When it came to covering dynamic pass-catching tight ends like Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Las Vegas' Darren Waller, the Denver Broncos had a plan in 2020. Unfortunately, the plan collapsed early when rookie linebacker Justin Strnad suffered a wrist injury during training camp that ended his entire campaign.
"I grabbed the water, and I could feel my wrist click and I knew it was dislocated. It was clear," Strnad told Denver7's Troy Renck last week. "They tried to put it back in place for a long time, and it didn't work."
Suddenly sidelined as he was, Strnad took the opportunity to deep-dive on the AFC West tight ends he was drafted to cover, studying the film on the Kelces and Wallers of the 2020 season. What he learned might be able to help Strnad when he finally sees the field again next season.
"Kelce's route running is amazing. Waller might be a little faster. Those guys are great players," Strnad told Renck. "I try to watch all of their games, study them and how they play. It was kind of why I was brought in here, to cover guys like that."
Indeed, Strnad was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL draft to be Denver's answer to the proliferation of the pass-catching tight-end phenoms in the division. The Wake Forest product was viewed as a possible draft 'steal' for the Broncos because many draftniks viewed him as Day 2 prospect that fell to Day 3 due to injury concerns.
It was unfortunate that that very issue derailed his rookie season out of the gates, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Strnad is doomed to be afflicted by the injury bug year in and year out. Losing his athletic, sideline-to-sideline speed and athleticism hurt the Broncos defense, although the linebacker duo of Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, for what they lacked in the coverage department, they made up for as reliable starters and as run defenders.
Combined with his in-depth film study of his AFC West opponents, and what reps he got going against Denver's own dynamic tight ends last summer, the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Strnad could have a modest leg up when he finally returns to the field next fall. Even that brief exposure to the likes of Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam in training camp hammered home the reality that NFL talent, regardless of position, is on a whole other level.
"I learned that the game is faster at this level. Everybody is good. There are no weak links on the field. The offensive line can move and the quarterbacks can make any throw," Strnad told Denver7. "Coming in during a pandemic was different. We had everything thrown at us all at once. I felt like covering Noah [Fant] and Albert [Okwuegbunam] was really good work in camp. I felt like I was getting better."
Renck's reporting revealed that Strnad has opted to remain in Denver this offseason instead of returning to his home state of Florida. The Tarpon Springs (FL) native is taking his second year with the utmost seriousness and is focused on leaving no stone unturned in his rehabilitation.
The Broncos received a big-time contribution from their 2020 rookie class, especially on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, third-round cornerback Michael Ojemudia appeared in all 16 games for Denver, starting 11, while third-round defensive lineman McTelvin Agim appeared in 10.
"I am inching to show what I can do," Strnad told Renck. "To play in the NFL with all the guys from my class, I can't wait. I will make sure I show up at OTAs and camp ready to go. ... With guys like [Bradley] Chubb and [Malik] Reed, they come to work every day and work hard. We have a lot of guys like that. I truthfully believe we are close to becoming a winning team in this league and I want to be part of it."
Time will tell. Fans have long pined for the Broncos to draft a 10-year starting linebacker that can help finally take away tight ends, and running backs, in coverage. The Broncos believed Strnad could offer that coverage but the injury bug is no respecter of persons and it laid the young linebacker low early.
New GM George Paton might seek some insurance in this year's draft. Holding the No. 9 overall pick, many fans hope the Broncos land Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons but there are many under-the-radar options at the position Paton could draft later on to hedge against Strnad being unable to shake the torment of the injury bug.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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