The Denver Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason — or at least plays .500 or better football.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the outside linebacker position.
Starters: Von Miller (LOLB), Bradley Chubb (ROLB)
These two are among the best at their positions and certainly both are top-5 players on the Broncos roster. Von Miller is the established superstar who is on track to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his playing days are done. Bradley Chubb is coming off a sensational rookie season and looking to take that next step in his pro career.
In fact, Chubb might surpass Miller in 2019.
It’s a great debate to have because no matter the outcome, so long as both stay healthy and play at a high level, it’s good news for the Broncos and their fans. Before we get to Chubb, let’s spend time with Miller and examine how he could be better than ever this season.
Miller is general manager John Elway’s first and greatest pick. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft is going to be in Canton, OH someday when he will be recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the game. After eight seasons as a pro, Miller has 95.5 sacks and still has plenty left to give. He’s a known prospect and there really isn’t any mystery to how he does his work and produces at such a high level.
So how could Miller be better? The answer is simple; he could be fresher and more disciplined. Last year, Miller seemed to wear down at times and take some plays off when the play went away from him. He also played undisciplined at times and would jump off sides too often and hurt his team. This is what new Broncos head coach Vic Fangio calls ‘death by inches’ and he won’t stand for it in 2019.
Miller seems to already have a great respect for Fangio due to his stellar history of coaching outside linebackers (just look up the Saints Dome Patrol people), and he should have no problem responding to the new coach’s guidance. When Fangio was first introduced as the Broncos new head coach, he indicated that he felt Miller could be better.
Pushing Miller in new and exciting ways could lead to the best production of Miller’s career. If the Broncos are better on offense as they should be, Miller won’t feel like he has to do everything on the other side of the ball. That could lead to more disciplined play and more production as a pass rusher.
Chubb reminded me of long-time Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs from day one. The number ‘55’ is the same on their jersey, and their strong, ferocious style is similar as well. Chubb plays with a jarring style that can break down an opponents’ will quickly. He notched 12.0 sacks as a rookie, and he had three multi-sack games where he seemed unstoppable at times. As crazy as it may seem, Chubb is still learning how to be a pro and developing his game.
Like Miller, Chubb is going to get a ‘Fangio bump’ in 2019 but this young player does not have any bad habits and is incredibly receptive to coaching. Chubb has been called ‘tailor made’ for the Broncos defense by Fangio, and clearly the new head coach is excited to work with him.
Chubb is not a perfect prospect, but he’s close. He’s got the size to be a factor as a run defender when he needs to set the edge. Chubb is also a smart player who knows how to set up tackles who are trying to block him. He will use multiple moves to get after the passer and plays with a relentless motor.
He does need to improve in coverage, but honestly, he should not be asked to do that too much anyway. Chubb’s best asset is rushing the passer and he should be asked to do that early and often.
Reserves: Jeff Holland, Justin Hollins, Aaron Wallace, Ahmad Gooden, Malik Reed
While the Broncos have superstar OLBs as starters, the reserve group is full of question marks and inexperience. This group has a player who could be the next Shaq Barrett, a rookie who is going to get a look both outside and inside, a late-round pick who has one year of experience but a couple of years of on practice squads, a small-school prospect who was considered a late-round sleeper and an undrafted rookie who was a sack master in the Mountain West.
Jeff Holland has always reminded me of former Broncos pass rusher Shaq Barrett. Like Barrett, Holland fell undrafted when he came out of college and some has speculated (like Barrett as well) that it was due to being what scouts call a ‘bad body’ prospect. Holland was built to get after the quarterback and that’s what he did best during his college career at Auburn.
Measuring in at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Holland had one year of starting for the Tigers and compiled 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss as a featured player. He is productive as a pass rusher because of his quick get off the line of scrimmage that gives him a step around would-be blockers. Holland also has powerful hands to disengage from an opponent and control the point of attack. He’s not a technician as a pass rusher, but Holland makes plays due to a relentless motor and a willingness to play to the echo of the whistle.
