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DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Alexander Johnson #45 of the Denver Broncos on the sidelines before a game against the Cleveland Browns at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 3, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 24-19. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
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Training Camp 2021: Previewing the Broncos inside linebackers

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos are trying to get back to relevancy – and the postseason – in 2021. They turned in a down 2020 season, going 5-11 under Vic Fangio, but the staff returns intact to give it one more try. Fangio is entering his third year as the Broncos head coach, and it’s win (a lot of games) or go home. The Broncos changed things up in a big way this offseason by moving on from former general manager John Elway and hiring new GM George Paton.

This is the first year under the guidance of Paton, and the team has done a good job of adding quality players via free agency and the NFL Draft. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at DenverFan.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 into the inside linebacker position:

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Starters: Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell

The Broncos have two “throwback” inside linebackers starting in Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. In years past, this duo could be incredible given their work ethic, nose for the ball and ability to arrive at the ball-carrier with natural violence. However, in today’s game, Johnson and Jewell will be asked to do much more than ILBs of the past.

Johnson is the leader of the group, and he is a fierce player who loves to compete. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio knew exactly what to do with Johnson as a starter. While Fangio has been running the show, Johnson has thrived as a starter on the inside.

He’s a heat-seeking missile against the run. Johnson arrives at the ball-carrier with natural violence, and he’s got bad intentions for any opponent he goes up against. This means Johnson can make some big plays from time to time. His big hits rally the team around him, and he can separate the ball from any player he hits.

Johnson does struggle in coverage. I know he takes issue to such conversation, as he’s called me out on Twitter before, but Johnson does not turn as good as he needs to. Yes, I compared his turning ability to turning a lumber wagon and yes, he did not like that, but he’ll be okay. It’s not a personal shot, just an honest assessment of his game that anyone who is honest and not a spin doctor for the Broncos would tell you. He does have some burst, and he is tough to stop when he builds a head of steam.

However, I’ve seen him move enough on film and in drills for most every practice he’s ever participated in to know that hip swivel, turning and bursting are not his forte. If a player (running back, tight end) is kept in front of him, Johnson can plant his foot and drive forward. If that player makes a move to make Johnson change direction, then he doesn’t have the burst to stay with his man. It’s not me being a “hater” or any other lazy excuse, it’s simply the truth of his game and there’s little he can do to change that. I believe Johnson is playing at the height of his potential in the pros right now. That means he’s good-to-great against the run, but he’s a liability in coverage.

Earlier this offseason, the Broncos placed a second-round tender on Johnson. He signed his tender, a deal for one year that pays him a salary of $3.3 million in 2021. We’ll see if his change-of-direction ability has improved when we get to training camp, but what I saw at mandatory minicamp means he’s going to be the same player he was last year – good, but not great.

Jewell is a smart player who gets by on guile and savvy for the position. Coming out of Iowa years ago, Jewell was known as a heady player who diagnosed quickly and rarely took false steps on his way to the play. This helped him overcome the physical shortcomings he had in college that he still has today. The Broncos picked him up in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, a spot where I expected him to go.

Every team needs a player like Jewell. He’s a team-first guy who loves the game – just like Johnson. Jewell is a fighter, and he tries his best whether that’s on defense or special teams. However, Jewell will always be a little shorter and a little slower than you’d like. That’s who he was in college, and nothing has changed in the pros.

His lack of length and burst show up when he’s tasked with covering a running back out of the backfield or a tight end over the middle. Simply put, Jewell must come off the field in passing downs. He’s a liability against the pass, no matter what others may tell you. Like Johnson, Jewell is good against the run (I’d argue Johnson is great against the run), but both lack the coverage ability you need to today’s NFL.

While Johnson seems locked into one of the starting positions inside, Jewell may have to fight for his starting spot. Players behind Johnson and Jewell will be pushing for more time. Johnson is set, and he could put up similar numbers in a contract year as to what he did last season. Jewell on the other hand might lose snaps if one of the young ILBs – players who are more of a modern ILB – impress in training camp. We’ll see if his guile helps Jewell win the job again.

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Reserves: Justin Strnad, Baron Browning, Josh Watson, Curtis Robinson, Peter Kalambayi, Pita Taumoepenu

The Broncos have two reserve inside linebackers who could push for starting jobs one day. When that is, nobody knows for sure. But make no mistake, these two players were drafted to potentially start for the team. In training camp, we will see how ready they are.

Justin Strnad is an interesting prospect. On film during his college career at Wake Forest, Strnad was a standout player in coverage. It’s one of the reasons why the Broncos picked him up in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. I had him graded as a sixth-round prospect, but the Broncos saw something in his game.

