The Denver Broncos suffered a litany of injuries last year — especially on defense — but the one position that proved impervious was inside linebacker. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell managed to fend off the injury bug, starting all 16 games together at inside linebacker.
Both reliable veterans totaled 100-plus tackles for the first time in their respective careers. Against the run, Johnson and Jewell were more than solid, and it's fair to say, were among the NFL's best linebacker duos in that department.
Defending the pass, however, was a different story altogether. As has become tradition, the Broncos struggled to defend the middle of the field against league passers, triggering new GM George Paton to go back to the well that is the NFL draft for help.
Enter Baron Browning, whom the Broncos drafted in the third round out of Ohio State. Browning is an athletic phenom whose potential in college was squandered somewhat by his Buckeye coaches moving him around too much at different positions.
In 2019, he was able to specialize at inside linebacker and subsequently, turned in his most productive season with 26 solo tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, and five sacks. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker oozes twitched up athleticism of the sort that head coach Vic Fangio couldn't wait to get hands-on and deploy in his defensive scheme.
Alas, the injury bug has had different designs thus far. Browning suffered a lower leg injury during rookie minicamp which has delayed his assimilation into Fangio's defense and life as a pro.
Last week, Fangio revealed during mandatory minicamp that his bullish outlook on Browning has been unchanged by his lack of participation while acknowledging his misgivings about where the rookie will fit in sans so many offseason reps.
“It’s a lower leg injury. It’s more of a bone thing than a ligament thing," Fangio said last week. "He’ll be full go and ready to go by training camp. That’s been probably the biggest negative of this offseason work—him not getting the work that he would have gotten. We’re still very high on him and very optimistic."
Where exactly will Browning fit in? Obviously, the Broncos drafted him with off-ball linebacker in mind but this stud can also play the edge and a little dime-backer if needed. However, Fangio recognizes where the Ohio State coaches went wrong with Browning's development (jack-of-all-trades, master of none) and wants to train the rookie to play one position.
"Hopefully, he’ll be able to carve out a role on the team, both defensively and in the kicking game," Fangio said. "I’m anxious to get him back working in training camp. I still like him all the same and he has versatility. He could play some outside for us and he could play some inside. We’d like to settle him in one spot, but we may not be able to, especially with the injury. We’ll see how that evolves.”
If Browning's timetable allows him to participate fully in training camp and this year's three-game preseason, the odds are good that the Broncos will indeed be able to groom him at one position. If that bone injury lingers well into August, though, all bets are off.
Meanwhile, the Broncos still have Johnson and Jewell and are excited to get Justin Strnad back into the thick of things. A 2020 fifth-round pick, Strnad suffered a season-ending wrist injury only a few practices into training camp.
The former Wake Forest star linebacker has fully rehabbed and recovered, giving the Broncos another young, dynamic athlete at the linebacker position.
“Justin—other than him being in meetings last year, he really is a rookie," Fangio said last week. "He’s really like a rookie on the field, but he’s doing well. We like the way he moves, and we like his attitude. He’s definitely a very conscientious player. He wants to carve out a role for himself with the defense. It’ll be critical for him to be a mainstay on our special teams."
The Broncos have been "pleased overall" with where Strnad's at. With both Johnson and Jewell in a contract year, the Broncos could very well be starting Browning and Strnad at inside linebacker next year. For now, both young linebackers have to prove they can stay on the field and really soak in Fangio's defensive scheme while chipping in on special teams.
"So far, he’s shown no ill side effects of the wrist injury he had," Fangio said of Strnad. "We’re going to try and be cautious with him in that regard. Eventually, he’s going to have to use it and he has been. We think the future is bright for him.”
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