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.
Could Cam McGrone develop into Fangio’s next star backer?
At a glance
The top ranked recruit from Indiana and top-25 overall, Cameron McGrone earned Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week honors for his work leading up to Michigan’s game with the Wisconsin Badgers his freshman year. He found his way to the middle of Don Brown’s defense as a 19-year-old sophomore and played in all 13 games to earn All Big Ten honorable mention with his 66 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 19 pressures, and three and a half sacks.
Playing through pain during the 2020 campaign did not prevent him from suiting up for five of the Wolverines’ six games.
Broncos fans should keep an eye on Michigan LB Cameron McGrone. pic.twitter.com/JPjH61Oi41— . . (@JRDrafts) October 21, 2020
Why he fits the Broncos
- Started 15 of 19 games at Mike linebacker in Michigan’s 4-3 defense.
- Won’t turn 21 until June, so his best football should be ahead of him.
- Very good athlete with good lateral mobility, agility, and very good explosiveness.
- Good competitive toughness shows through his motor and willingness to play through pain. Shows signs that he could be a central hub for a defense with how he communicates.
- Shows a knack for anticipating and quickly diagnosing run plays.
- He’s a natural gap shooter who will press creases to work his way to the ball.
- He is a good tackler with an appetite for violence.
- When he can stay clean and reads the play, his sideline-to-sideline range can be an asset against outside runs.
- Solid zone coverage and he does a good job on his drops. He has the wheels to split a two high seam if asked.
- Displays solid read and reactions skills and has the juice to break on the ball.
- In very limited exposure he displays tools to suggest he could become good in man coverage against backs, tight ends, and some receivers.
- Good blitzer who combines physicality, tools, and timing to disrupt the quarterback on games.
Michigan rSoph LB Cameron McGrone (44) is a stud in the making! Good burst, patient with his keys and shows sideline to sideline ability. This is one hell of a play down on the goal line. pic.twitter.com/3o4o0B0ynM— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) July 2, 2020
Reasons for concern
- Tore left ACL in 2017, played with cast on hand for most of 2020, and season came to an end because of a non-contact lower body injury that appears to be a torn right ACL.
- No Pro Day numbers outside of bench press due to recovery from ACL surgery.
- Measuring in at 6’0” and 234 lbs. means McGrone is undersized for an inside linebacker.
- He’s inexperienced after 15 starts and his 2019 tape was his best, as he played hurt in 2020.
- Adequate mental processing shows in how he will bite on misdirection and also hesitate to trigger off his drop. Some of this can probably be chalked up to his inexperience, but it’s all over his tape.
- Adequate play strength shows up most in run defense where he can struggle to separate from blocks.
- Needs to improve at using his hands to keep himself clean, this was better in 2019 than 2020 and injury played a role.
- While he has the fluidity and athleticism to thrive in space, there’s real questions as to his feel for leveraging, route recognition, and ball skills.
Cameron McGrone could make sense as competition for that spot beside Alexander Johnson. Has intriguing tools and Michigan didn't hesitate to ask him to cover. I want to see more against the run. pic.twitter.com/3zEp7DifNE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 31, 2021
What I’ve seen / heard / read
“McGrone has the physical mentality and athleticism to be a solid contributor in the NFL for a long time, but he needs to improve his take-on abilities and take better advantage of his movement skills in coverage,”
“McGrone has to display he can shed blocks well enough at the next level to be a three down linebacker. While he exhibits the speed and athleticism for a linebacker to succeed, his play strength and hand usage are concerns. Also, he will have to display his coverage skills are legitimate and not just pure projections,”
“I feel like I’m an all-around linebacker. I feel like I can play either outside or inside, so MIKE, WILL, whatever. It’s really just wherever a team wants me. I feel like I can adapt either way to any position.”
McGrone was injured in just the second game of the year against Michigan State, before eventually tearing his ACL in a Nov. 21 win at Rutgers and missing the Wolverines’ season finale the following week against Penn State. “I am a little bit past three months out [on my recovery],” McGrone revealed to the media yesterday while previewing U-M’s Pro Day. “NFL teams just ask me how I’m doing and if I’m alright.”
The 6-1, 210-pound McGrone had never been injured until that play against Carmel in the regular-season finale Oct. 14. At least, not seriously. He felt a pop, followed by a burning sensation around his right knee. McGrone’s heart sank. “Honestly, I pretty much thought my football career was over,” he said. “I was depressed. For a couple weeks, I didn’t know how to handle myself. But I bounced back. I had to keep that brotherhood with my teammates and let them know that I cared.”
Inside linebacker with adequate size and athletic ability who might require a heavier lean toward the 2019 tape due to limited action in 2020. McGrone plays with a naturally physical demeanor and carries heavy pads as a body-on-body tackler. He has the skill and strength to make the plays that are in front of him, but he tends to play the game through a straw, limiting his field recognition and ability to play with efficiency against play-action and misdirection. There isn’t enough good tape to suggest he can be a factor on passing downs, but he has the talent to be an early down backup who could move up the ranks.
McGrone claimed the Wolverines’ starting MIKE LB position in 2019 after injuries forced the team to shuffle around their defensive depth chart and McGrone never looked back as a redshirt freshman. He was tremendous throughout the course of the 2019 season and while he did not quite play to that same caliber or level in 2020, he clearly has all of the physical tools needed to become a dynamic defensive playmaker for an NFL franchise as the heartbeat in the middle. McGrone operated as the MIKE in Dom Brown’s blitz-heavy defensive scheme, which has groomed McGrone to offer an NFL defense ample value on third downs and obvious passing situations. There’s not a great deal of exposure to more pure coverage reps, although he was afforded a handful of opportunities to pick-up back releases in man coverage or go flexed out wide against tight ends (Indiana 2020). McGrone also showed admirable toughness this past season, playing with a cast on his hand and continuing to play with a twitched presence who wasn’t afraid to lock horns with offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. McGrone’s value stems from an explosive athletic profile and three-down value for the NFL game—meaning he should get a chance to crack a starting lineup fairly early on despite his lack of experience at the college level.
Questions about McGrone’s recovery hang over his evaluation. Without the ability to see him run or workout, it’s hard to project where he’ll go in the draft. Even still, he’s an intriguing developmental prospect if George Paton decides to look for linebackers after the Broncos’ first pick of the second round as his athleticism, character, and physicality are strong traits to build on.