He seemed like a special teams player on film, and Strnad was “just a guy” athletically on tape. His intelligence makes him a player who understands tendencies of formation and down-and-distance out there on defense. However, his movement isn’t what you need it to be. At the Scouting Combine, Strnad turned in some of the lowest explosive numbers of any player at any position. Measurements like his 29.0-inch vertical leap and 9-foot-5 broad jump caused him to get dinged by some although most scouts knew he didn’t look hyper athletic on tape.

Last year before training camp, there were some promoting that Strnad could be a starter and he could be a coverage player. His intelligence helps him greatly in coverage, but Wake Forest is different from the NFL. I wanted to see his movement and explosiveness against NFL-caliber players. We didn’t get to see much of that because of a wrist injury suffered in August that needed surgery to repair. He missed his rookie season in 2020 and is one of the most mysterious players heading into camp this year.

Baron Browning was one of my favorite players in the 2021 draft class. He can play multiple linebacker positions, but I’d hoped the Broncos kept him at inside linebacker.

This was a problem the team had with Justin Hollins (among others) years ago, and cross-training Hollins (when he should have been an outside linebacker not an inside linebacker) basically ruined his opportunity with Denver. Hollins has shined away from Denver as a pass-rusher, and that could have happened with the Broncos. I didn’t want Browning to work at both positions (like Hollins did) and then never fully develop at one position.

I had him ranked as a borderline first-round pick as an ILB. The Broncos were able to get a tremendous value by adding Browning in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Thankfully, Fangio has already declared that Browning would be at ILB exclusively.

He’s a fine athlete for the position and could work well as a modern-day linebacker because of his ability in coverage. Browning is a team-first player with the size/speed/athleticism to stay one-on-one with tight ends down the field. He’s also got the strength to win body positioning and make it difficult for a quarterback to get a pass through. Browning does a good job of watching the quarterback’s eyes and is getting better each season in that department.

Browning could start in the near future, perhaps as soon as this season. The main thing that could hold him back was missing out on reps in OTAs and mandatory minicamp due to a lower leg injury. Browning is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, however. We’ll see how much of an impression he can make during camp and the preseason.

Josh Watson helped cement himself on the Broncos radar at their local pro day back in 2019. The CSU linebacker was one of a few dozen prospects from local area high schools or colleges looking to get a shot. Watson made the practice squad and has bounced on and off the roster since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent.

Watson has always had a nose for the ball. He has good instincts and diagnoses a play quickly when it is breaking down in front of him. Watson called the checks for the Rams defense and was known as a team leader. After a couple of seasons with the Broncos, Watson is running out of time to earn a larger role.

Curtis Robinson is listed as an ILB, but he is built and plays more like a safety – which is not necessarily a bad thing in today’s NFL. At 235 pounds, Robinson is explosive and can stay with tight ends in the open field. He’s smart but his lack of size doesn’t make him the greatest option as a run-stuffer. His best chance is on special teams.

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Summary

The Broncos, on paper, have one of the strongest defenses in the league. However, if you were to pick a weak spot on that side of the ball it would be the inside linebackers – for now. Johnson and Jewell are the starters, but they will be pushed by some of the young guys (Strnad, Browning) on the roster. We’ll see how much those two young players can push for playing time in 2021.

Johnson and Jewell are strong players against the run, but their weaknesses against the pass will be glaring if an opponent chooses to attack them. The tight end position is a weapon in today’s NFL; merely looking within the AFC West explains why Johnson and Jewell could struggle in that department. Travis Kelce (Chiefs), Darren Waller (Raiders) and Jared Cook (Chargers) are all huge mismatches against Johnson and Jewell in coverage. This is a weakness that can be exploited on a weekly basis – unless Browning or Strnad work their way onto the field.

Add in pass-catching running backs, and you can see how being tough against the run is great – but it’s coverage ability that can really make you stand out as an ILB in today’s NFL. This is not the 1990s, when running the ball was more prevalent. This new age of football is all about moving the ball through the air, and defenses need to be prepared weekly for a pass-heavy attack.

The success of the inside linebackers in 2021 will directly impact the Broncos win total. If Johnson and Jewell play better than expected, or the young guys Strnad and Browning get on the field in coverage situations, then this Broncos defense has the potential to lock down even the most high-powered offenses in the NFL. If Johnson and Jewell continue to struggle in coverage, then the Broncos will have to change their scheme to accommodate and hope for the best.