning enters his final spring practices as a Buckeye, he says the coaches now have him focusing on playing outside linebacker. “I feel like that’s more my natural position I played in high school, so it’s something I feel comfortable doing and I’m excited for it,” Browning said.
Ohio State pro day highlights, including a money throw and a dazzling 40-yard time from Justin Fields – The Athletic
“I think teams know about my versatility, but they want to verify what I can do testing-wise,” Browning said. “It helps because it doesn’t put me in a box. I have flexibility. I think that’s why a lot of teams like what they see in me.”
Others believe he could play defensive end, as he offers enough size at a touch above 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds. Browning expressed openness to learning a new position on the defensive line. “I haven’t done it, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” Browning said. “There’s nothing I can’t do. I would enjoy the new challenge.”
The Broncos currently employ one of the best linebacker coaches in the league in Vic Fangio, which leaves me very keen on the idea of Baron Browning. Given the athletic tools and positional flexibility, it’s exciting to imagine what the Broncos could unlock.
I'd rather take Baron Browning on Day 2 than Micah Parsons on Day 1— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 25, 2021