Strengths and weaknesses of the Broncos 2020 defense

After a strong finish to the 2019 season, the Broncos are looking to build on their strengths on defense in 2020. Which areas do they need to improve on?

After previously analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Broncos offense, it’s now time to look at the players projected to make the final roster on defense, as well as, what the strengths and weaknesses of the Broncos 2020 defense are.

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The talk with the Broncos during the off-season has been centrally focused on the offensive side of the ball. With head coach Vic Fangio entering the second season with Denver, the defense is returning with many familiar faces across the entire lineup.

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Is this Denver’s best defensive end group since its Super Bowl 50 team?

Jurrell Casey

One of the bigger league-wide moves of the off-season came when general manager John Elway sent a 7th round pick to the Tennessee Titans, allowing them to land perennial pro-bowler Jurrell Casey. Losing a long-time contributing veteran like Derek Wolfe hurt the Broncos this offseason, but the acquisition of Casey will help Denver recover. Casey is talented at stuffing the run and pressuring the passer from the interior, which is an area the Broncos struggled in 2019.

Shelby Harris

Landing Casey in a trade was a great bargain to start the off-season, but signing Shelby Harris to a one-year deal, worth $3 million might have been the best bargain deal for the Broncos. Harris returns to the Fangio lineup after tallying 6 sacks in 2019. He’ll have a significant role on the defense in 2020.

Dre’Mont Jones

Dre’Mont Jones provided the Broncos with strong play defensively during the final stretch of the season. His on-field accomplishments were overshadowed by that of fellow 2019 draft class members Drew Lock, Dalton Risner, and Noah Fant, but it would be wise to keep an eye on him. Before the addition of Casey, Jones was considered an early favorite to start at the end position in 2020.

McTelvin Agim

Considering the Broncos’ overall depth amongst the defensive line, Agim’s playing time as a rookie will likely be on a rotational basis, but he strong upside as an interior pass rusher that will benefit from the veteran presence of Harris and Casey. His athleticism and quickness, especially for his size, will be interesting for Fangio to work with. Some areas of his on-field technique require some sharpening, but he has the potential to become an every-down player at some point down the line.

Overview

The Broncos had a strong group of defensive ends last season, with Harris, Jones, Derek Wolfe, and Demarcus Walker. Despite the depth already there, they still found a way to upgrade the position.

The addition of Casey could potentially serve as an upgrade in comparison to what Wolfe offered the Broncos in previous seasons, while Jones’ continued development and the draft selection of Agim provides them with significant depth.

Denver’s interior pass rush should be able to allow them to rotate multiple players in various sub-packages this season due to the amount of depth they have. The depth could make the defensive line one of the greater strengths of the Broncos 2020 defense.

As Walker enters the last year of his contract, he may have to fight his way onto the roster. He possesses the talent to be one of the best 55 players on the team, but Denver may not need him if some of the younger players continue to emerge.

Grade: A

Can Mike Purcell maintain the pace he set last season?

Mike Purcell

Purcell won’t offer the team much in terms of an interior pass-rushing presence, but Casey, Harris, Agim, and Jones have that covered. However, he does offer support as one of the league’s better run-stuffers. The Broncos run defense improved when Purcell was the full-time nose tackle in 2019.

Christian Covington

Covington shouldn’t see the field too often in terms of on-field starter reps, but he’ll gain strong consideration as a player who can rotate inside and play defensive tackle. As one of the Broncos later off-season additions, he’ll be a solid rotational player that should help keep Purcell fresh throughout the season.

Overview

The Broncos enter the 2020 season with confidence in Purcell to be their starting nose tackle. With both Harris and Casey having the ability to play inside the trenches as well, Denver can mix and match their personnel to give them a combination of size, speed, and athleticism to get after the quarterback and stuff the run.

With the variety of interior pass rushers that the Broncos have, some players are bound to miss out on a final roster spot.

Covington is a decent run-stuffing option, but if Purcell were to miss any games for the Broncos, it could impact the Broncos run defense. The interior of the defensive line will be under the microscope for the Broncos 2020 defense.

Grade: B

Can Denver’s pass rush off the edge return to form in 2020?

Von Miller

In terms of sack production, Miller took a step back last season, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he isn’t the same player off the edge that he’s been in the past. Despite only registering 8 total sacks in 2019, Miller was still effective at creating pressure and getting hits on the quarterback to help fluster opposing offenses.

Bradley Chubb

When Chubb tore his ACL last season, it drastically impacted the Broncos defense and their overall pass-rush effectiveness. His return will help boost the Broncos edge rush to return back to an elite level. In 2020, Chubb looks to build off of his rookie season that is second only to Javon Kearse in terms of sack production by a first-year player.

