clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The elephant in the (defensive) room - health

Can the Bronco defensive starters stay healthy?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There are twelve starting positions on defense, because the nickel cornerback is so much a part of most defenses he tends to play more snaps than the “two-down” ILB by the end of the season. The current 12 starters for the Denver Broncos are:

  • DE Dre’Mont Jones
  • NT D.J. Jones
  • DE DeShawn Williams
  • OLB Randy Gregory
  • ILB Josey Jewell
  • ILB Jonas Griffith
  • OLB Bradley Chubb
  • CB Pat Surtain II
  • S Kareem Jackson
  • S Justin Simmons
  • CB Ronald Darby
  • Nickel K’Waun Williams

If healthy, you could argue that every position group of starters is comparable or better than last season. You could argue that Von Miller and Chubb were better than Gregory and Chubb, but if you factor in the backups at OLB this year relative to last year, top-to-bottom the OLB group in 2022 is better than the OLB group in 2021. But let’s get back to the elephant - health. Five of the twelve starters have lost eight or more games to injury (or suspension) in a season during their NFL careers.

I looked at the average number of regular season games played in per season during the careers of all twelve. That data can be found below.

Starting Bronco Defender average RS games/yr Seasons missing 8 or more games Seasons in NFL
Dre'Mont Jones 14.3 0 3
D.J. Jones 12.2 0 5
DeShawn Williams 14.5 0 3
Randy Gregory 10.0 3 6
Josey Jewell 12.3 1 4
Jonas Griffith 13.0 0 1
Bradley Chubb 10.3 2 4
Pat Surtain II 16.0 0 1
Kareem Jackson 14.7 0 12
Justin Simmons 15.2 0 6
Ronald Darby 12.0 1 7
K'Waun Williams 13.0 1 7

Having your starters continue to play throughout the regular season is critical to success, particularly in position groups where the Broncos have little depth. So let’s look at the how healthy our putative starters have been in each position group.

Defensive Line

Dre’Mont Jones has played in 14 games per season during his career. He played in 14, 13 and 16 games over the past three seasons for a total of 1460 defensive snaps or nearly 500 per year. D.J. Jones career has been a progression, he started off as a rookie only appearing in nine games and only playing 147 defensive snaps, but that was due to ineffectiveness, not injury. As he has gotten better as a defensive tackle/nose tackle, he had played more defensive snaps every year of his career. The 550 that he played last season was a career high for him and that accounted for 51 percent of the 49ers defensive snaps last season. With as much passing as happens in the modern NFL, that is about the maximum snap percentage you will see from a run-stuffing NT who rarely plays on “must-pass” downs.

DeShawn Williams didn’t play much in his first NFL season with the Bengals (four games), but once he found his role with the Broncos in 2020, he has played in 14 and 15 games over the past two seasons logging over 800 defensive snaps for the Broncos. According to SIS, Williams was above average at generating pressure from a DE/DT spot. He got pressure on 7.6 and 7.1 of his pass rush snaps in 2020 and 2021. At 9.2 percent in 2021, Dre’Mont Jones was one of the better 3-4 DEs at getting pressure. For comparison, Aaron Donald generated pressure on 12.8 percent of his pass rush snaps in 2021.

So the health history of our starting defensive linemen is good, but defensive linemen tend to rotate more often than other defensive position groups, so the loss of one to injury can have less of an effect than losing a starting OLB or CB.


