Injuries force Broncos to peer into defense’s possible future
This isn’t how the Denver Broncos wanted to find out.
In 2019, they plucked undrafted linebacker Malik Reed from obscurity, and watched him become an immediate contributor. In 2020, they selected linebacker Justin Strnad in the fifth round of the draft, only to watch the rookie miss the season with a wrist injury. In 2021, they selected cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall in the first round, expecting him to start on the outside as soon as next season.
All three will now be starting on Sunday in only the Broncos’ third game of the season. The team has no choice but to wait and see if their defense’s future is ready today.
Only two games into the season, the Broncos defense finds themselves down three starters — cornerback Ronald Darby, who was injured in the season opener, and linebackers Bradley Chubb and Josey Jewell, both hurt in Week 2. Darby’s hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve, but the expectation is that he may miss only three games. That’s better than Jewell, who tore a pectoral muscle filling in on special teams and will likely miss the rest of the season. Then, there’s Chubb. The former fifth-overall draft pick has suffered a litany of injuries that have derailed what was once a very promising career — Chubb was named to the Pro Bowl last season, but is now expected to miss seven weeks, at best, following Wednesday’s ankle surgery to remove a lingering bone spur.
Chubb, however, didn’t lead the Broncos in sacks last season. That honor went to Reed, who was pressed into service in the wake of Von Miller’s season-ending ankle tendon injury. Reed’s 8.5 sacks came as no surprise to Miller, who had dubbed the undrafted college free agent “Dream Killer” in 2019’s training camp. Now, Reed will step in for Chubb — as he did in the season opener and after Chubb couldn’t return to play on Sunday. By the time the season ends, Reed will likely have played more snaps as a starter over the last two seasons than either Chubb or Miller.
That’s important to the Broncos for many reasons, not the least which is the fact that they have very difficult financial decisions to make in the next two offseasons at linebacker. Chubb had his fifth-year option in his contract picked up and will be almost certainly be around in 2022, assuming he stays healthy enough, of course, but everything after that is up in the air. Miller is one of many Broncos who are pending free agents at season’s end, joining safety Kareem Jackson, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan, and fellow linebackers Alexander Johnson and Jewell.
Strnad will get the first crack at starting in Jewell’s absence. Strnad is both larger and faster than the man he’s replacing, but not nearly as experienced or savvy — Jewell also served as the Broncos’ defensive signal-caller, a role that is now expected to rotate to Johnson.
“I think for me, being out last year, those reps I was able to get during camp with Josey were crucial,” Strnad said on Monday. “As far as the opportunity, it’s not ideal how you want an opportunity to come. In the last couple of months, me and Josey have grown pretty close. He’s a great player, great teammate, and really one of the big leaders on our defense, so to lose him is obviously a big loss for this team.”
That said, with both of the Broncos’ inside linebackers hitting free agency at the end of the year, this is also Strnad’s chance to prove that he deserves to hold one of those positions for the long term. The Broncos hope that third-round rookie Baron Browning will eventually work his way into the mix, as well. But after a knee injury kept Browning off the field for much of training camp, head coach Vic Fangio noted that “he’s not caught up.” For now, the job is Strnad’s to lose.
Surtain’s status is more clear; he’s a star in waiting. In his first NFL start at Jacksonville, Surtain looked like a polished vet, keeping his charges in check and grabbing his first career interception; a highlight-reel play that put all of Surtain’s considerable talents on simultaneous display. Fangio’s brief description of Surtain’s performance spoke volumes: “Pretty damn good.”
Oddly, Surtain’s status as a starter is likely to be the briefest of the three, as Darby is expected to return far sooner than Chubb, and obviously long before Jewell. The newly minted starters have a smooth runway on which to land in Denver Sunday at the expense of the moribund New York Jets, who don’t appear to pose any significant threat on offense thus far this season. After that, however, things get far more difficult, and the expectations on Surtain, Reed and Strnad will increase. They’re backups pressed into starting today, but if they can prove that they can handle their new roles, it’s not difficult to envision all three becoming entrenched starters next season.
The Broncos didn’t want to find out this way, but where there is crisis, there is also opportunity. At the end of their season, Denver might find that some of their 2022 blueprints have already become foundations.
Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.