If there is a position the Denver Broncos have neglected for far too long, I believe it is the inside linebacker position. There is a history of great play at the position. Names like Karl Mecklenburg, Al Wilson, DJ Williams, and Randy Gradishar remind fans of the great defensive teams of the past. But in recent years, the position has not garnered the value of a high draft pick or a big free agent signing. Those have gone to edge rushers and defensive linemen.
There was some success in 2023, but can the Broncos be content with the players currently on the roster? First, we have to know what they have, which isn’t much.
Contract Status for 2024: Signed through 2025
2023 Season: Let’s be clear, there is a bit of a double edged sword with Singleton. You could easily look at his stats from the 2023 season, smile, and be happy to have him diagnosing plays from the middle of the field. He was top-3 in tackles in the NFL with 177 total, and 106 solo.
Wow, right? Well...
It’s no secret that one of the biggest issues for the Broncos on defense was tackling. What looks like a really big number, and should indicate a sure tackler actually hides a big issue with Singleton. He misses a lot of tackles. Joe Mahoney went into it in detail during the season. As Joe pointed out, his numbers were misleading. He had just 6 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and forced zero turnover. He did have 2 fumble recoveries. And you could argue that Vance Joseph’s defense didn’t really put him in a position to make a ton of plays in the backfield. He wasn’t the primary blitzer. He was just the guy that got all the tackles. If you want to dive into it, go check out Joe’s article. But I will sum it up here as best as I can. Singleton makes a lot of tackles, but he misses a lot, too. Maybe that has to do with opportunities, but he sure did whiff and get run over a lot in 2023.
He is under contract until 2025, and the Broncos likely won’t be moving on from him, but he is going to have to step up in 2024.
Contract Status for 2024: UFA
2023 Season: Jewell started 15 of the Broncos 17 games in 2023. He missed the Week 4 win against the Chicago Bears, but was steady in defense for the Broncos. His 108 tackles included 60 solo, 3 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries. As Jewell enters free agency after his 6th season, he has made a strong case for himself to get a healthy contract. Whether or not he will be a Denver Bronco remains to be seen.
The big issue for Denver is going to revolve around money. With the Russell Wilson saga drawing to a close, the price tag will hurt Denver’s money situation. That could result in a the Broncos deciding to let Jewell walk in free agency, and turn to a potentially cheaper alternative signing, or stay in house and promote a player like Drew Sanders. Jewell has been the Broncos defensive QB at ILB for much of his career. His departure would impact the team. At this point, looking at 2024 and counting on having the veteran linebacker in the mix might be wishful thinking.
Contract Status for 2024: Under Contract through 2026
2023 Season: Talking stats about Drew Sanders feels a little pointless right now. His biggest contribution was recovering a muffed punt in the Broncos first win against the Kansas City Chiefs since October of 2015. As a rookie, his impact was mostly felt as a fill in for Jewell when he missed most of the Miami Dolphins debacle, and all of the Bears game. The Broncos may be forced to lean on Sanders in 2024 if Jewell moves on in free agency. Even then, his status will be uncertain because the Broncos may find a replacement for Jewell through free agency, or the draft could yield a player that challenges for a starting spot.
As a 4th round draft pick with very little cap impact, Sanders is probably a guy who will still be around when the 2024 season starts, but that is about as much as anyone can predict right now.
Contract Status for 2024: UFA
2023 Season: Strnad did very little for the Broncos defense in 2023. Most of his contributions came on special teams. It is highly unlikely that he will be challenging for a starting job for the Denver Broncos in 2024. As a free agent, there won’t be a huge market for him, so a return to Denver probably makes sense for him. However, after having very little impact since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 draft, he is a player that might be allowed to leave as the Broncos look to find an impact player at one of the most important positions on the field.
The position with such a storied history in Denver has been left as an afterthought for a long time. The Broncos enter 2024 with plenty of questions, and very few answers at ILB. Other than Singleton, there are no guarantees at the position. The salary cap could play a factor in what the team is comfortable to committing to a free agent, so the draft could come into play again. However, without getting an impact player early, the position could end up being a liability for a defense that already struggles stopping the run and making tackles.