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Breaking down the Broncos’ linebacker room

The most underrated part of the Fangio defense?

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The Broncos linebacker corps may be a year away from big changes, but Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell look set to pick up where they left off in 2020. While Fangio would very occasionally pull Jewell for a defensive back, both he and Johnson played north of 90% of the defensive snaps. In total, the duo combined to play 2074 between them, and only Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson played more than the linebackers.

Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson considers Johnson and Jewell one of the best off ball corps. in the league, with only San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa Bay ahead of them :

Denver’s linebacker group may lack flashy names, but Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell represent a remarkably consistent and well-rounded duo in the middle of their defense. The pair combined for 100 defensive stops in 2020, and neither player missed double-digit tackles nor surrendered more than two touchdowns in coverage. If Johnson can return to his 2019 form, then the Broncos’ linebacker group will be difficult to get past.

Things are churning behind the starters, however. Ohio State’s Baron Browning was drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft, and 2020 fifth rounder Justin Strnad is set to return from his second consecutive season ending injury. Both John Elway and George Paton have given Vic Fangio a linebacker via the draft and they look like they’re on the inside track for the final roster.

Will Johnson or Jewell receive an extension?

Johnson signed with the Denver Broncos in 2018 after he was acquitted of rape charges stemming from an incident in 2014. The charges led to a suspension from the Tennessee Volunteers in November of 2014 and his invitation to the NFL Combine in 2015 was revoked when he was indicted on charges of aggravated rape. Prior to the charges Johnson was expected to go Day 2 or early Day 3 of the NFL Draft, but instead he came into the league as a 26-year old undrafted free agent.

With so much time off, it it should come as little surprise he took a little time to acclimate to the NFL. His first year he played a grand total of 13 snaps on special teams in the week nine loss to the Houston Texans. He entered his second season firmly behind Todd Davis and Josey Jewell, playing all of 45 special teams snaps across the first four games of the 2020 season as Fangio rotated between Davis, Jewell, and veteran Corey Nelson.

Amidst an 0-4 start made worse by the season ending injury to Bradley Chubb, the Broncos’ head coach tinkered with his starting lineup. Among them was inserting Johnson for Jewell, and he made an immediate impact. He’s been one of the league’s best run stuffers and an underrated presence in coverage since. In 2021 he proved he’s also a good pass rusher and Fangio didn’t hesitate to lean on him in an effort to replace Von Miller. By Sports Info Solutions’ charting, Johnson rushed on 20.8% of his snaps last season.

During OTAs, Fangio made it clear he wants to see become a technician in his third season as a starter.

“We’re looking for him to be more assignment and technique conscious and be a fundamental player. At times, he can stray a little bit from the exact thing the coaches are telling him to do. He fits into that other category. You don’t want the guys that only do what the coaches say, and you don’t want the guys that don’t do what the coaches say. He’s learning towards too much of the other right now in his career. We’ve got to get him more dialed in. When he does, and when we find that happy medium, he’ll even be a lot of better.”

Jewell currently seems like an underrated figure in Broncos’ Country. It makes sense. He came into the NFL as “the Outlaw” with all the hype you’d expect from a moniker such as that. He had a very good game against Penn State’s Saquon Barkley during his last year with the Iowa Hawkeyes, which led to perhaps unrealistic expectations. During his rookie year he survived a trial by fire with his reputation mostly intact, but when Aaron Rodgers attacked him in the Broncos loss to the Packers in 2019, the concerns over his athletic limitations reached a fever pitch.

Like a large segment of Broncos’ Country, I was concerned when the Broncos cut Todd Davis 10 days before the season opener a year ago. At the time the decision looked like a pure cost-cutting maneuver, and it meant Jewell would find his way back into the starting lineup by default. To his credit, Jewell outplayed my expectations.

A solid run defender between the tackles, where Jewell’s shown the most growth is in coverage. His so-so long speed will always show up in real foot races, but in a Fangio defense that leans heavily into zone-match principles, his ability to read, anticipate, and leverage space helps to make up for it.

With Patrick Surtain II added to a talented cornerback room that includes Bryce Callahan, Ronald Darby, and Kyle Fuller, I expect the Broncos’ linebackers to cede snaps to defensive backs here and there, but during OTAs Johnson confirmed the starting jobs look set.

“Me and [ILB] Josey [Jewell] are going to be the starting guys just from our performance and how we carry ourselves on the field. Rotation wise—we’ve been rotating pretty good with the [ILB Justin] Strnad and the other guys. The new guy (ILB Baron Browning) we got in hasn’t been able to rotate with us much. It’s more so getting out there and playing. Rotation is good. When you’re able to have rotation and keep your starting guys a little fresher, it carries over to being able to generate more plays and having more energy to exert on a play instead of playing 80 snaps. Playing 80 snaps in a game can wear on you and that’s when fatigue kicks in and you’re less discipline. When you have 80 snaps per game, over time, fatigue kicks in. If we’re able to rotate more, I feel like we’ll have fresher legs on each play.”

Both Johnson and Jewell have deals set to expire in 2022, however, so it remains to be seen if either linebacker will earn a second contract from the Broncos. Johnson has been the better player since Fangio came aboard, but he’s also 3 years older. Set to turn 30 on Christmas eve, there’s reason to believe the Broncos will let him walk if Browning looks up to the task of replacing him.

