The way many analysts wrote about the Broncos' first-round needs ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, Denver desperately needed help at inside linebacker.
It was easy to point to the per-play and per-game rushing defense rankings (29th and 25th, respectively) as proof, and it is compelling in a vacuum. Though season-ending injuries to starting front-seven defenders Von Miller, Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell may not have been completely factored into that thinking, the assumption that resulted was that Denver's starting linebackers were deficient.
But according to Pro Football Focus, the Broncos may actually already have one of the league's best inside linebacker duos in the league in Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell.
In a new ranking of the 32 best ILBs in the NFL ahead of the 2021 season, Johnson ranks 10th and Jewell comes in at 19th; they are the only linebacker tandem from the same team to each rank among the top 19.
And even though the Broncos as a whole took a step back against the run last year, the linebacker still maintained a commendable level of play.
"His 2020 season wasn't quite at that same level, but Johnson is a hard-hitting linebacker who had 58 defensive stops this past year, the third-most in the NFL," Sam Monson wrote.
Even though Johnson can be the more flashy player with his dinosaur roars and imposing figure, Monson makes sure not to overlook Jewell here, either.
"Josey Jewell profiles as an old-school, throwback linebacker," Monson wrote. "He wasn't the most physically imposing specimen or the most spectacular athlete when he was drafted, so he lasted until the fourth round, but he has been an incredibly productive player at the NFL level, similar to what he did in college. Jewell was targeted 70 times this past season and allowed only 9.6 yards per completion."
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Elsewhere on defense, a couple of the Broncos' rookie safeties have made some strong impressions early in offseason practices. As The Denver Post's Kyle Newman writes, Justin Simmons is already in their corner. "They're quick learners, and it's really fun just being able to kind of work through [coverage questions] together," Simmons said. "Not necessarily like a hierarchy, but let's work through this together because even in coaching them up and seeing a play that I might see a little bit different than they do, it helps me broaden my own horizon. It helps me learn the playbook a little bit more."