The Denver Broncos find themselves at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to their off ball linebackers this offseason. At present only two linebackers with NFL experience are under contract: Baron Browning looked promising when healthy, but 2020 fifth round pick Justin Strnad got benched after the Broncos lost to the Cleveland Browns on Halloween. Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Kenny Young are all unrestricted free agents, while Jonas Griffith is an exclusive rights free agent. George Paton could elect to bring back one or even multiple members of the corps. from 2021, or he could elect to push the team into a new direction via free agency or the 2022 draft.
One prospect who could have appeal to the Broncos should they look to draft and develop a long term running mate for Browning is Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal. A three star recruit who saw his playing time increase each year he played for the Badgers, Chenal finished his career with 178 tackles, including 25.5 for loss and 11 sacks. He’s a sledge hammer at the point of attack with the play strength and instincts to serve as a weapon on blitzes in the NFL.
Leo Chenal is a good run defender with the bull strength to hold up at the point of attack in short yardage. Also intrigued by what he offers as a blitzer. pic.twitter.com/29LQnSs6fm— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) February 25, 2022
At a glance:
A throwback linebacker who is at his best attacking the line of scrimmage.
Measurables (not verified)
Weight: 260 pounds
No Official Athletic Testing at this time
Possesses a dense, old school frame with good muscle mass, he’s built to withstand carnage around the line of scrimmage. Has very good balance to go with solid explosiveness, which helps him work through trash when he’s in pursuit. Displays very good play strength throughout his tape with the ability to withstand down blocks in short yardage, shock and drop a single blocker when he’s shooting a gap, as well as the ability to overpower a linemen, tight end, or back when he’s rushing the passer. Good competitive toughness, he’s a tone setter inside who can elevate his game in tight moments such as his late 4th and 1 stop against the Hawkeyes. His mental processing is solid overall and he’s good sniffing out action around the line of scrimmage.
Chenal is a very good run defender between the tackles due to his ability to diagnose the action and leverage his gap. He’s a load at the point of attack that is good at separating from blocks to find his way to the ball, where he is a reliable tackler in the hole. He’s solid against outside runs and shows he understands how to make the most of his pursuit angles, how he fits into the defensive scheme, and how to leverage the ball to help when necessary. Does a good job on zone drops and has the ability to turn and run down the seam, when he reads the quarterback’s eyes he does a solid job reacting to find his way towards the action. Is not afraid to bang with an opponent to try and disrupt the catch point and will throw hands in the air to try and clog passing windows. He is a good blitzer who displays the timing, strength, and instincts to create havoc in the NFL.
Adequate overall athlete with adequate lateral quickness and agility that impacts ability to match up in space and recover. Will miss the occasional tackle against twitched up athletes in space due to issues changing direction. He is adequate in zone coverage due issues reading the concept, quarterback, and due to limitations with leveraging space and breaking on the ball. He can be caught flat footed against various types of pass catchers and will need to become better at route recognition to mitigate this issue in NFL. In very limited exposure his ability to match and mirror looks marginal due to athletic limitations. Adequate ball skills overall and does not project as a player who will reliably contest the catch point in the NFL.
Since learning under Dan Hatman of the Scouting Academy I’ve followed the 7 point grading scale where a 1 (poor) is a trait that fails to meet NFL standards and a 7 (elite) means the player will be among the best in the NFL at that specific trait. Every prospect is graded on five critical factors that influence all football players, while every prospect is also evaluated for traits that will determine success at their likeliest position in the NFL.
Critical factors (universal traits for all prospects)
Athletic Ability: 3/7
Competitive Toughness: 5/7
Play Strength: 6/7
Mental Processing: 4/7
Play Speed: 4/7
Position-specific traits (LB)
Vs. Run at POA: 6/7
Vs. Outside Run: 4/7
Ball skills: 3/7
Pass Rush/Blitz: 5
A three star recruit from the 2019 recruiting cycle who played in 25 career games for the Wisconsin Badgers. Chenal is a throwback type of player who is at his best defending the run and rushing the passer, with the kind of instincts, play strength, and tenacity to immediately help base personnel groupings as a rookie. He’ll need to land with the right system to protect him against the pass or opponents will attack him with concepts that expose his limitations changing directions.
Chenal fits the mold of a “two down thumper” and should contend for a role on special teams from his first training camp because of his linear athleticism and ability to fight through contact. Defensive coordinators who primarily ask him to rush the passer and limit the majority of his coverage role to hook zones on passing downs could be pleasantly surprised to find him develop into a starter in time. He’ll always have matchup woes, but he could become a valuable contributor in the right hands.
Fit with the Broncos
Given the Broncos questions at linebacker beside Baron Browning, there’s little question George Paton will look at off ball backers this offseason. If the second year general manager wishes to add a strong run defender who can add to the pass rush, Leo Chenal will intrigue. The Badger’s likely available on day two and could even slide into the top of day three if his pre-draft process doesn’t impress, as his so-so lateral quickness hurts his ability to win consistently in space. That said, Chenal has the skillset to compete for playing time on defense early in his career so long as his defensive coordinator accounts for his limitations. I could definitely see him carve out a starting role and become a fan favorite for his ability to get after the quarterback.