ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Overlooked in the Denver Broncos’ decline since Super Bowl 50 is the team never properly replaced the all-around skill set of inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan.
Both had the type of athleticism who could hang in coverage with tight ends and running backs, and yet were stout enough to hang tough against the run.
Trevathan became a free agent after 2015 and signed on to play in Vic Fangio’s defensive system with the Chicago Bears. Marshall’s knee began barking in 2017 and never did come around.
> Above video: Alexander Johnson finds his element at Dinosaur Ridge.
The Broncos did employ Corey Nelson who could cover, but he didn’t have the bulk to hold up against the run. Todd Davis was a nice run-stopper and leader as a four-year starter but coverage was always his challenge.
Alexander Johnson is an exceptional, even vicious, tackler, and Josey Jewell is a smart, instinctive player who also tackles well. But when it comes to coverage, tight end opponents within the AFC West, namely Darren Waller and Travis Kelce, are different beasts.
In the previous two years, the Broncos had their sights on young dynamic linebackers Devin Bush and Patrick Queen in the draft, and veteran Christian Kirksey in free agency, only to bow out and address other more pressing needs instead. They did sign veteran Mark Barron to fill their sub-package linebacker role late in training camp last year but as it turned out there was too much wear-and-tear on his body. Strained leg and chest muscles prevented him from playing a snap.
The Broncos believe Justin Strnad, a fifth-round rookie last year who suffered a dislocated wrist injury during training camp that required season-ending surgery, can fill the sub inside linebacker role in 2021. Penn State’s Micah Parsons is the best inside linebacker in the draft, but he was a COVID opt out last season and he’s been involved in some off-field altercations that have flagged concern.
9NEWS continues its Broncos’ free-agent series with a look at their inside linebackers. It’s a position that doesn’t figure to be high on their free-agent priority list (cornerback, quarterback and defensive line -- not necessarily in that order but maybe -- own the top three slots) but they won’t discount a third-down linebacker coming off his rookie contract.
What they have: Johnson, a restricted free agent who will likely receive a second-round, $3.38 million tender, and Jewell will return as starters. They were the top two tacklers (Johnson 124, Jewell 111) and rarely came off the field (Johnson played 97.7 percent of the snaps; Jewell 92.9 percent). But the Broncos’ final two meetings against the Chiefs (Kelce 12 catches, 136 yards, a touchdown) and Raiders (Waller 9 catches, 117 yards, a touchdown) reinforced a need for more foot speed at this position.
Besides Strnad, Josh Watson, an undrafted linebacker from Colorado State, may be ready for playing time in his third season.
The unknown: Strnad. He was mixing in with the first-team sub defense about midway through camp last year when a collision left him with a dislocated wrist. At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, Strnad is taller and a little more slender than inside linebacker prototypes but Fangio likes him. After Johnson and Jewell, the only other inside linebackers who got defensive playing time were Joe Jones (5 snaps) and Josh Watson (3 snaps). Depth is an issue.
Possible free agent help: Jones, a 3 ½-year core special teamer, is a free agent special teamer. As for starting inside linebackers, the Bills’ Matt Milano and Titans’ Jayon Brown are the top free agents as they’re both 26 while Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David is 31.
Eric Wilson from Broncos’ general manager George Paton’s former Vikings, the Browns’ B.J. Goodson and the Raiders Nicholas Morrow are third-down options.
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