The Broncos' 2020 season is almost here, and as training camp approaches, we're taking a look at each of the Broncos' position groups. In this set of previews, we'll take a deep dive into what we know about the given position group and what we still need to learn. We'll also identify a player to watch and choose a battle that bears watching. At the end of the series, we'll provide an overarching look at the best training camp battles and which players have the most to prove.
We continue the series with a look at inside linebacker.
What we know:
The Broncos' run defense struggled early in 2019, as the unit allowed Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette to rush for 225 yards in a Week 4 loss to the Jaguars. A week later, Alexander Johnson entered the lineup — and the Broncos' fortunes changed. Along with Mike Purcell and the return of a healthy Kareem Jackson, Johnson helped key an impressive turnaround in which the Broncos allowed just 35 rushing yards in a win over the Chargers. Johnson totaled eight tackles, a tackle for loss and an end-zone interception in his first career defensive snaps. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound player wouldn't relinquish his starting spot, as he started the final 12 games of the season. Powerful against the run and adept in pass coverage, Johnson tallied 1.5 sacks, 93 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and two forced fumbles in that span. Johnson, who tallied double-digit tackles in three games, was named Pro Football Focus' defensive player of the month in October. He returns for his first full season as a starter in Vic Fangio's defense, and former Broncos linebacker Al Wilson feels strongly about his potential.
"I believe that he can be an All-Pro, Pro Bowl middle linebacker if he just continues to study the game, stay focused and committed to it," Wilson said in October. "There's no question he can be one of the best middle linebackers in the business."
Johnson joins seventh-year pro Todd Davis in the starting lineup. Davis, who enters his fifth season as a full-time starter for Denver, tallied a team-high 134 tackles in 14 games in 2019.
Behind Johnson and Davis, a slew of players will compete for snaps. The Broncos drafted Wake Forest's Justin Strnad in the fifth round of the 2020 Draft, and veterans Josey Jewell, Joe Jones and Josh Watson also return to Denver. Justin Hollins, a second-year player, played both inside linebacker and outside linebacker in 2019.
What we need to learn:
Johnson brought a new element to the Broncos' linebacking corps in 2019, but we'll be watching in training camp to see if he can take his game to an even higher level.
"He had about three years away from football," Fangio said in late December. "That's a long time. To come back and get thrown right in there and start playing and play as well as he did, I think it speaks volumes about his talent and his ability and who he is as a guy.
"Hopefully a solid offseason will make him even better."
We'll also need to see how the rotation shapes up behind Johnson and Davis. As a former starter, Jewell still figures to be a strong fill-in player who can contribute on special teams, but we'll need to see how Jones, Watson and Strnad figure into the rotation.
Strnad could possibly fill one of the Broncos' biggest holes, as his athleticism and pass coverage skills could make him an option to matchup with tight ends. Kansas City's Travis Kelce caught 11 passes for 142 yards in the Chiefs' Week 15 win over Denver. If Strnad can help limit players like Kelce and Oakland's Darren Waller, the Broncos may finally have an answer for an issue with which they've dealt for several years.
Player to watch:
Let's stick with Strnad here, because the 178th-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft is an intriguing addition. The former team captain and 2019 honorable mention All-ACC player posted 5.5 tackles for loss, four passes defensed and an interception in his seven healthy games last season. Were it not for a torn right bicep tendon, Strnad may have been drafted on Day 2 of the draft. The two-year starter totaled 244 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three forced fumbles, 10 passes defensed and four interceptions in 46 career games for the Demon Deacons. Now fully healthy, Strnad's experience in zone coverage could lend itself well to Fangio's defensive scheme. It may not be long before Strnad pushes for reps in Denver's sub-packages, which means this rookie could be among the team's most impactful.
Battle to watch:
Jones and Watson would have to beat out Strnad or Jewell to make the roster, and that's definitely a battle worth watching. As I mentioned above, though, I'm more curious to see how quickly Strnad can earn reps in the team's nickel or dime packages. Both Davis and Johnson thrive largely as run-stoppers, which means there's a role that Strnad could fill quickly if he proves capable. It won't just be about athleticism, though, as Strnad tries to get on the field. He'll need to prove he's healthy and ready to return to game speed after nearly a year away from the game. He'll also have to digest Fangio's system in short order without the benefit of OTA reps. It won't be impossible for Strnad to make an early impact, but it certainly will not be easy.