Say what you want about the clock mismanagement or stubbornness to relinquish defensive play-calling, but Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio knows linebackers. Between 1986 and 1992 Fangio was the linebackers coach of the famed ‘Dome Patrol' of the New Orleans Saints — a unit regarded among the best linebacker corps of all-time.
That unit included Hall-of-Famer Rickey Jackson, as well as Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills, and Pat Swilling. The quartet combined for a staggering 18 Pro Bowls. In fact, all four earned Pro Bowl honors in 1992, becoming the only unit from the same team to do so.
In 1992, Fangio was hired as the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers in the franchise’s maiden season. He coached the late Kevin Greene who was a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker elected to the Hall of Fame 2016. From there, Fangio coached another Hall-of-Famer in Ray Lewis in Baltimore from 2006-09, and then seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis in San Francisco from 2011-14, before pairing with six-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack in Chicago in 2018.
The hardened coach clearly knows how to get the most out of talented linebackers. Although Broncos linebacker Alexander Johnson finished the 2020 season with 124 tackles (72 solo) and is an energetic, downhill thumper, he leaves much to be desired in pass coverage, as does his teammate ‘The Outlaw’ Josey Jewell, who’s coming off a career-season with 113 tackles (67 solo), five tackles for a loss, five QB hits, four passes defended, and two sacks.
The fact of the matter is, Denver needs playmakers at linebacker and Fangio can’t coach speed. Tampa Bay's World Champion duo of Devin White and Lavonte David revealed a blueprint for how to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, who've won the AFC West for the past five years.
So, while the rest of the NFL dives into the mock draft simulations and argues over which player Denver should draft at pick No. 9, there are three linebackers the Broncos could target in the second round that could be tailormade for Fangio’s defense.
Baron Browning | Ohio State
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Browning was the best of the three Buckeye linebackers I evaluated at the Senior Bowl in January. It was clear during the first day of practice that he’s a physical and high-energy defender who demonstrated countless pops against ball-carriers in all three days of practice.
Browning was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and received offers from over 30 teams including Alabama, LSU, and Notre Dame. Rather than playing college football in his home state of Texas, the premier linebacker recruit opted to attend Ohio State with NFL aspirations like Buckeye alumni Randy Gradishar, Mike Vrabel, and A.J. Hawk.
As a freshman in 2017, Browning had 14 tackles as a true freshman and played in five games. One year later as a sophomore, he recorded 23 tackles, played in nine games, and made three starts as an underclassmen.
But it was his 2019 junior season that made him a legitimate NFL draft prospect. Browning played in 11 games and his stats increased to 43 tackles (26 solo), 11 tackles for a loss, and five sacks. Instead of declaring for the draft as a junior, Browning chose to return to Ohio State for his senior season where he played in seven games and was a Butkus Award finalist.
As a senior in 2020, Browning played both inside and outside linebacker, totaling 29 tackles (20 solo), three tackles for a loss, one sack, two passes defended, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. But it was his performance during Senior Bowl practices that significantly increased his draft stock.
Browning’s athleticism affords him the ability to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive front and his college coaches played him in multiple roles. With his combination of size and athleticism, the Texas native is explosive and powerful.
Although Browning can play inside or outside, he demonstrated that he can stuff the run, set the edge, and has solid drops in coverage. He has good range when tracking routes and his closing speed allows him to make up space very quickly.
Browning is also a surprisingly dynamic pass rusher specifically on the edge. He has no problem fighting linemen in the trenches, while still maintaining his gap assignments. However, he sometimes overcommits his body weight in run defense, which can make him late while changing direction.
At times Browning can play out of position relying on his athleticism and closing to speed to make up for it but I’d consider his areas of improvement as very fixable with a combination of coaching and experience.
How he'd Fit: In Fangio’s 3-4 defense, Browning could use his size as an inside linebacker athletic enough to cover tight ends. He’d bring a welcomed sideline-to-sideline speed to Denver’s roster and would also be intriguing as a pass rusher on the edge. I currently project Browning to be selected within the early picks of the second round.
Jabril Cox | LSU
The Kansas City native took a very different road to the NFL draft. At the Senior Bowl, I described Cox as a tone-setter and inside thumper based on his performance at practice but long before he arrived on campus at LSU, the 6-foot-2, 233-pound linebacker had to earn the right to play in the SEC.
In high school, Cox played a variety of positions including quarterback, wide receiver, safety, and cornerback in addition to linebacker. While he showed pure athleticism and strength, he slipped under the radar of the larger college football programs.
