The Broncos have had a great offseason in 2020. They made some big moves in free agency, added star talent via trades and then crushed the 2020 NFL Draft. This roster has been upgraded by a wide margin just based on the elite-level talent that has been added this calendar year.
In this new series “Under Pressure,” I’ll look at some of the players who are most under pressure after the moves in free agency and the draft. The talent added to this roster is going to push some players – maybe even some fan favorites – off the roster.
Today, I’ll examine the situation surrounding Broncos inside linebacker Josey Jewell. Let’s see why he’s under pressure in 2020.
The Broncos have been looking for help at the inside linebacker position for quite some time. They have not had a truly dominant force at inside linebacker since the days of Al Wilson, so the thinking was they might have found that guy when Jewell was acquired as a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Jewell had a fine college career at Iowa, including being named the Big 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. Coming out of college, Jewell was known as an instinctive player who could defend the run but had question marks about his ability to cover in space due to short arms and lack of speed. I felt the Broncos did not overdraft him in the fourth round and I wanted to see if his instincts and high football intelligence would help him in coverage.
As a rookie in 2018, Jewell put up decent numbers while playing 458 snaps. He recorded 58 tackles in his first pro season and had three pass deflections while playing in 42.6 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Jewell didn’t look better in coverage, but he did flash in run defense.
Jewell suffered from a sophomore slump in 2019. He was a starter at the beginning of the season, but he was replaced after the first month. Jewell played only 214 snaps on defense, most of those coming in the month of September.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jewell graded well in run defense (88.5), but graded poorly in coverage (46.0). What’s interesting to note is that Jewell played 96 run defense snaps while playing more snaps (106) in coverage.
He’s clearly not adept when covering receivers, running backs or tight ends in space.
The Broncos did not use him the right way last year in the limited time he was on the field. Simply put, Jewell is a limited player who can make plays when asked to tackle on rushing downs.
Things changed for Jewell when Alexander Johnson started to emerge for the Broncos. It was a hamstring injury to the former Hawkeye that allowed Johnson to see the field more often. Jewell began last year as a starter, playing 58, 61 and 42 snaps in the first three games of the season. Then, a hamstring injury in Week 4 opened the door for Johnson.
We saw Johnson dominant as a run-defender, and he looked better than Jewell as a coverage player. Johnson has been a find for the Broncos and while he may not be a true stud inside linebacker like Wilson years ago, he’s going to be a clear-cut starter alongside Todd Davis.
The Broncos have also added linebackers through the draft during the last two years that could take the place of Jewell on the roster. It’s not like Jewell’s going to make a ton of money, as he’s still playing on his rookie deal, but these younger players are more versatile as they can play inside linebacker or outside linebacker while also playing on special teams. Jewell is strictly an inside linebacker and special teams player.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, the Broncos added Oregon linebacker Justin Hollins in the fifth round. I had him graded as a third-round edge player, but the Broncos wanted to see what he could do playing inside linebacker instead of putting him on the outside where he was a fine collegiate player. Hollins has better athleticism and length than Jewell even though he’s not as experienced playing inside. I would like Hollins to be only an outside linebacker, but the team may have a different idea to where his future could be.
In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected Wake Forest linebacker Justin Strnad in the fifth round. Last year, Strnad played 347 snaps inside the box (427 snaps total). A torn biceps shortened his senior season in college, but Strnad turned in four seasons with above-average grades in coverage. He did not test well at the Scouting Combine earlier this year, but did show on film that he could change direction smoothly and stay with tight ends in the middle of the field.
What He Needs to Do
Jewell will have to do more than just stand out on special teams if he wants to make the 53-man roster coming out of training camp. Going into this season, we already know what Jewell can do on special teams. He’s a solid player in that department, but not what I would call an outstanding player. In fact, Jewell is a replaceable-level player no matter where the team lines him up. Any of the young players on the roster, even some of the undrafted prospects, could easily take his place.
Even though he’s only missed one game in two years, Jewell does need to stay as healthy as possible this year. Last season, Jewell was knocked out of the starting lineup due to a hamstring injury that he was able to play through as a reserve. Later in 2019, Jewell was banged up further with an ankle injury. He’s not an injury-prone player, in fact Jewell is tough as nails. However, he doesn’t have much juice (speed, explosiveness) to begin with. Any small injury to Jewell makes him look bad on the field.
The Broncos have a ton of young talent on this roster, so Jewell’s spot on the 53-man roster is not safe. He should make the team but only as a little used reserve linebacker. We’ll see if he can prove to be more than that and get his career back on track in 2020.
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