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Jonas Griffith pushing to earn official starting role at ILB

After joining the Broncos just before the ‘21 season started, and getting a starting role due to injuries, the second-year linebacker is feeling a lot more comfortable heading into this season.

DENVER BRONCOS VS KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Jonas Griffith isn’t for sure a starting linebacker for Denver this fall, but as he begins his second season with the Broncos, the inside linebacker forced into a starting role at the end of 2021 due to injuries, looks on paper to be the logical choice.

Baron Browning is moving to the outside to help in the edge rushing department, and without Alexander Johnson next to Josey Jewell, an athletic linebacker with experience makes for a good replacement.

But don’t ask Griffith to confirm that. He’s young - and has only been playing football since his senior year in high school - but he knows better.

“Every day is a competition,” he said. “I don’t think I have anything solidified. Every day is an opportunity for me to show this coaching staff what I can do and to improve every day.”

And there is certainly a lot of competition as the Broncos have a long list of inside linebackers: Jewell, Griffith, former Eagles’ linebacker Alex Singleton acquired in the offseason, Justin Strnad, Barrington Wade, plus undrafted rookies Kana’i Mauga and Kadofi Wright.

Even after being acquired by the Broncos in a trade swap, the former practice squad player didn’t wasn’t overly confident of his chances in the NFL.

“I wasn’t relieved, you still have to do the job,” he said last week after OTAs. “They can bring in anybody at any moment. That’s been my approach since being in the NFL. A lot of older guys have told me that you have to be ready and prove yourself every day.”

But getting playing time - and making a difference doing so - has given the young linebacker more confidence.

Griffith plays eight of the Broncos’ first 12 games as a special teamer, but when Kenny Young got injured in Week 14 - and Jewell and Johnson were already out for the season with injuries - Jonas moved to the defense.

And his first snaps on Vic Fangio’s vaunted defense were as a starter in the Broncos’ final four game where he logged two QB hits, four tackles for a loss and one fumble recovery along with 22 solo tackles.

“You kind of have an illusion of like, ‘I can do this.’ But when you actually do it, that’s a little bit different,” he said. “But I would say that was a big thing for me, going out there and doing it and proving it to myself that I could do it. I feel like that was huge for me and big confidence booster going into the offseason.”

Griffith also proved it to his fellow inside linebacker Josey Jewell. As the two must work in tandem on the field, that’s a crucial teammate to win over.

Jewell particularly noted how much Griffith “excelled” over the last four games of the season when he started.

“Whether it be the quickness of the recognition of the plays, the guy is always fast, so you always see that on the field and just the physicalness that started to creep up and come into the last couple of games,” Jewell noted. “He showed that he can long-arm guys, he can two-hand them and swim off of them or arm over. And just his understanding of the game. Route concepts and stuff like that, so it’s been fun watching him progress so far.”

Running the 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers are often expected to cover running backs out of the backfield as well as handle wide receivers in crossing routes over the middle - and occasionally go after the quarterback. It takes an agile athlete to keep the plays in front of you and cover an often wide-open middle.

But with improvement at edge rusher and on the defensive line, Griffith is looking forward to focusing on keeping that middle locked down.

“It will free us up, first and foremost, to flow, make tackles and it will help us in coverage as well,” he said. “They are getting pressure on the quarterback. The guys on the edge—they’ll help us as well.”

BUt he’s well aware of areas in his game to improve.

“I had a lot of improvements that I wrote down after watching my film from last year,” he said. “Just offensive formation recognition and things like that and just knowing what they’re going to do before it happens. Talking to guys like Josey and things like that have helped out.”

And regardless of whether he’s taking first or second team snaps, Griffith is planning on pushing to become one of the starting linebackers.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best version of myself,” he said. “I prepare to be a [No.] 1 [inside linebacker], and I expect to do that.”

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