The inside linebacker position has a nostalgia that is enjoyed by many NFL observers. So much so that even in a modern game that has rendered the position less important, fans still pine for that elite player to roam the middle of the defense. With that said, the position is poised for a comeback.
Unfortunately for the Denver Broncos, that group has been decimated by injuries. The Broncos lost both starters — Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson — early in the season and have had some key reserves miss games as well.
GM George Paton gave the group a much-needed boost at the trade deadline by acquiring Kenny Young from the L.A. Rams in exchange for a seventh-round draft selection. Coupled with rookie third-rounder Baron Browning getting healthy enough to play significant snaps, and the Broncos' defense has been given a shot in the arm.
After a couple of games, there is quite a buzz about Young and that buzz is centered squarely on him being the future at inside linebacker. Is the hype warranted? The numbers give insight into this answer.
Big Decisions Imminent
Before the analytics, let’s discuss the offseason. The Broncos have some big decisions to make at this position because both original starters are unrestricted free agents when the season ends. So is the newcomer, Young.
To be frank, Young is not the answer everyone seems to be looking for in that he is not the main piece to build the unit around. He has definitely outperformed the relatively modest draft capital that was given up to acquire him, but it's Browning that has been the key to the Broncos' defensive turnaround of late. The front office needs to be wary of handing a big-money contract for Young.
Understanding the Hype
Much of the hype for Young comes from his 40-yard dash time. For a linebacker, he produced a 4.6-second 40 which is good. Many hoped that the speed would translate to the field, especially to solve the coverage woes the Broncos have had at the linebacker spot.
Keep in mind that there is a mountain of off-ball linebacker draft busts who were fast, but could not read and react well. This is not saying that Young doesn’t possess this trait, but by comparison to Jewell, he doesn’t have the same elite-level instincts, making Jewell as fast or faster when the pads are on.
Young is also not the athletic freak that many imply by basing the opinion off that 40-yard dash. His agility drill results at the Combine are not better than that of Jewell. They are, in fact, quite similar and in some cases worse.
How Much Does Age Matter?
Add in that Young is actually older than Jewell, and the decision gets even tougher on Paton in the offseason. There have been some erroneous reports that he is 25 years old, but actually, Young has already turned 27 and that happened almost a full month before Jewell will.
Again, this is not saying that Young isn’t valuable. He is, but tempering some of the hype is warranted. He is not an athletic freak and doesn’t possess elite-level instincts, which is why he is not the catalyst at the inside linebacker position for Denver.
Young is a Complementary Piece, Browning the Star
Young has been a solid player for the Broncos, but he is a complementary piece. Browning, however, is that key player. This is revealed in the analytics. Granted, it's a small sample size, but it gives some directionally correct information and corroborates what many analysts see in the film room.
It's evident that the Broncos perform better when Browning gets the bulk of the snaps instead of Young. This is partly due to the type of defense that head coach Vic Fangio deploys. For the sake of not making this a defensive philosophy article, I will put it simply.
The safeties provide run support but must get deep quickly to limit big plays. This works much better overall when the team can stop the run well without sacrificing the range of those safeties.
This is why the inside linebacker position will begin to make a comeback in the NFL as this Fangio philosophy continues to become more widespread. If the inside linebackers can read and react correctly, the system works much better. When an opponent can get the run game going, the Broncos' defense begins to falter, and so the value of a good off-ball linebacker increases.
Stop the Run, Win Ball Games
Offensive performance aside, this is why there is a correlation between effectively stopping the run and the Broncos winning games. I examined how the Broncos defense performed each week vs. the opponent’s season average in rushing yards, passing yards, and total yards. In all games, except one, when Fangio's defense has held the opponent’s rushing attack to significantly less than their seasonal mean, and the Broncos have won.
The only instance when that didn’t hold true was against the Baltimore Ravens. We heard over and over how the Broncos sold out to stop the run but allowed Lamar Jackson to carve up the secondary.
Completely abandoning the pass defense to focus on the run is never prudent as was showcased in this game. It also was a game that highlighted a less-than-stellar inside linebacker in a key role in Justin Strnad. Against top-level competition, he was completely outmatched due to his lack of instincts.
Understanding the Data
Below, you will find three graphs that illustrate the defense’s performance vs. the average on the season for the Broncos’ opponents against the run, pass, and total yards.
Let’s focus mainly on Weeks 8 through 12 when both Browning and Young became a factor for the defense. When both players are on the field together, the team has performed well against the run.
Note that Browning typically plays close to 100% of the snaps while Young is the complementary player, with about 60% typically. When Browning had to leave the game early to injury in Week 10, the defense suffered as the Philadelphia Eagles rolled over the Broncos in the run game. Young was on the field nearly 100% of that game.
In Weeks 8, 9 and 12, the Broncos' defense limited their opponents to at least 10 yards fewer rushing yards compared to their mean. In Week 10, when Browning left early, the run defense had its second-worst performance of the season as the Eagles had almost 60 yards more than their season average. The Broncos also lost the game by a wide margin.
There isn’t the same correlation when analyzing the pass defense. The Broncos have defeated opponents despite not holding their passing yards below the seasonal mean. Denver has also lost games with the inverse being the case.
Keep in mind that this is a small sample size, but it directionally indicates that Browning is a factor in the run game, which leads to victory. It also indicates that Young is a complementary player to Browning. The only way to absolutely validate this assertion is for Browning to miss time again, or for Young to miss any game time, and nobody except the Broncos' upcoming opponents would wish for that to happen.
Browning not Dependent on Supporting Cast
Browning's performance is not dependent on other missing pieces. Case in point is run-stuffer Mike Purcell. The big nose tackle missed Weeks 8 and 9, but was on the field in Week 10, helping to highlight how Browning is the important piece.
Browning also possesses elite athletic traits and so far has shown good read-and-react skills in the NFL, especially as a rookie that still needs a little time to develop. This is why he has gotten the bulk of playing time. The coaches recognize it as do many film analysts.
For the Broncos to have success down the stretch, Browning needs to remain the centerpiece with Young as his sidekick. Furthermore, when the offseason rolls around, Paton should be very careful in how much money he is willing to give to Young for his services.
Again, Young has value, but he should not be paid like an elite player at the inside linebacker position. Browning will excel as the centerpiece and the Broncos will have the freedom to explore many options at the other spot.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL.
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