Jeremiah Attaochu

One of the Broncos’ more impactful moves of the off-season was their decision to bring Attaochu back on a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. In 2019, Attaochu closed the season on a high note, tallying 3.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, and five quarterback hits in the Broncos final four games.

Malik Reed

After Chubb went down with his knee injury, the Broncos put a lot on Reed’s plate as an undrafted rookie free agent. Reed was up for the challenge, however, helping the Broncos in terms of quarterback hits, hurries, pressures, and pass-rushing productivity. The goal for him in 2020 will be to boost his overall sack production, where he totaled just two in 2019, despite the pressure he created off the edge.

Justin Hollins

Hollins finds himself in an interesting position this offseason, as his overall athleticism gives him the flexibility to play both inside linebacker and edge rusher depending on what the Broncos need. That type of flexibility combined with his ability to be a key special teams player is good in terms of his roster chances at making the roster. It would be unlikely Denver parts ways with their 5th round pick from last season.

Overview

In 2020, there is hope the Broncos pass rush returns to the form it saw in 2018 as Chubb returns from injury. Miller looks to bounce back from a statistical outlying season that saw him generate consistent quarterback pressures and hurries, but one of the lower sack outputs of his career. With a healthy Chubb and Miller, Denver’s edge presence should become a strength for the Broncos defense in 2020.

Behind them, the depth looks to return to the form they previously had in 2015 with Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray, as Attaochu and Reed both provide the team with promise. Both will have to become more consistent when they get on-field reps, but, they should help keep the Broncos pass rush efficient.

For Denver, it will be vital for their pass rush to return to its formerly dominant state considering the young depth in the secondary.

Grade: A-

Can one of Denver’s young linebackers emerge as a starter next to Alexander Johnson?

Alexander Johnson

Johnson was one player who improved his standing on the roster in 2019. Johnson went from being on the roster bubble last season to eventually becoming the team’s star inside linebacker in five weeks. In 2020, he’ll look to build on a strong season that saw him energize the Broncos defense, helping them improve their rankings week to week against the run and pass.

Todd Davis

Davis’s days with the Broncos may be numbered, but he’ll be a critical part of the defense this season after the team picked up his option for the 2020 season. With that said, one year remains on his contract, and the Broncos could be looking at the depth behind him if they decide to move on from him after this season.

Justin Strnad

The Broncos addition of Strnad at the bottom of the fifth round is something to keep an eye on. As the Broncos look to build on their overall depth at the position, the expectations for what the rookie could bring to the team are already high. Strnad projects to be one of the team’s better coverage backers due to his overall length and explosiveness and could have a significant on-field role in 2020.

Josey Jewell

Jewell enters the season with a lot riding on how he performs in training camp. In terms of on-field play, Jewell hasn’t quite lived up to the organization’s expectations since being drafted in Round 4 of the 2018 draft. However, Jewell is a valuable special teams contributor and rotational linebacker that thrives against the run. If his play can take the next step in 2020, he’ll be in consideration along with Strnad to see who may replace Davis next season if the Broncos go in a different direction.

Joe Jones

Jones enters 2020 as one of the team’s biggest contributors on special teams. As a special teams captain, Jones has been reliable for special teams coordinator Tom McMahon. In terms of on-field play, the odds of Jones seeing the field on defense are low considering their overall depth at the position with young players like Josh Watson and Strnad.

Overview

The Broncos haven’t entered a season with an inside linebacker core with that features as much promise as the unit they currently have since 2015 where they were led by Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall.

Despite not starting in a football game, college or pro, since 2014, Johnson quickly emerged as one of the NFL’s top-end LB’s. With more reps under his belt and a greater familiarity with Fangio’s defense, he should be even better in 2020.

Davis will hold down his starting job, at least to enter the season, but don’t be surprised if one of Denver’s younger linebackers, Strnad or Jewell, secure some key playing time. Strnad, in particular, could be a considerable upgrade in pass coverage once he adjusts to the speed of the NFL. If the Broncos youth at linebacker can step up, their overall unit could quickly become one of the strengths of the Broncos 2020 defense.

Jones and Josh Watson will likely compete at training camp for one of the final LB spots. Watson has a good chance to get the nod after he displayed various flashes in the preseason and on special teams in 2019.

Grade: B

Which cornerback will start Week 1 alongside A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan?

A.J. Bouye

For the Broncos, bringing in Bouye for nothing more than a fourth-round pick is a great value trade by Elway. Bouye is coming off of one of his tougher seasons since his rookie year, but playing in Fangio’s cornerback-friendly scheme should help him return to a stronger form. Bouye enters the season as a great fit for the defensive scheme as well.

Bryce Callahan

Broncos fans were understandably upset when Callahan missed the entirety of the 2019 season, re-aggravating his foot injury, after signing a three-year deal with the Broncos in free agency. With Callahan entering 2020 with a clean bill of health, he has a chance to make fans forget their frustration if he can play at 100 percent. When healthy, he’s considered as one of the best slot coverage players in the league.

