As the 2021 offseason winds down and training camp approaches, we're turning our attention toward the season. Over the next few days, we'll take a look at each of the position groups on the Broncos' roster before finishing our training camp preview series with a look at some of the top questions facing the team. In our look at each position, we'll fill you in on what we know about the group and what we hope to find out during training camp. We'll also identify a player to keep an eye on when practices and the preseason get underway shortly.We continue the series with a look at the Broncos' inside linebacking corps.
What we know:
The Broncos' inside linebacking corps shifted drastically just ahead of the 2020 season, as the team released longtime starter Todd Davis in the days before the season. Former fourth-round pick Josey Jewell slid in to fill Davis' role, and he and Alexander Johnson started all 16 games alongside each other during the 2020 campaign. Johnson, in his second season as a starter, posted a team-high 124 tackles and a sack, while Jewell returned to a starting role to post 113 tackles and two sacks.
Behind Johnson and Jewell, though, the Broncos were thin at the inside linebacking position. A training camp injury to 2020 fourth-round pick Justin Strnad knocked him out before the season began, and late free-agent signing Mark Barron was unable to remain healthy.
As the team entered the 2021 offseason, the Broncos tendered Johnson at a second-round level to keep him in Denver through at least this year. Denver also drafted Baron Browning in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and GM George Paton and Head Coach Vic Fangio have each spoken about Browning's positional versatility that could allow him to play both inside and outside linebacker.
Josh Watson, a special teams stalwart, is among the other inside linebackers who return to Denver in 2021.
What we need to learn:
The Broncos made a significant investment in the position when they spent a third-round pick on Browning during the draft, but they have yet to see dividends on the young player. Browning suffered a lower-leg injury early in the offseason and missed nearly all of the Broncos' on-field work during the offseason program. As the Broncos broke for the summer break, Fangio was hopeful Browning would be able to return when training camp began.
"It's more of a bone thing than a ligament thing," Fangio said in June. "He'll be full go and ready to go by training camp. That's been probably the biggest negative of this offseason work — him not getting the work that he would have gotten. We're still very high on him and very optimistic. Hopefully he'll be able to carve out a role on the team, both defensively and in the kicking game. I'm anxious to get him back working in training camp. I still like him all the same and he has versatility. He could play some outside for us and he could play some inside. We'd like to settle him in one spot, but we may not be able to, especially with the injury. We'll see how that evolves."
If Browning is healthy, the Broncos will need to use the few weeks of training camp and their preseason slate to figure out where he fits in the defense. Should he play inside, he could be a valuable sub-package player that could help against the pass. For now, though, Browning remains a relative unknown after a career at Ohio State in which he moved around to several different positions. It's possible he could be a strong addition to the position group that could complement Johnson and Jewell, but it's unclear how quickly he'll be able to make an impact.
As we prepare for training camp, here's a glimpse back at the offseason program with a look at the inside linebackers.
Player to watch:
As Browning tries to return from injury, Strnad will aim to do the same. Strnad suffered a wrist injury in the early stages of training camp last season, but he returned to the field this offseason.
"Justin — other than him being in meetings last year, he really is a rookie," Fangio said in June. "He got hurt last year in camp very, very early in practice five, six or seven. He's really like a rookie on the field, but he's doing well. We like the way he moves, and we like his attitude. He's definitely a very conscientious player. He wants to carve out a role for himself with the defense. It'll be critical for him to be a mainstay on our special teams. Your backup linebackers have to do that. Overall, we've all been pleased with Justin and where he's at. So far, he's shown no ill side effects of the wrist injury he had. We're going to try and be cautious with him in that regard. Eventually he's going to have to use it and he has been. We think the future is bright for him."
Strnad hasn't played a game since suffering a season-ending injury in his final collegiate season in 2019, so it bears watching how well he's able to get up to playing speed. As he tries to do so, he knows he'll have to earn a role.
"I think obviously when you're somebody like me and you haven't played a snap in the NFL, you just automatically have something to prove," Strnad told DenverBroncos.com in June. "Obviously I haven't played a snap in the NFL, so I still have everything to prove. Like I said, I'm just taking it day by day. … I'm just really trying to get better every day, trying to learn the defense so I can play fast and have a good understanding of what's going on out there on the field. If I can do that, I think I could help this team."