Inside linebacker has been a position the Denver Broncos have been looking to upgrade at dating back to the loss of Danny Trevathan after 2015 and Brandon Marshall after 2018. In the upcoming 2020 season, the Broncos will look at their fifth-round rookie selection of Justin Strnad as a potential player to build around. After analyzing all of the Broncos day two picks, K.J. Hamler, Michael Ojemudia, Lloyd Cushenberry III, and McTelvin Agim, we’ll kick off our analysis of Denver’s day three picks by putting Strnad under the microscope.
How will Justin Strnad impact the Broncos in 2020?
Strnad has the ability and high-level football intelligence to be a starter from day one, and his character earned rave reviews from his teammates and coaches at Wake Forest, as heard in Wake Forest defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill’s interview with PFN’s own Cody Roark.
“He is extremely, extremely smart, and if he doesn’t know it, he’s going to work at learning it,” Hemphill said. “As soon as I got to meet him, I just picked up on, this kid loves football, he loves to learn, he loves to get into the system and understand the inner workings of the system.”
Hemphill called Strnad “a coach’s dream” and said that even after rupturing his biceps tendon in 2019, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season, Strnad didn’t miss a single practice or meeting, and was engaged as if he was going to play every week.
Strnad’s most impressive traits
The one trait that jumps off the tape when watching Strnad is his instinctual understanding of how his role defensively adjusts to whatever the offense is presenting him. Those instincts paired with his thorough tape study, give him the rare ability to see where the ball is going before it even gets there. This makes his on-field play speed much faster than his 4.7 40-yard dash time would suggest. He’s rangy enough to roam anywhere between the numbers, which should help the Broncos defense suffocate any outside runs.
Strnad also has high-end coverage skills, that paired with his body type, almost makes him more of a hybrid safety or moneybacker than a true inside linebacker. In his first full season starting at Wake Forest, Strnad reeled in three interceptions from the linebacker position and finished his college career with a total of four. He should have no problem locking down running backs out of the backfield, which is where head coach Vic Fangio’s defense primarily asks linebackers to help in coverage.
Despite his smaller, 6’3″, 238-pound frame, Strnad does a good job of both wrapping up and hitting the ball-carrier using force. That said, he does miss tackles sometimes, and he might have a hard time in the National Football League against power runners like Derrick Henry or Leonard Fournette coming downhill towards him.
Strnad also has a hard time shedding blocks due to his slender frame, which means if he gets caught up in traffic and isn’t able to slice through a gap, he can be taken out of the play too easily. Additionally, he needs to work on staying more disciplined with some of his assignments, as he’ll occasionally bite on play-action or on double moves in coverage.
What does Justin Strnad’s path towards playing time in 2020 look like?
Barring injury, Strnad should expect to become a rotational linebacker for the Broncos as well as a fixture on special teams in 2020. Last year, Alexander Johnson cemented his spot in the Broncos starting defensive lineup. His on-field play last season for the Broncos was arguably the best from the LB position since Trevathan in 2015.
Veteran Todd Davis will also return in 2020 after the Broncos picked up his team option, which will pay him $6 million for the season, meaning it would be surprising if he were to be benched or cut, especially considering his impactful contribution in 2019.
The odds for Strnad to earn a starting role in 2020 are slim, and even for him to earn the third spot on the depth chart, as well as snaps on special teams, he’ll have to compete with some of the Broncos proven veterans.
Josey Jewell was the Broncos’ fourth-round pick in 2018 and has started various games for them at inside linebacker. He has also been a regular special teams contributor in each of his first two seasons in the league. Jewell so far hasn’t lived up to his pre-draft expectations, but he’s a more proven commodity at this point in his career than Strnad.
Joe Jones is also likely to make the team’s final roster, purely based on his special-teams contributions. Jones is a valuable special-teams player for the Broncos, who earned the role of special teams captain due to his contributions in that phase of the game last season. Despite his impactful potential, Strnad will have to overcome various obstacles in his path when it comes to immediate playing time in 2020.