De’Vante Bausby

The Broncos featured a revolving door at cornerback throughout the 2019 season, but that might not have been the case if Bausby didn’t suffer an injury against the Chargers in Week 5. In a limited sample size, Bausby was playing on a more consistent level than Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris overall. Entering 2020, Bausby is considered as one of the favorites to start on the boundary opposite of Bouye for Week 1 of the 2020 season.

Michael Ojemudia

Entering 2020, the Broncos will figure out how they plan on utilizing Ojemudia in 2020. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell anticipates Ojemudia to have a significant role on the defense as a rookie.

He’s really on schedule as a tackler and a hitter, which we know is very important to the Broncos’ style of defense. How he fits in—we want him to do as much as he can as a rookie. Time will only tell that. What I can tell you is he’s really, really in the top part of the class as far as his learning curve. He’s picked up our scheme in a virtual sense and about as good as you’ll find in a rookie. He’s off to a good start. We’re just really eager to get him on the field and get started coaching him in a physical sense.”

Duke Dawson Jr.

While the Broncos hope for Callahan to play at the level he did in 2018, Dawson will be a player who receives strong consideration to be in the defensive rotation in 2020. Considering Callahan’s injury history, the Broncos have a need to have a good backup plan. Dawson played very well in the slot last year and should keep the secondary afloat if Callahan were to miss any more time.

Isaac Yiadom

2020 will be a critical season for Yiadom as he enters his third season as Bronco. Entering training camp this July, the pressure will be on for him to perform well. If he struggles, he could find his roster spot in jeopardy. However, with that said, he finished 2019 on a strong note and has some momentum on his side. If he looks as good as he did down the stretch last season, he could push Bausby for the starting spot at the boundary.

Davontae Harris

As is the case with Yiadom and Bausby, Harris enters training camp in a unique position that could see him as a starter alongside Callahan and Bouye in Week 1 or off the roster. In 2019, Harris demonstrated various impact moments on the field in coverage but also had some critical breakdowns, all of which should make the overall competition in training camp an important storyline to follow.

Overview

Despite their youth and inexperience in 2019, the Broncos had the 11th best passing defense in the NFL. If Bouye plays how he did in 2019, and injuries keep Callahan off the field, the Broncos secondary could become one of the weaknesses of the Broncos 2020 defense.

With many question marks entering the season, Denver’s starting cornerback situation is something to keep an eye on. The depth they have at the position is promising, but the overall experience will be important for the unit itself. The bottom four-to-five CB’s on their depth chart rival most of the units in the NFL.

Grade: C+

Do the Broncos have the best safety duo in the NFL?

Justin Simmons

Simmons has taken over as the face of the Broncos defense. Last season, Simmons accomplished career highs in passes defended, interceptions, and tackles while serving as the on-field play caller under head coach Vic Fangio. The Broncos are looking to sign him to a long-term deal before the league’s July 15th deadline. If a deal doesn’t occur, Simmons will play 2020 on the franchise tag.

Kareem Jackson

Jackson’s on-field play thrived with Simmons on the back-end, despite making the full-time change to safety. Jackson was productive for the Broncos both against the run and defending the pass which helped them against some of the spread teams they faced. Now that he has a year of experience playing in Fangio’s complex scheme, 2020 should be a strong campaign for him.

Trey Marshall

After the Broncos lost Will Parks in free agency, Denver is hoping Marshall can fulfill a role as a hybrid safety in Fangio’s scheme. Marshall started the final two games of the 2019 season and did an adequate job of filling in for Jackson. He impressed as a run defender but also experienced a couple of breakdowns in pass coverage, which is to be expected due to the learning curve of the defense considering how sudden the news came when Jackson was suspended at the end of the season.

Alijah Holder

As the Broncos look for depth at free safety behind Simmons, Holder is a name to keep an eye on. The headstrong defensive back was one of the Broncos’ best undrafted free agent signings in 2019, although he didn’t make the final roster and was signed to the practice squad, he played very well in the preseason following his transition of safety. Pair that with Denver’s wide-open competition for the last safety spot on the roster, and Holder has a chance of making the final 55.

Overview

The Broncos may have one of the league’s best safety duos, in comparison with the Minnesota Vikings duo of Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith. If both Jackson and Simmons play at a strong level once again in 2020, it could solidify their status as one of the best units in the league.

The youth and depth behind those two is concerning because there isn’t a sample size regarding how things would look if either Simmons or Jackson were to get injured.

Behind Denver’s third-year player Marshall, the depth features several undrafted free agents and practice squad players who will compete at training camp to see which one of them will make the final roster.

Denver’s safety talent is rich at the top of the depth chart, but an injury or two could quickly change the outlook of the overall unit for the Broncos 2020 defense.

Grade: A-

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