As the Denver Broncos get ready to report for training camp, we’re going to be taking a look at the inside linebackers for 2020. In 2019, the position group received a substantial boost during the middle of the season once former undrafted free agent Alexander Johnson stepped into the starting role alongside veteran linebacker Todd Davis. How vital will their play be for the Broncos in 2020, and which players behind them will be expected to contribute even further?
Overview of the Broncos 2020 inside linebackers
While the Broncos defense doesn’t feature the typical star player that you would normally find in a Vic Fangio defense at the inside linebacker position, they do have two productive players that performed at a highly competitive level last season. The existing starters were sufficient enough for general manager John Elway to hold off on searching for another ILB during free agency. Davis is the veteran of the group, entering his seventh and potentially final season with the Broncos. Last season, Davis led the team in total tackles (126) and will likely approach unrestricted free agency in 2021. His counterpart, Johnson, enters his third season with the Broncos and his first as a full-time starter.
Johnson broke out onto the scene in 2019 after getting the starting nod in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers and would go on to start the final 12 games for the Broncos. Johnson finished his first professional start with eight tackles, two pass breakups, and an interception in the red zone that helped seal the Broncos victory over the Chargers. As Johnson continues to grow under Fangio’s tutelage, he has a chance to become one of the league’s rising stars at the position. His combination of size, speed, and athleticism makes him an ideal player in Fangio’s system, which is one that has historically produced eventual star linebackers.
With the starters likely set for the Broncos at inside linebacker, all eyes will be on the backend of the depth chart when training camp begins. As the Broncos eye the future beyond Davis potentially after this upcoming season, they spent their 2020 fifth-round draft pick on Wake Forest linebacker Justin Strnad to add more athleticism and youth to the group. Joe Jones and 2018 fourth-round pick Josey Jewell will look to compete with younger depth players Josh Watson and Tre’ Crawford for the fourth linebacker spot if Denver chooses to keep four on the roster come Week 1.
With Jewell having the most regular-season experience of the group outside of Davis, he will likely be the one LB who has the most to prove ahead of the 2020 NFL season. Entering his third season in the NFL, Jewell has been relatively inconsistent on defense but has been a key contributor for the Broncos on special teams. With other young talent fighting for a roster spot, Jewell will have an uphill battle once training camp begins.
Can Josey Jewell have a breakthrough in 2020?
While Jewell has been a critical component on special teams for the Broncos during the past two seasons, his play on defense has been up and down. After recording 53 tackles in nine starts in 2018, Jewell earned the starting will-backer position in 2019 but finished the season starting only three total games. Overall, Jewell’s limited abilities in pass coverage combined with the various injuries he sustained, held him back, but he was still able to register just 36 tackles in the 2019 season.
If Jewell wants to avoid being on the bubble in 2020, he has to show that he can improve in his coverage skills within Fangio’s defensive scheme. However, his contributions on special teams will provide him with a stronger chance of making the final roster. In his first two seasons with the Broncos, he has made several big plays on special teams that have helped swing momentum in Denver’s favor.
Examining Justin Strnad’s role as a rookie
After a failed attempt to trade back into the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft for LSU linebacker Patrick Queen, Elway and the Broncos played the waiting game. They ended up drafting Strnad in the fifth round, which added a new element to the Broncos defense under Fangio. With a variety of NFL offenses changing how they play by adding more speed on the field, the Broncos must find a way to keep up with the rest of the league, especially against AFC West divisional rival Kansas City Chiefs and their star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Drafting Strnad could be the jump-start the Broncos need. He is a long and rangy linebacker who works well in space and in pass coverage within zone coverage schemes. Despite entering this season as a rookie, Strnad offers very promising traits that could positively impact the Broncos defense. His athleticism, coverage instincts, and consistent tackling ability will likely be used early on through special teams as he integrates himself into Fangio’s defensive rotation.
As the Broncos look towards shifting into more of their nickel and dime looks defensively, Strnad will likely get reps in coverage as a hybrid linebacker during his rookie season. His length and coverage skills could provide the Broncos with a better option in passing situations, especially against offenses like the Chiefs.
Could Joe Jones be forced out by Tre’ Crawford or Josh Watson?
Jones is entering his fourth season with the Broncos and has been one of the team’s most productive players on special teams during the last two seasons. The Broncos made it a point to bring him back during this off-season. However, as Jewell continues to make plays on special teams, Jones’ role on the Broncos could soon be diminished. As the Broncos look to finalize their 2020 inside linebackers, Jones faces stiff competition from Jewell, as well as second-year linebacker Watson and 2019 undrafted free agent Crawford.
Watson showed promise during the 2019 preseason which helped him earn a spot on the Broncos practice squad. He appeared in eight games during the regular season, recording one solo tackle against the Vikings. Despite the promise that Watson has shown, he still has to improve on his coverage skills and reading guards more consistently. It’s unlikely he beats out Jones for a spot on the final roster, but it’s likely we’ll see him back on the practice squad in 2020.
One LB that could give Jones and Jewell a run for that final spot on the depth chart is Crawford, who was an undrafted free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham in 2019. Crawford is a young, talented but raw linebacker, who has impressive speed. His explosiveness and potential to be a solid off-ball linebacker in coverage could help secure him a final spot on this Broncos roster. If Crawford can produce at a high level on special teams and contribute on defense, he has a real shot at replacing Jones and Jewell in 2020.
Projecting the Broncos 2020 inside linebackers
As we look at the Broncos inside linebackers for the 2020 season, we have to pay attention more to the back end of the roster and who will contribute behind Johnson and Davis, as well as special teams. With both Johnson and Davis penciled in as Denver’s starters, I believe we will see Strnad serve as their backup with a critical role as a special teams player. Behind them, Jewell, Jones, Watson, and Crawford will battle it out for one of the position’s final spots during training camp.
I think Jewell will likely stay on the roster as the fourth LB due to his consistent special teams play. Jones will be in the same conversation, but if the Broncos only keep four inside backers, I see Jewell getting the slight nod over Jones.
Watson will likely remain on the practice squad as a developmental player. However, with Crawford’s athleticism and explosiveness, he could also become a stow-away on the team’s practice squad as a developmental player also. He has the potential to have a real future in Fangio’s defense as we continue to see the Broncos defense evolve with an emphasis on having more athletic linebackers on the field.
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