Cox started his NCAA career at North Dakota State where he played in 45 games for the Bison and was credited with 258 career tackles (158 solo), 32 tackles for a loss, and 14 sacks. As a two-time All-American at NDSU and a conference defender, he soon generated interest from Auburn and Alabama. Instead, he became a graduate transfer to LSU.
As a senior at LSU in 2020, Cox blasted his way through the SEC where he appeared in 10 games and recorded 58 tackles (37 solo), 6.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, three interceptions, five passes defended, one fumble recovery, and defended five passes. He’s a powerful run stuffer that understands how to beat linemen using leverage and manipulating angles.
Cox also demonstrates natural instincts for diagnosing run plays and is a proficient tackler who consistently wraps up the ball-carrier. During Senior Bowl week, he was constantly poking at the football in team and positional drills, in addition to putting multiple offensive linemen on their backs.
Cox is a superb coverage linebacker that is most effective when he operates in space. His athleticism allows him to play both zone- and man-coverage which is ideal for covering running backs and tight ends. Some in the scouting community even consider Cox able to cover wideouts at the slot position.
Another enticing element of his game come in the form of burst and rapid change of direction. For an average-sized linebacker, Cox's explosiveness allows him to recover when beat in coverage and even brings some raw skill to his pass rush. However, he only spent one year competing at the FCS level which makes some people pause and question if he’s a one-year wonder.
While he most likely has a steep learning curve jumping from LSU to the NFL, Cox is a natural playmaker. He’s constantly in the mix and is a relentless football hound.
How he'd Fit: While some say that Cox best fits into a 4-3 defense, I’d insist that his coverage ability makes him an ideal tight end defender for Fangio’s scheme. Although he has the ability to blitz, Cox is most impactful as a free-ranging 'backer in the middle of the field.
His work ethic and professional approach to the game are continually mentioned in the scouting community making him a very intriguing prospect. I currently project Cox as an early to mid-selection in the second round of the upcoming draft.
Dylan Moses | Alabama
In addition to being a perennial championship powerhouse, Alabama has produced notable NFL linebackers including C.J. Mosley, Dont’a Hightower, Reuben Foster, and Rashaan Evans. I’m not saying the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Moses will have the same career as his fellow Crimson Tide alumni but he certainly has the skill-set and potential to be an NFL starter.
Moses has always been under the national spotlight as he received scholarship offers from both Alabama and LSU when he was in the eighth grade. Heck, he was featured on ESPN The Magazine before ever playing varsity football. Needless to say, the five-star recruit had his eyes set on Tuscaloosa for years.
As a true freshman in 2017, Moses started in two games while appearing in 11 and logged 30 tackles (19 solo), 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. But it was his utilization at both inside and outside linebacker that led to a breakout sophomore season for the Louisiana native.
In 2018, Moses compiled an impressive 86 tackles (45 solo), 10 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass deflection, and one forced fumble. His production and dynamic performance made him a finalist for the Butkus Award setting up what should’ve been a special 2019 season. Instead, Moses tore his ACL in training camp and missed the entire 2019 season.
Nevertheless, in 2020 Moses returned for his senior year and played in 12 games proving he was still an elite defender as he was credited with 76 tackles (40 solo), six tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception, three passes defended, and one forced fumble.
After returning from injury, Moses was the captain of Alabama’s defense and a first-team All-American and was selected to the Butkus Award Watch list for a third straight season.
Moses’ game can best be described as vicious, versatile, and hyper-athletic. He can play on the inside and outside and exemplifies rare athleticism — always flying around the field. Considered to be a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, his combination of size and speed make him a three-down player in the NFL.
In the scouting community, Moses is commonly described as a 'freak athlete' with a physical skill-set and tireless work ethic that has NFL coaches more than curious.
How he'd Fit: In Fangio’s defense, Moses could potentially be a plug-and-play linebacker that could be utilized in multiple fronts. He’s a downhill player that is tasked with going head to head with linemen at the line of scrimmage.
Moses has the potential to improve his coverage skills when asked to drop, which Fangio occasionally asks his edge rushers and linebackers to do. Moses' closing speed in zone coverage makes him an ideal 3-4 inside linebacker.
One respected member of the scouting community has previously said that Moses has shades of Lavonte David to his game. Meaning, he’s extremely fast and explosive but also has rare pass coverage abilities.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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