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Breaking down the Broncos’ edge room

Is 2021 the year Fangio gets a full season of Miller and Chubb?

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Denver Broncos Training Camp
Will the Broncos’ pass rush live up to the hope?
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

If everything goes as hoped, the Broncos’ edge rushers look like they’ll fight for every accolade this season. Von Miller returns from a freak foot injury as an living NFL legend, one of the best pass rushers of his generation and a surefire Hall of Famer. Bradley Chubb is a former top draft pick who made his first Pro Bowl in 2020 after finishing with 58 pressures by Sports Info Solutions charting to go with seven and a half sacks.

The two are so good they’ve made it easy to forget about last year’s sack leader, Malik Reed.

How good can the big three be, really?

Since Bradley Chubb entered the league as the Broncos’ fifth overall pick in 2018, he and Miller have played a grand total of 20 games together, with 16 of those during Chubb’s rookie season. During that time the pair combined for 109 pressures, 25.5 sacks, and Chubb pushed for the rookie sack record. Beyond the individual production, the Broncos’ defense finished with the 6th best DVOA in 2018 and would have ranked higher if not for an injury to Chris Harris Jr. that contributed to Miller and Chubb going sack-less to close the year.

When Vic Fangio replaced Vance Joseph, the hope was the architect of the 2018 Bears would help unlock Chubb and Miller’s full potential. So far he’s had four games to try, and they all came at the beginning of his tenure when the secondary was still struggling to grasp his system. The edge rushers finished with zero sacks through the first three games, and Chubb’s roughing the passer penalty against Mitch Trubisky in the week 2 gave the Bears their opportunity to win the game.

Chubb’s first sack in the week four loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars proved to be his last because of a torn ACL. His injury left the pass rush completely reliant on Miller in 2019 and he came through with 63 pressures, more than twice any other Broncos’ defender.

Since Chubb’s injury, the Broncos’ two best pass rushers haven’t seen the field together. Miller’s injury before week one last season robbed him of the 2020 campaign, which opened the door for Malik Reed to establish himself as an undrafted steal. He turned a promising rookie season into a team leading sack campaign last year to go with his 35 pressures.

If Miller can return to his 2019 form at 32-years old, Fangio will have the best edge room in football. That Miller has more help than he did in 2019 should help to mask if he’s lost a step. If health luck shines on them, this should be the Broncos’ best edge rotation since 2016.

“It really kind of feels like having Shane Ray and having Shaq and the type of relationship that we had. We spent so much time together. It really kind of feels like that. Before Malik got here, I told everybody in the room, I said, ‘I’m not raising no more kids in the outside linebackers [room]. I got Shaq, he left me. Shane, he left me.’ You get all these guys that come in and leave me, and my heart really can’t take it anymore. But Malik, he’s just a special guy and he works extremely hard and it rubs off on me. I think that’s the type of people I need to be around going into Year 11. The guys are going to continue to drive me, continue to push me to be a better player and be a better teammate.”

The way the Broncos toyed around with Chubb as a Joker a season ago means there’s a road for Fangio to get all three on the field together on passing downs. All three can win one-on-ones and each is capable of dropping into space. Add in what Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones can do from the interior and I’m prepared for quarterback tears this year.

Is there any reason to pay attention to the backup battles?

Looking back at how Fangio’s rosters tend to shake out suggests the Broncos will carry four edge rushers on the active roster. Miller, Chubb, and Reed are about as close to locks as it gets. Derek Tuszka, Andre Mintze, and Jonathan Cooper are in a bubble battle. While the fourth edge rusher isn’t going to make a lot of headlines, he’ll be a part of the rotation on defense and be a part of the special teams.

With Miller and Reed playing on expiring contracts, there’s a decent chance one or maybe even two practice squad spots could be devoted to edge prospects. This is also a room where George Paton could feasibly sift through the last wave of free agency and waiver claims to add competition.

New Faces

Jonathan Cooper

The 239th pick of the 2021 draft, Cooper joins the Broncos after a long career with the Ohio State. A three year starter who missed 10 games to an ankle injury in 2019, the Buckeye still played in 45 games and finished as a team captain on last year’s squad that made it to the National Title game.

Cooper’s the kind of fighter that’s hard to root against. He was diagnosed with arrhythmia and underwent multiple heart surgeries when he was 14 years old to address his abnormal heart rhythm. He’s fought through a high right ankle sprain that required tight rope surgery as well as a hernia surgery.

If his recovery from the recent heart surgery goes as hoped, Cooper’s get off, motor, and hands could make him a darling this preseason. He’s a savvy player who knows how to play to his help, which should endear him to the Bill Kollar, Ed Donatell, and Vic Fangio.

I’m curious to see how Cooper’s preseason goes because he’s the lone Paton pick, as Derek Tuszka is a 7th round pick from 2020 and Andre Mintze is an undrafted free agent. Cooper’s transition to the Fangio defense looks the hardest. The fact his pass rush plan is rudimentary after five years learning from the Buckeye’s Larry Johnson raises alarm bells. He needs to get stronger and on top of that, he’s a 4-3 edge who rushed from a three point stance his entire career. The adjustment to more space could take time.

Andre Mintze

An undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt, Mintze played off the ball early in his career before he settled in as an Edge rusher in 2020. Like Malik Reed, he’s an undersized rusher who has issues against bigger players. During his career with the Commodores he won with his quickness, motor and by converting speed to power.

Like Cooper, he’s easy to root for. A two-time team captain who started the Dancing Dores to raise money for the Vanderbilt Children’s hospital, he helped raise $60,000 the last two years. He’s fought back from tearing his left ACL three different times to make it to the Broncos’ training camp.

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