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Broncos' inside linebacker position becomes pass-fail proposition

Jewell, Johnson solid players, but Denver needs help in coverage
Colts Titans Football
Posted at 3:11 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 17:29:01-05

DENVER -- Injuries and ineffectiveness conspired to make 2020 a forgettable year for the Broncos defensively.

The scheme works with the right talent. It's why so many teams are copying or borrowing from Vic Fangio's iPad, among them the Los Angeles Rams, Chargers and Chicago Bears. The Rams boasted the league's best defense a year ago. A testament to the X and Os, but also defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

The Broncos don't have players like that. They did when Von Miller was in his prime and the No Fly Zone's gravitational pull grounded passing games. Beset by key losses of Miller, Mike Purcell, Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye and poor performances, the Broncos allowed 27.9 points per game (25th overall), 130 yards rushing (25th), and finished 29th in takeaways with 16.

Players respect Fangio's football IQ, with defensive end Dre'Mont Jones telling Denver7 on Wednesday, "This defense is very successful. A lot of guys in this league have taken pieces of his defense and made it their own. Seeing that and being a part of it, it really has opened my eyes to how much of a GOAT coach is."

As Fangio might say, even a good carpenter needs tools. The Broncos require playmakers at multiple positions, and that includes inside linebacker. Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are solid, but they are vulnerable in pass coverage. Jewell responded as Fangio hoped when he cut veteran Todd Davis, finishing with 110 tackles, two sacks and four passes defensed. Pro Football Focus ranked Jewell 18th in pass coverage at his position. Johnson's play fell off by PFF metrics.

In 2019, Johnson burst onto the scene, finishing as PFF's third-ranked linebacker. Last season, he fell to 22nd overall, in large part to his 30th ranking in pass coverage, a 20-spot drop from the previous season.

The Broncos need more versatility. Rookie Justin Strnad, whose rookie season ended before it started with wrist surgery in training camp, represents a hybrid player who could cover tight ends. But should the Broncos seek an upgrade from a veteran as well? That is a fair question as Jewell and Johnson did not complement each other a year ago.

What are the options? Matt Milano was on this list, but according to ESPN he has signed a four-year, $44 million deal Thursday to stay in Buffalo. He was always going to get paid because of his ability in coverage. He cashed in without ever leaving. Let's examine other possibilities:

Jayon Brown, Titans
Brown recently received medical clearance on his elbow, an injury that ended his 2019 season. The former UCLA star has been one of the best coverage linebackers for the past three seasons. PFF ranked him 10th last year. He is able to stick with his man in coverage, as seen by the low yards per catch, and has the hands to make highlight plays. The problem is that the rest of the league knows it. And with defending the pass so critical in the modern NFL, Brown figures to command big money on the open market. Spotrac projects a deal for four years, $44 million, and it could be more after Milano's signing. I am not sure Broncos will dive into that deep of a financial pool given other needs at cornerback, quarterback and defensive line.

Eric Wilson, Vikings
Wilson blossomed from a special teamer to a playmaker. Forced into a starting role due to injury, Wilson delivered three interceptions, forced two fumbles and recovered a fumble last season. Jewell and Johnson combined to force two fumbles, both by the later. Wilson has played both inside and outside in his career. It means he can rush the passer, but is not a strong run defender. In coverage, PFF ranked him 18th out of 75 qualifiers, similar to Jewell, but with more turnovers produced. Wilson would be more affordable in free agency, and Paton knows him well from their time together with the Vikings.

Kevin Pierre-Louis, Washington
He has been primarily a special teams player, but showed some coverage skills with additional chances last season with some notable lapses. Could he be a niche player on a short contract , say one year, $2 million? The Broncos don't need Pierre-Louis to improve against the run, his weakness. Jewell and Johnson are solid in that area. They need someone who can provide more range in coverage, and Pierre-Louis' 4.51 40 speed, if nothing else, is intriguing.

K.J. Wright, Seahawks
Wright has been a good player for a long time. It's easy to see Seattle finding a way to keep him. Wright was good again in coverage last season, and finished with two fumble recoveries and an interception. However, he turns 32 in July, and the Broncos appear to be focused on trending younger with Paton in charge.