Jonas Griffith has not been in the league very long, and despite dislocating his elbow in the first preseason game, he appears to be ready to go for game 1. With limited data, we really don’t have much to go on for his “injury resistance”. Josey Jewell, on the other hand, has plenty of history and up until last season it was good. Jewell missed 15 regular season games last season due to injury, but in his first three seasons he played in every regular season game except one. I’m hoping that 2021 was just a fluke and that Jewell can return to his (healthy) form from 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The outside linebackers are where things get scary. Bradley Chubb has been in the NFL for four seasons and he has played in 41 games while missing 21 games due to injury. What’s most scary to me is that his pressure rate from 2021 was a big drop-off relative to what he had done previously in his career. To go from pressure on 14-15 percent of his pass rushes all the way down to 9.4 should be concerning to all of us. How much of this was due to injury and how much of this was due to not having a pass rush threat playing at the other OLB spot? Chubb only played in one game with Von Miller in 2021. In his other six games, he had highly ineffective rushers on the other side. Malik Reed was one of the worst starting OLBs in terms pressure rate in 2021. When healthy Chubb had played roughly 800 defensive snaps per season, but that’s only been every other year. I guess we should be glad that it’s an even year; Chubb is healthy in even years.

Randy Gregory is almost as scary as Chubb. His first season in the league was 2015, but he missed the entire 2017 and 2019 seasons and the majority of the 2016 season (played in two games). When he has been relatively healthy, he has played in 12, 14, 10 and 12 regular season games. His pressure rate in the last two season has been quite good (just below elite). He has only played 708 defensive snaps over the last two seasons. That is less than Chubb has averaged when healthy. Gregory’s career high in defensive snap percentage is 55 percent and he set that career high last season in Dallas. For an OLB, that is a fairly low number. You generally want your starting OLBs to be on the field for 70+ percent of the defensive snaps. For example, Von Miller as a rookie played 90 percent of the defensive snaps for the Broncos (which is still his career high).

The silver lining is that Nick Bonitto and Baron Browning look to both be very effective in the pass rush snaps that they will get spelling Chubb and Gregory. Although Bonitto looks, right now, like he is going to be a liability against the run similar to Malik Reed over the last few seasons. Bonitto is listed as 240 lbs on the Broncos roster page. That is light for a 3-4 OLB in the modern NFL, but with the exception of Chubb (275 lbs) and Cooper (257 lbs) all of our OLBs are light. Baron Browning is 240, Gregory is 242, and Aaron Patrick is 245. It will interesting to see if our relatively undersized OLBs continue struggle to set the edge against the run as they did in the preseason.


Nothing to see here. Both Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons have shown that their bodies can handle playing almost every defensive snap year in and year out. KJack might need more rest as his ages, but the least number of regular season games he has played in during his career was 12 in 2015 and he averages 14.7. Caden Sterns showed he is more than capable of either playing alongside or in place of either starting safety.


Patrick Surtain II has only been in the NFL for one season and he appeared in all but one game. Ronald Darby and K’Waun Williams, the other starting CBs, have been in the league for seven seasons and both have missed the majority of one season with injury. Darby played in eight games in 2017 and nine games in 2018. He has only had one season where he did not miss a game due to injury and that was 2020. He has averaged playing in 12.0 regular season games per year during his career. Williams has been more durable than Darby. He has only played fewer than 13 regular season games once (2020) and he averages 13.0 games per season during his career. During his career he has mostly been the nickel corner and as such has played in 60-70 percent of the defensive snaps most years.

We currently only have five CBs on the 53-man roster, the three starters plus Darius Phillips (veteran who spent four years with the Bengals) and rookie fourth round pick, Damarri Mathis. Michael Ojemudia is on the IR currently. We have Faion Hicks, Ja’Quan McMillian and Essang Bassey on the practice squad.

The takeaway

Three of twelve starters on defense have a history of frequent injury (Chubb, Gregory and Darby). Our depth at OLB appears to be better than our depth at CB. Our CBs will be tested early and often since the three QBs we face in our division have arguably the most talent of any three teams in the same division in the NFL. I can guarantee you that if one of our CBs goes down with an injury, his replacement will be targeted almost incessantly. So having an ability to cover and an ability to rush the passer will BOTH be critical to a successful season for the Broncos. Both of those things rely strongly on the health of our CBs and our OLBs.


What are the chances that Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory and Ronald Darby all play in 15 or more regular season games this year?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    (236 votes)
  • 28%
    (165 votes)
  • 18%
    (108 votes)
  • 7%
    (42 votes)
  • 4%
    (26 votes)
577 votes total Vote Now