ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the early days of camp, the Broncos' offensive rookies have garnered most of the media attention.
That's somewhat understandable, as first-round pick Jerry Jeudy continues to impress on a daily basis, KJ Hamler shows off impressive speed and Lloyd Cushenberry III pushes for a starting role.
On the defensive side, though, at least one rookie has caught Head Coach Vic Fangio's eye. Inside linebacker Justin Strnad, whom the Broncos selected in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, has shown plenty of potential in the early days of training camp.
"I've liked Justin so far," Fangio said Wednesday. "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."
At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, Strnad has good size at the position and may be athletic enough to help the Broncos cover tight ends.
"He's looking clean," starting linebacker Alexander Johnson said. "Obviously, he's running with the receivers, getting good drops, picking up the defense really fast. He's looking really good. Obviously, it's just [five] practices in, so nobody's going to be perfect. I'm not perfect. He's not perfect, but so far he's doing really well and looking really good. I'm glad we got him as a linebacker."
The Wake Forest product was an honorable mention All-ACC player in 2018 as he posted 105 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumbles and five passes defensed. He suffered a torn bicep in the middle of his senior season, but still earned another set of honorable mention All-ACC honors with 69 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and four pass breakups in seven games.
THE REASON WHY HE PLAYS
After suffering three torn ACLs and rehabbing for much of the last three years, tight end Jake Butt has had moments where he's considered walking away from the game he loves.
"There were a lot of days that I wanted to quit," Jake Butt said. "There were a lot of days that I was really down on myself, questioning myself, questioning why I'm even doing this kind of thing. For me, it's my support group, my teammates, my friends and maybe just a little bit of craziness that I've had implanted in me from my parents and my family growing up. You can't quit and just show up tomorrow. It might not be the best day and the path might not be linear. You're going to have some down days, but eventually you're going to go back up. I'm really happy I stuck with it because I do feel really, really good out there. I feel like I can still play in this league and contribute. I can even get much better than what I'm playing right now. That's a lesson I definitely learned through this and everybody can learn [from it]. Bad days are going to come and tough days are going to come, but you can't quit. You just have to keep showing up. [Strength and Conditioning Coach Loren] Landow says, 'Chop wood and carry water.' It's a book he gave to us and It's been my mindset through this whole thing. Just the little things you have to do on a daily basis to get you back to where you want to go."
Now healthy, Butt is competing for a roster spot in a crowded tight end room. He is playing without a brace and has made several big catches as he tries to appear in a regular-season game for the first time since 2018.
Linebacker Alexander Johnson was a pleasant surprise in 2019 as he made 12 starts and helped the Broncos solidify their run defense. The physical player recorded 93 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three passes defensed and an interception in those 12 games, and he's looking for more in his second season as a starter.
"If you're playing football and you're not trying to be a Pro Bowler, why are you playing?" Johnson said. "That's my goal: to be one of the best in the league. I know one goal I've set for myself is try and cause a lot of forced fumbles. I want to be one of those guys that can cause a whole lot of fumbles. That's one goal I know I've set for myself. Other than that, just be the best teammate I can be and go out there, have fun and come with a lot of energy."
If you've ever seen Johnson's dinosaur celebration, it's clear energy should never be a problem for the young player.
In the most unusual offseason since the 2011 lockout, the Broncos' rookies have still found a way to adjust to life in the NFL. As the regular season approaches, Fangio said the young players have done "a good job" as they try to acclimate without the benefit of an in-person offseason program or preseason games.
"I think our coaches did a good job with the virtual stuff that we had in the offseason," Fangio said. "They did a good job with them when we had them in here for the extra four, five days, whatever it was. I think these guys have engaged themselves in the learning. I think they realized, they've heard it enough from you guys and read it and heard it from other people that, hey, it's going to be tough on the rookies with the condensed training camp and no preseason games. I think they feel that urgency. They've done a good job on their own and the coaches have done a good job.
Fangio realizes, though, that there's still a lot of work to be done and there's little time to waste.
"I've been impressed with where they are at this point, but I have to keep reminding myself that I think we only have 13 or 14 practices left before we're in game week for Tennessee," Fangio said. "We have to squeeze things in. Many times, when I'm making the script or installing, I get the feeling like we've only practiced three or four days and you think you can go slower. Then I have to remind myself to look at what's left and what's coming and how soon it is. We have to find that fine balance every day."