On paper, the Denver Broncos defense is shaping up to be among the NFL’s best. This past spring, new GM George Paton managed to retain Vic Fangio’s critical starters by re-signing Justin Simmons, Shelby Harris, and Kareem Jackson while exercising the option on Von Miller's contract.
The first-year GM also managed to upgrade the Broncos' defensive backfield in free agency by landing cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby.
When the NFL draft rolled around, Paton doubled down on his commitment to defense by selecting Alabama corner Patrick Surtain II with the No. 9 overall pick.
Fangio didn't get a chance to lead the Broncos through their first 11-on-11 team drills of 2021 until this week due to the NFLPA's ongoing OTA negotiations. For rookies and veterans alike, this final stage of OTAs offer an opportunity to impress coaches and teammates before mandatory minicamp begins next week.
On Tuesday, incumbent starting linebacker Josey Jewell took to the virtual podium to explain the specific areas of improvement he’s been working on since the season ended.
“There's been a couple different things – it's the short-area quickness, to be able to cover people within that 5-, 10-yard range which we usually get, then just trying to work on the long speed and just trying to get overall upper body strength increased to play the box better year-by-year," Jewell said. "Those are a couple of them, but I don't think I can keep them down to a couple. I think there's multiple things I try to work on this offseason to better myself and this team in a better situation.”
Jewell is entering his fourth NFL season after being drafted in the fourth round in 2018. The former Iowa Hawkeye produced a career year last season, recording 113 tackles (67 solo), five tackles for a loss, five QB hits, four passes defended, and two sacks.
While ‘The Outlaw’ has earned his stripes because of his tireless work ethic, preparation, and fundamental tackling, he oftentimes leaves much to be desired in pass coverage. Lateral quickness and change-of-direction don’t come naturally to Jewell, although his effort and utilization of angles in pursuit dramatically improved in 2020.
Earlier in the week, Fangio publicly challenged Jewell's linebacker partner Alexander Johnson to improve his technique and fundamentals. Jewell was asked about his teammate’s progress and was quick to support Johnson, educating the media on Denver’s complex defense.
“It's not, like, the easiest defense ever, by any means,” Jewell explained. “It's pretty complex which is great because it gives us a lot of options to do different things. Maybe in the first year, he had a couple missed assignments and stuff like that, but you can tell definitely in this year, he's more assignment-driven, he's understanding of the defense, understanding his role and what people are doing around him.”
Although competition is the theme of OTAs, minicamp, and training camp, Jewell and Johnson will be leaned on as the presumptive starters at linebacker in the middle of Fangio’s defense. Both vets have undoubtedly earned their head coach's trust in the multiple years that they’ve worked together.
In 2018, Jewell ended up playing in 16 games with nine starts. The following two years, his goal was to remain a starter on Denver’s defense where he’d go onto start 19 games and play in 31.
When asked whether he feels entrenched as a starter this year, Jewell showcased his quiet confidence.
“I feel pretty good right now. I feel like it's your job to lose pretty much at this scenario, at this situation," Jewell said. "So I'm just going to keep on going out there every day and try to get better and try to show the team that I'm a good leader, a great player and a great person out there. It's just going to be day-in and day-out keep on working and hopefully that works out.”
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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