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Broncos positional outlook: Todd Davis returns to anchor inside linebackers

Davis gives up vegan diet, feels "stronger." On team pursuing, but not getting younger inside linebackers: "I'm just grateful to be back."
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos inside linebacker Todd Davis lines up against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER — In each of the past two years, the Broncos’ brain trust thought about acquiring, either through the draft or free agency, the inside linebacker likes of Devin Bush, Christian Kirksey and Patrick Queen.

None wound up with the Broncos. Ultimately, as the team addressed other more pressing needs, the thinking came around to, What’s wrong with Todd Davis?

All he’s done is lead the team in tackles three of the past four years – including a career-most 126 in 2019 despite missing the first two games with a foot injury.

“I heard rumors, whether they were true or not, but I definitely heard they were looking at some different people,’’ Davis said in a phone interview Thursday with 9News prior to his virtual positional meeting headed by Reggie Herring. “And I’ve been hearing that for the last couple years of my career. But I’m just grateful to be back and have another year here with the Broncos.”

For his seventh season with the Broncos, fifth as a starting inside linebacker, Davis has changed up his offseason diet which he says in turn has strengthened his body.

“I’m definitely stronger,’’ said Davis, who turns 28 on Sunday. “I’ve been working on my strength and my speed. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple months. I think people will be able to notice my body has changed once we get back on the field.

“I was vegan at times in past offseasons. I didn’t touch being vegan this time. I stayed with my normal diet that I have through the season. I think that’s helped me build a little more strength. I don’t think my body has ever been like this since I’ve been here.”

Davis played at 230, 231 pounds last year. He said he may only go up to 235 tops this year, but his body has been reshaped.

“I think where there’s now muscle that wasn’t as much muscle last year is going to make a huge difference,’’ he said.

Undrafted out of Sacramento State, and then cut four times by his first team the New Orleans Saints, Davis, who turns 28 on Sunday, didn’t make it to his seventh NFL season without adapting.

During this coronavirus shutdown, Davis has been able to stay in football shape near his Denver-area home when he hasn’t been participating in the team’s virtual meetings.

“I’ve been able to find some people to work out with at different parks,’’ he said. “Staying 6 feet apart but still able to get some good work in. Feet work, some lateral movement. Some football work.’’

Some of those workouts have been with his inside linebacker partner Alexander Johnson. After not playing a down at inside linebacker through the Broncos’ first four games in 2019, Johnson played close to Pro Bowl-caliber level in his final 12 games. He finished third on the team with 88 tackles, plus had 1.5 sacks and an end zone interception on Philip Rivers.

“He came in and was phenomenal,’’ Davis said. “He surprised us all. He played with his hair on fire, brought something new to the defense.

“I’ve been able to share with him this offseason. We’ve been able to grow closer and get to know one another. Because I think for us to have a bond is important to be out there on that field. I’m excited for him this year and years to come because I think he has a lot more to show people.”

While Davis will always use his underdog status as motivation, he said he didn’t take it personal when management poked around in trying to find younger alternatives.

“I’ve seen a lot of great players whether it be cornerback or wide receiver or whatever -- a lot of different great players in my career, I’ve seen them be challenged by a young guy coming in,’’ Davis said. “I think it’s just part of business and wanting to find the best fit for the team. If somebody younger was going to come in, I knew I would have to be ready for the challenge.”

And yet, as he looks ahead to the 2020 Broncos, he applauds all the moves the team made – and one they didn’t make. They did draft inside linebacker Justin Strnad in the fifth round, but he most likely will have to break in on special teams as a rookie.

“I think they made some great moves on both sides of the ball,’’ Davis said. “I think this defense has stacked up to be something special and I’m excited to see this new explosive offense that we’re going to have. Overall, I think they made the right moves, including they didn’t bring in an inside linebacker in the first round or free agency.’’

A look at the Broncos’ inside linebacker position:

Coach: Reggie Herring

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos linebackers coach Reggie Herring takes part in drills at the team's headquarters during an NFL football training camp Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A linebacker’s coach through and through. A three-year starting linebacker for some of Bobby Bowden’s better Florida State Seminoles teams from 1978-80, Herring has been coaching linebackers at the college or NFL level for going on 39 years.

He’s been with the Broncos since their Super Bowl 50 season of 2015.

Starters: Alexander Johnson, Todd Davis

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos linebacker A.J. Johnson reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Denver.

Neither came off the field last year, not even in sub packages. Davis wore the green dot on his helmet as the one who relayed the defensive calls from head coach Vic Fangio to the other 10 on the field.

Backups: Josey Jewell, Justin Hollins, Justin Strnad, Josh Watson

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos inside linebacker Josey Jewell lines up during an NFL football game between the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Jewell had a team-high 14 tackles in the Broncos’ season opener at Oakland last year – no one else had more than 8. But then he popped his hamstring in game 3 at Green Bay, missed the next two games and by the time he returned he had been Wally Pipp’d by Alexander Johnson.

Hollins played both inside and outside linebacker as a rookie last year. He finished on the outside and that’s where he seemed most comfortable.

Strnad was the Broncos’ fifth-round draft pick this year. He is slender as inside linebackers go at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, but he is a rangy type who could help in year one in the nickel.

Watson nearly made the Broncos’ season-opening roster last year as an undrafted rookie out of Colorado State. He did play in eight games as a special teamer.  

Competing: Joe Jones, Tre’ Crawford

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Jones runs a route during the first half of the Pro Football Hall of Fame NFL preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Jones has primarily played special teams the past three seasons for the Broncos. He’ll have to fight for a 53-man roster spot this season, as he does every year.

Crawford is more of an outside linebacker pass-rush type who could get a look at the inside. He’s an athlete (42-inch vertical jump) who spent time with the Falcons last year.

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