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2021 free agency preview: Denver's options at inside and outside linebacker

When March 17 arrives and the new league year officially begins, teams across the league will be able to add an influx of talent to their roster.

As General Manager George Paton enters his first free-agency period, the Broncos could choose to add to their roster in several key areas. Over the coming days, we'll evaluate some of the top options who are poised to enter the open market.

We continue our look at the defensive side of the ball as we evaluate options at linebacker.


Shaquil Barrett, Carl Lawson, Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Melvin Ingram III, Bud Dupree, Leonard Floyd, Trey Hendrickson, Matthew Judon, Haason Reddick

Three seasons ago, Shaquil Barrett played a supporting role as Von Miller and Bradley Chubb formed one of the league's best pass-rushing duos. Now, after leading a dominant Tampa Bay defensive effort in the Super Bowl, Barrett is widely viewed as the top edge rusher that could potentially hit the free agent market. He posted an NFL-high 19.5 sacks in 2019 as he made the Pro Bowl and continued to rack up pressures in 2020.

Behind Barrett, Carl Lawson, Haason Reddick and Bud Dupree could be the next players to take a major step forward. Lawson, who played at defensive end in 2020, posted 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 11 starts. Reddick, a 2017 first-round pick, enjoyed his own breakout season in 2020 with 12.5 sacks. Dupree, before a mid-season ACL injury, was on pace to post his second consecutive season with at least 10 sacks. His six forced fumbles over the last two years showcase his big-play ability, which the Broncos have missed at times over the last few years.

Jadeveon Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowler, could join his fourth team in four years after playing eight games for the Titans last season, and he would move back to an outside linebacker role in Denver after spending the last two years as a defensive end. Yannick Ngakoue and Trey Hendrickson could be options, but they may be bigger projections, as they have spent their NFL careers as 4-3 defensive ends.

Chicago's Leonard Floyd, who spent three years playing for Vic Fangio after the Bears took him with the ninth pick in 2016, finally broke out for a double-digit sack total in 2020 for the Rams. Melvin Ingram III, meanwhile, is a veteran option with three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons from 2017-19.

Matthew Judon is another intriguing option, with Pro Bowl nods in each of the last two years and a combined 15.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 54quarterback hits since the start of 2019.


Jayon Brown, K.J. Wright

Just two inside linebackers remain on PFF's list of the top 100 free agents after Lavonte David re-signed with the Buccaneers and Matt Milano signed an extension with the Bills to remain in Buffalo. Titans linebacker Jayon Brown is likely the top remaining option, followed by Seattle's K.J. Wright.

Brown, a 2017 fifth-round pick, suffered an elbow injury in November that ended his season after 10 games, but he reportedly received full medical clearance earlier this month. Brown has posted 16 passes defensed over the last two seasons and also has four career forced fumbles, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 9.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 18 quarterback hits and a pair of touchdowns. His ability to cover running backs and tight ends will make him valuable if he reaches the open market.

Wright, meanwhile, is a one-time Pro Bowler poised to enter the 11th year of his career. He's posted four interceptions and 21 passes defensed over the last two years. He's racked up tackles — 218 in the last two years — while also adding 16 tackles for loss since 2019. He's also been readily available; he's started all 16 games in five of the last seven seasons, and he started 15 in one of those other two campaigns.


Let's start at outside linebacker, where the Broncos' needs remain unclear. If the team picks up Miller's option or renegotiates his contract to allow him to remain in Denver, it seems highly unlikely the team would add another rusher in free agency. Miller and Chubb would be one of the league's best pass-rushing duos, and the Broncos would hope they could remain on the field together for the first time since 2018. That season, the two players combined for 26.5 sacks, which was among the highest totals for a duo in the league. Denver also returns Malik Reed, who showed his potential with a team-high eight sacks in Year 2. In this scenario, perhaps the Broncos would consider re-signing unrestricted free agent Jeremiah Attaochu, who posted five sacks in 13 games as a reserve.

If Miller's time in Denver comes to a close, it's possible any of the available players could be options. Denver has several needs to fill, and the Broncos may not be able to wait until the draft to add an impactful edge rusher. Perhaps a Dupree, Floyd or Reddick could make sense as a complementary piece to Chubb. Of course, this decision also depends on the team's evaluation of both Chubb's ability to serve as a top-end rusher and of Reed's ability to serve as a long-term starter.

Denver's options at inside linebacker seem more limited. Both Brown and Wright could be options for Denver, though, if Head Coach Vic Fangio is looking to add a potentially dynamic piece in the middle of the defense. General Manager George Paton said the Broncos plan to tender restricted free agent Alexander Johnson, but Denver could still add talent at the position. Second-year player Justin Strnad could potentially be an X-factor in Denver's decision-making process. If the Broncos' staff believes the 2020 fifth-round pick can serve as a coverage linebacker in the team's sub-packages, perhaps they can spend their cap space elsewhere.

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