Holland made the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and as a rookie played in three games, compiling just one tackle and five assists. With Shane Ray and Barrett both moving on in free agency, we’ll see if Holland can do more with what is likely a much larger role.
I graded Oregon’s Justin Hollins as an EDGE player and gave him a mid-round grade for the 2019 NFL draft. The Broncos added Hollins in the fifth round and Elway said from day one that Hollins would get some looks as an inside linebacker.
I’m including him in the outside linebacker conversation because I feel that is his best fit in the pros. The Broncos official website has Hollins as one of three players not listed as OLB or ILB but simply LB – so we could see a position switch by the time training camp is over, and if he stays outside then he could have the best chance of making the team. In fact, Hollins has the upside and skill set to push Holland for the No. 3 pass rusher behind Miller and Chubb.
Hollins has great length for the position, measuring in at 6-foot-5, 248 pounds. That length gives him an advantage going around the edge and he can reach the quarterback just a bit faster than others due to his wingspan and height. He also has a knack for knocking the ball away from a ball-carrier, finishing second in the FBS last season with five forced fumbles (and eight over the last two seasons).
He can get off the line of scrimmage quickly and has a unique ‘triple jump’ step to get around the kick slide of a tackle. Hollins needs to develop more inside moves as a pass rusher but he moves smoothly and has no problem stacking moves on top of each other. He can drop back in coverage if need be and has the athleticism to cover ground quickly. Simply put, Hollins has more upside as a player than Holland – but he needs to prove that his best spot is on the outside.
Aaron Wallace has been fighting for a roster spot in the NFL since the Titans made him a seventh-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. He was a one-year starter in college at UCLA and was known as a player with quick-twitch ability off the edge. Wallace has good strength and can win at the point of attack. He does lack instincts for the position and sometimes seems a step slow as he diagnoses the play while it unfolds in front of him. Wallace has to stay healthy as he dealt with a back injury with the Titans that knocked him out for the 2017 season. He was picked up by the Bengals for about a month in 2018 before the Broncos signed him away. Wallace is now trying to show that he is worthy of a roster spot with his pass rushing ability and special teams play.
Ahmad Gooden was not a household name coming out of Samford this year, but draft analysts like myself considered him a sleeper at the pass-rushing position. He was a defensive end in college, but his skill best translates to outside linebacker at the pro level. Gooden’s game is all about hustle. Even when plays go away from him, Gooden will sprint to the ball in an effort to make a play. Gooden does a good job of staying sound with his reads and rarely is fooled by play fakes. His speed was on display as a rusher, but also showed off when he returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown against Furman last year. Gooden seems bound for the practice squad, but he’s a ‘toolsy’ prospect who makes an intriguing developmental player to invest time in.
Malik Reed was an All-Mountain West Conference in each of the last two seasons at the University of Nevada. Reed only measures in at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds and will need to add 10 pounds of muscle in order to play up to his potential in the pros. Reed has quickness and speed off the edge, and he has a variety of moves that help him get to the passer. He’s unproven in coverage and needs to show instincts if tasked with staying with a receiver in the open field. Reed might have to prove himself on special teams just to stick with the Broncos as a practice squad player.
The Broncos are likely to have an elite-level defense again in 2019 – thanks in large part to their starting outside linebackers. Miller is a superstar and set to wreak havoc on opponents once again this year. In fact, Miller could be better than ever under the guidance of Fangio. He will be asked to do more, and the Broncos should manage his snaps well enough to keep him fresh all season long.
Chubb is a superstar in the making. If he got 20 sacks this year, I would not be surprised. I don’t project him for that number, but getting 10-plus sacks almost seems like a given. Chubb will be put in the best position to succeed this year under Fangio and that could pay off in a big way for the Broncos. Miller is a danger to opponents, and Chubb could be a greater nightmare.
The reserves may not get that much time if Miller and Chubb dominate the way they should. Players like Holland and Hollins have upside as pass rushers and could be fine situational players for the Broncos in 2019.
With this pass rush provided by these outside linebackers, the Broncos are going to be one of the most fun (and ferocious) defenses to watch this season.