Is this the season the Broncos get back to their winning ways? Last year, in the first season with Vic Fangio as their head coach, the Broncos finished one game below .500 with a 7-9 record. They did finish the season strong, going 4-1 over the final five games of the regular season. That finish has given fans hope that this team is finally on the right track and can perhaps even make a postseason run – especially with the league expanding the playoffs by one team in each conference.
During the last three years, the Broncos have drafted well, and this roster has talented players on both sides of the ball. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the inside linebacker position.
Starters: Alexander Johnson, Todd Davis
Alexander Johnson knows that doubters believe he can’t cover, and he’s set to prove the haters wrong this season. He was added in 2018 as a free agent and barely saw the field. Last year, Johnson didn’t play much over the first month of the season and the Broncos defense struggled. After Week 4, Vic Fangio inserted Johnson and nose tackle Mike Purcell into the starting lineup and the defense responded with better play.
In fact, after that change Johnson played 91 percent of the snaps the rest of the way. Simply put, Johnson makes the Broncos defense better.
Johnson does a good job of blowing up plays when he arrives at the ball-carrier. He plays with a natural violence and wants to disrupt the play as much as possible. He travels like a heat-seeking missile, but Johnson also does not overrun plays. He will stay disciplined while also playing fast, diagnosing plays quickly as they unfold in front of him.
Todd Davis is one the leaders on the field for the Broncos defense. That’s why the Broncos went ahead and picked up his option ($5 million) quickly back in March. Davis has been a tackling machine during the last two years with 248 stops. The team has been looking for an upgrade at the position, but they’ve passed on some big-time college linebackers early in the draft, most notably guys like Devin Bush (2019, Michigan), Kenneth Murray (2020, Oklahoma) and Patrick Queen (2020, LSU). That tells you what they think of Davis, for one more season at least.
Davis may not have the speed he needs to keep up in coverage, and that’s why the team will continue to look to upgrade the position. While he’s not the fastest player, Davis has high intelligence and puts himself in position to make plays. He’s not a thumper like Johnson, but Davis does a good job of “scraping and flowing” to the play and avoiding big-bodied blockers on his way to the ball. He’s got one more year with the team and will continue to have a large role on early downs.
Reserves: Justin Hollins, Justin Strnad, Josey Jewell, Joe Jones, Josh Watson
I really like Justin Hollins as an outside linebacker, and he can play both, but the Broncos want him to play on the inside if he can. Coming out of Oregon last year, I had Hollins graded as an edge player, where his burst to the quarterback was impressive. I felt that he was going to be best served rushing the passer and looked great during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game (Hollins won Defensive MVP of the game, too). However, once he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Broncos started talking about how Hollins could play on the inside.
Hollins has great length for the position. His size and wingspan help him make up ground in a hurry. He has good speed and can change direction without losing much speed. Hollins can use that length to help him in coverage, where his long arms can knock incoming passes away. He is not a thumper as a tackler, but more of a drag tackler. That’s what makes him an interesting fit on the inside of the linebacking corps.
Justin Strnad was picked up by the Broncos in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. While many expected them to at least add offensive tackle talent at some point in the draft, the Broncos went in a different direction and added at least a special teams player in Strnad. Can he be more than that? The answer is up to him.
Strnad does not have explosive traits. He did not test well at the Scouting Combine earlier this year, posting SPARQ numbers among the bottom in his class at the linebacker position (like his 29-inch vertical). During his college career at Wake Forest, Strnad did earn positive coverage grades, only allowing 67 catches on 942 coverage snaps. However, Strnad is not a factor against the run and can be pushed around. He’s an average athlete at best in the NFL, so Strnad needs to play as a reserve/sub-package player on the Broncos defense.
Josey Jewell has not worked out as planned. Jewell has been banged up a little bit during his pro career, but those injuries have been enough to perhaps rob him of the juice (speed/quickness) to make it in the NFL. Jewell is smart and puts himself in the right position as a run-defender, but he is too slow and too short to make plays in coverage and will be targeted frequently by opposing quarterbacks.
Jewell’s struggles in coverage are the reason why he was replaced in the lineup by Johnson. During the first four games of the 2019 season, Jewell struggled as the starter. He then spent the rest of the year as a backup and this season he’s clearly on the roster bubble.
Joe Jones does a great job working on special teams, but that might not be enough for him to make the 53-man roster. Undrafted out of Northwestern in 2017, Jones bounced around the league a bit before finding a home with the Broncos that year. He doesn’t see the field on defense and that’s unlikely to change this year.
Josh Watson is an intriguing developmental prospect who came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. Watson finished his collegiate career with 367 career tackles (27 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in 51 games played. We’ll continue to see him develop perhaps on the team’s practice squad.
The Broncos have been looking for inside linebacker help for some time. Those upgrades through the draft and free agency have not happened. That means the team is going to move forward with the players they have had on their roster.
Johnson and Davis should prove to be solid starters with Davis coming off the field on passing downs. Hollins is kind of the “X-Factor” here, as he could make more plays than some think as he continues to learn the inside linebacker position. Perhaps Strnad could work his way onto the field because of his coverage skill, but he’ll have to stand out during training camp if he wants to earn playing time.
The Broncos play in perhaps the toughest division in football. They’ll be tested early and often with their schedule and their opponents with top tier passing attacks. That means these linebackers must pass the test in coverage while staying strong against the run.
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