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How will the Broncos replace ‘The Outlaw’?

Losing Josey Jewell hurts, but the Broncos have answers.

Denver Broncos v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Losing Josey Jewell to a season-ending injury hurts the Broncos. The former Hawkeye was the central hub of the defense, the play caller, and the only backer who stayed on the field when Denver went with their 4-1-6 dime personnel. More than that, he was showing signs of marked improvement against both the run and pass. His absence will be felt. The question becomes: how much?

What Fangio does to replace the man they call the Outlaw could play an outsized role in the Broncos playoff chances out of the AFC West. So who look likeliest to try to accomplish that feat?

Justin Strnad

The next man up is Denver’s second year backer out of Wake Forest, who is set to make his first stand when the Broncos face the New York Jets this Sunday. Standing 6’3 and 238 lbs., Strnad has shown signs that he’s ready for an expanded role during the preseason after missing all of his rookie year to a wrist injury.

A fifth round pick last year, Strnad is a better athlete than his testing numbers suggest. In fact, what I’ve seen of him in 2021 suggests he’ll bring better long speed to the position than Jewell did. This has shown up when he was running down kicks in the first two games this year as well as when he played linebacker against the Jaguars.

Strnad has shown promise as a chase and run tackler and displays a nice use of hands to shed blocks in pursuit. It won’t wow box score scouts, but he’s also shown signs that he’s a disciplined defender who will stay home against motion and misdirection to hold down his assignment. This will be put to the test against the Jets’ outside, zone-heavy rushing attack. Going forward, he will need to prove he can hold up to opponents running right down the pipe at him. I expect the Baltimore Ravens to test this out by running right at him in week four.

Strnad is capable of hanging with most backs and tight ends, and he showed an ability to split out against some slot receivers. Despite the added range, Strnad’s inexperience is likely to make him a noticeable downgrade from Jewell in coverage. This isn’t because he looks bad on his zone drops so much as the fact Jewell’s route recognition made him hard to pick and he played with the kind of anticipation that routinely put him in a position to contest most passes at his assignments or drag down the receiver soon after the catch.

It’d be smart for opposing coordinators to test Strnad out with rub routes over the next couple weeks, as he’s going to need to show he can handle it. Trevor Lawrence had success on such a concept during Jacksonville’s two minute drive at the end of the first half. Soon after, Fangio pulled Strnad to go with his dime personnel.

Caden Sterns

Sterns played 15 defensive snaps against the Jaguars while Strnad played 23. Eight of these plays came during a two minute drill at the end of the first after Lawrence completed three of four passes for 30 yards on the nickel personnel to start the drive. (CHCK)

When the Broncos defense has reason to believe an opponent will pass, I do expect Fangio to lean into the strength of his defense with more dime personnel now that Jewell is out for the year. In the short-term that will mean more Sterns, George Paton’s first fifth round safety who turned heads throughout the preseason with his standout play.

It speaks to Sterns’ skillset and promise that the coaching staff handed him the dime role over veteran Nate Hairston. From what I can tell from reports and news out of camp, the rookie didn’t practice there until last week due to Patrick Surtain II taking over the boundary spot for Ronald Darby and Michael Ojemudia’s remaining on Injured Reserve.

Standing 5’11 and a shade over 200 lbs. Sterns will find himself looking up at tight ends like Darren Waller and Travis Kelce. I doubt he finds much trouble running with them, however. An elite athlete who combines very good quickness, agility, and explosiveness, Sterns’ range pops off the film, which is expected given what he’s shown in the preseason and on special teams. I did find myself pleasantly surprised by his ability to match and mirror assignments in the Jaguars’ game, and it’s something I’m looking for in the weeks ahead.

What about Micah Kiser?

The Broncos signed linebacker Micah Kiser off the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad on Wednesday. The veteran spent his first three years in L.A. and started nine games for Brandon Staley in 2020, notching 77 tackles to go with three batted passes and a forced fumble. The experience is a boon to a Denver linebacker corps. short on it, and Kiser’s experience should help him quickly acclimate to the Broncos’ system. In case you forgot, Staley came up in the NFL as Fangio’s linebacker coach and the oversimplified way to describe his system is Fangio’s with sprinkles of Nick Saban’s Alabama system melded in.

It does seem notable that both the Rams and Staley’s linebacker-needy Chargers did not see Kiser as so valuable that he found a spot on either active roster. I suspect George Paton and the coaching staff see a best case scenario for Kiser’s time in Denver is as a special teams contributor and proven depth in case of disaster. While Alexander Johnson has been the picture of health for his playing career, Strnad has missed time in each of the last two seasons and Baron Browning missed his first OTAs and most of training camp with a leg injury.

Though only time will tell, I believe the move says more about where Fangio and the coaching staff see Baron Browning and Jonas Griffith than it says about their faith in Justin Strnad. Browning came into the league dogged by questions about his mental processing, so all of the missed reps mean he’s probably struggling to keep up with the duties an off ball backer has to carry out. Griffith joined the Broncos after the preseason after spending the beginning of his career in a very different 49er system.

What about Michael Ojemudia and Patrick Surtain II?

While Sterns played far better than I dared hope in his first action on defense, it’s worth noting that he was not the original or even backup dime corner when the Broncos opened training camp. With Ojemudia set to return from Injured Reserve before the game against the Baltimore Ravens, there’s a distinct possibility the rookie returns to his previous role as a special teamer and backup safety. If and when Ronald Darby returns from his hamstring injury, Fangio could elect to give the veteran corner his starting job back, which would relegate Surtain to the dime.

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