“New faces”

Justin Strnad

I can’t look back at the Broncos’ 2020 draft without remembering how John Elway tried to trade back up into the first round for Baltimore’s Patrick Queen. Instead of drafting an LSU Tiger in the first round, Elway scooped up a Demon Deacon in the fifth. Due to a wrist injury, we haven’t gotten a chance to watch Strnad play live football in a Broncos’ uniform yet. The good news is Fangio sounded pretty happy with the second year pro at OTAs.

“Other than him being in meetings last year, he really is a rookie. He got hurt last year in camp very, very early in practice five, six or seven. He’s really like a rookie on the field, but he’s doing well. We like the way he moves, and we like his attitude. He’s definitely a very conscientious player. He wants to carve out a role for himself with the defense. It’ll be critical for him to be a mainstay on our special teams. Your backup linebackers have to do that. Overall, we’ve all been pleased with Justin and where he’s at. So far, he’s shown no ill side effects of the wrist injury he had. We’re going to try and be cautious with him in that regard. Eventually he’s going to have to use it and he has been. We think the future is bright for him.”

Set to turn 25 in August, Strnad hasn’t seen live action since October 19th, 2019. If he can find his previous form, there’s a lot to like. A high school safety who went undefeated across his last two seasons, Strnad’s one of the Elway draft picks who surely passed the character tests with flying colors.

On the field, Strnad’s motor and athletic ability could make him a sideline to sideline missile. He has the tools to become a good coverage backer who can make plays across the middle of the field. A four-phase special teamer in college, Strnad’s willingness to explode through contact should make him a menace on the coverage units early while he tries to earn a role on defense.

While Strnad’s athleticism, motor, and play in space offer promise, he fell to the fifth round because of questions beyond the torn bicep that limited him to seven games in 2019. To seize a role on defense he’s going to need to become a better run defender than he showed in college, as he showed issues separating from blocks and making consistent tackles. As he adjusts to the speed and complexity of the NFL, he’ll also need to improve at anticipation, route recognition, and reading the quarterback in coverage.

Baron Browning

The 26th player on my Broncos’ adjusted draft board, Browning’s the kind of elite athlete who could blossom into a true difference maker under Fangio’s tutelage. He played in 43 games during his collegiate career, logging snaps as an edge rusher as well as all three linebacker spots. He was the best pass rushing linebacker in the 2021 class that wasn’t Micah Parsons.

Beyond his athleticism, Browning combines a hot motor with good play strength. He’s solid between the tackles and excels in pursuit. His fluidity in space helps to make him a good coverage defender who should thrive in the Fangio scheme with how quickly he gains depth on drops. His length will also be an asset when it comes to obstruct passing windows. He should be a nuisance across the middle because he can quickly break on the ball to bring to punish receivers for daring to catch a pass within his vicinity.

Like Strnad, Browning doesn’t come without a few red flags. He joined Ohio State as the 11th ranked recruit in the country and still made just 10 starts as he bounced between positions. Part of this could be due to his recruiter leaving nine days after he committed, which may have changed the plans once formulated to maximize his talents. He also dealt with an injured labrum that required surgery before the 2017 season.

The biggest concern I have about Browning stems from questions about his ability to process and react to NFL speed. It’s led me to worry his injury during OTAs could slow his adjustment to the league. He’s the kind of player who needs all the reps he can get to adjust to the complexity of Broncos’ system, so I’m a bit uneasy about any designs that require he wear multiple hats. In time, I think he could be a Swiss Army knife, but too much too soon may hurt his overall development.

Regardless, it sounds like that may become Fangio’s plan with limited roster spots.

“I don’t know the exact [injury]. It’s a lower leg injury. It’s more of a bone thing than a ligament thing. He’ll be full go and ready to go by training camp. That’s been probably the biggest negative of this offseason work—him not getting the work that he would have gotten. We’re still very high on him and very optimistic. Hopefully he’ll be able to carve out a role on the team, both defensively and in the kicking game. I’m anxious to get him back working in training camp. I still like him all the same and he has versatility. He could play some outside for us and he could play some inside. We’d like to settle him in one spot, but we may not be able to, especially with the injury. We’ll see how that evolves.”

Curtis Robinson

The “other” rookie linebacker from the 2021 class joined the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Stanford. He’s a former four star recruit and team captain who won the Al Master’s award for athletic, academic, and leadership achievement. I suspect Robinson’s likely a candidate for the practice squad this season. The rub on him coming out is that he didn’t play up to his traits, and the numbers game doesn’t really favor him. Barring a wave of injuries, he’s going to need a big jump from his 2020 tape to stick on the final roster.

How many backers will Fangio carry?

Looking at the Broncos’ roster composition under Fangio the last two seasons suggests the Broncos will have at least four and perhaps as many as six off ball backers on the final roster. With so many prospects among the defensive backs, receivers, and offensive lineman, I’d bet the number is on the lower end of that range. Browning’s a true lock due to his draft pedigree and status as a prospect, but I expect Johnson, Jewell, and Strnad to also make the final roster.

The only other backers on the current roster are Robinson and Josh Watson, who enters his third season in the NFL. The former Colorado State Ram has logged all of three defensive snaps as he bounced between the practice squad and gameday roster a season ago. With George Paton prioritizing special teams acquisitions during his first offseason, Watsons looks like he’ll have his work cut out for him if Browning’s ready to make some noise in camp.

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