Jonas Griffith didn’t know what coaching staff he was auditioning for at the end of the 2021 season. His assignment was mop-up duty in the last four games — just another inside linebacker, the ninth, that the Denver Broncos trotted out to play following a swath of injuries in yet another forgetful year.
But the undrafted second-year backer showed enough flashes to stick around. After racking up 46 tackles, General Manager George Paton offered Griffith an exclusive-rights free-agent tender in March, which he signed in April, to make $825,000 this season.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best version of myself,” Griffith said after an OTA practice June 3. “The preparation I have—I prepare to be a [No.] 1 [inside linebacker], and I expect to do that.”
Griffith might not be far off — after Denver signed linebacker Josey Jewell to a 2-year, $11 million deal this past March, a natural fit next to the downhill, high IQ backer is someone who could make up for the athleticism Jewell lacks. It looked to be outside linebacker Baron Browning before he moved positions after the 2021 season. It could’ve been Kenny Young before he wasn’t resigned this offseason. Maybe Paton is giving Griffith the green light.
The Indiana State product, while raw, possesses rare instincts and an uncanny ability to fly through the line of scrimmage to wreak havoc in the backfield. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger posed that Griffith might’ve been Denver’s best linebacker in 2021 in the short time he played during a Twitter film breakdown June 1.
.@Broncos #JonasGriffin #50 took over the ILB job in the final month of 2021 and showed the #NFL that he is a player with size explosion and instincts. A rising star? Maybe only the #Broncos know. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/zg3dtq1NMx— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) June 1, 2022
“This is a player, and the Broncos have to be excited about him,” Baldinger said while narrating the film. “You just don’t see guys [at] that kind of size that run like that and have instincts.”
It’s been a while since Denver’s had a stud of any kind at inside linebacker; arguably, it hasn’t been since Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall manned the middle during the Peyton Manning days.
Griffith might be Denver’s best shot at finding that standout inside linebacker again, one of the team’s most under-talked-about underperforming positions of the post-Super Bowl 50 era. Todd Davis was a tackling machine but not the specimen Griffith is. AJ Johnson looked like a budding star, but it was short-lived upon catching the injury bug. Browning might’ve been the closest to Griffith, but now he’s lining up outside of him.
No, a Griffith-Jewell or Alex Singleton-Jewell duo won’t be as good as Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan were. But the former might be the Broncos’ best shot.
“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 said of Griffith on June 3. “Just his understanding of the game — route concepts and stuff like that … It’s been fun watching him progress so far.”
Singleton, the Eagles leading tackler the last two seasons, was brought in this offseason on a 1-year, $1.1 million deal. He’s a fourth-year player from Montana State who was replaced in the draft by a hyped linebacker product out of Georgia, Nakobe Dean, in the third round.
Philadelphia doesn’t just dump its two-year tackling leader for someone who slid in the draft for injury concerns if it thought Singleton was the answer. On Denver’s side, Browning said the new coaching staff and himself mutually agreed to try outside linebacker early on, potentially signaling the plans Ejiro Evero’s defense already had for his inside backers — whether it’s Singleton or Grifith next to Jewell.
For Griffith, though, Evero’s noticed his growth.
“He really, really works at it—on the field, off the field. He’s a student of the game and asks great questions,” Evero said of Griffith after Broncos mandatory minicamp June 14. “You see the improvement.”
Griffith at his full potential gives the defense a much-needed cost-effective core for when Russ gets his anticipated mega-extension. He joins Pat Surtain II as second-year, potential building-block players on a defense already with safety Justin Simmons locked up and a potential Bradley Chubb extension so long as he’s healthy this year.
Expectations, however, inherently aren’t as high on the undrafted Sycamore as a first-round Crimson Tide product like Surtain II. Even so, with training camp on the horizon, don’t be surprised if Evero or Griffith’s teammates are waxing poetic about the man in the middle’s ceiling.
“Every day is a competition,” Griffith 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.”