ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A season ago, linebacker Justin Strnad quickly garnered attention at training camp.
The 2020 fifth-round pick received second-team reps in a series of August practices and seemed poised to earn snaps in the team's nickel package.
"I've liked Justin so far," Fangio said last August. "He's shown some ability … in the pass defense area — [and in] the run game, we haven't had a lot of shots [at] it yet. The inside linebacker … [is] a position that will suffer more than others with the lack of training camp time and the lack of preseason games. He's got a lot of work [to do]. We have to speed up the process with him. Overall, I think he's doing well. I like what I see.
"A lot of that is based upon just what I see which enables me to predict. You might not be seeing it on tape or you guys watching in practice live, but I like certain things that indicate to me that he'll be able to do it eventually."
A wrist injury, though, forced Strnad off the field in late August and required surgery that ended his rookie season before it began.
"Obviously it was just disappointing, because I've played football for my whole life just about and I've been lucky enough not to have any major injuries up until my senior year of college," Strnad told DenverBroncos.com recently. "And then I came here and was healthy and then towards the end of training camp, got injured there. Obviously it was devastating. It's a dream to play in the NFL, something I'm still looking forward to. It was just devastating to not be able to have that opportunity last year."
Though he was unable to help his team on the field, Strnad spent the season in meetings to help prepare himself for his eventual return.
"It sucked not being able to be out there, but still being in here in the facility and being in the linebackers meetings and learning from everybody and just watching the game film [was helpful]," Strnad said. "… Just being able to watch those guys play and just put the reps together, watching the film with the guys, was good. It's obviously a learning experience. It's not ideal, but it was better than nothing."
After returning to full health three or four months ago, Strnad is back on the field for organized team activities and looking to re-earn his spot in the rotation. The Broncos selected linebacker Baron Browning in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but Strnad should figure into the rotation, as well.
"I'm just looking to contribute in any way, whether it's base, sub-packages, special teams," Strnad said. "Obviously I just want to help this team win in any way. I think we've got a good team this year. If everybody comes together and we have that chemistry, I think we have a chance to have a good year. I just want to be a part of that."
Part of the challenge will be to remain available. Strnad also missed a portion of his final collegiate season with a bicep injury. He recorded 69 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and four pass breakups in seven games that season as he earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. The previous year, he had 105 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and five passes defensed as he earned honorable mention All-ACC honors for the first time.
Back-to-back seasons with injuries, though, have made the early days of OTAs feel quite meaningful for the 6-foot-3, 238-pound player.
"I've played my whole life," Strnad said. "Football means so much to me because it's what I've done, it's what I love to do. And it means a lot to my family as well. Being out there and being able to help this team win will mean a lot to me. It's something I'm really looking forward to."
As he looks to earn a role in Year 2, Strnad said he's simply looking to improve day-by-day, and he said he's more concerned with helping the team rather than a specific role. Still, it's clear Strnad is highly motivated after a lost rookie campaign.
"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 said. "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."