This series focuses on Denver Broncos whose multi-year deals are nearing the end, key players who were signed to one-year deals, and those playing under restricted free-agent tenders. They're all players eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2022, unless signed to extensions.
The next in this series focuses on off-ball linebacker Alexander Johnson, a former undrafted player who emerged into a quality starter, but does that mean he'll be back in 2022? To divine the answer, we must first look back on Johnson's resume.
Johnson finished his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee in 2014, but in November of that year, he was suspended amid accusations of sexual assault, which was followed by an indictment by a grand jury in early 2015, resulting in the NFL rescinding his invitation to the Scouting Combine that year.
Johnson was acquitted in 2018.
He signed with the Broncos as a college free agent and made the 53-man roster out of camp, but played just one game and was added to the practice squad late in the season. In 2019, Johnson was a backup, but got his first start in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers and broke out, intercepting a pass from Philip Rivers and helping the Broncos win 20-13.
Johnson finished the season with 93 tackles (51 solo), 1.5 sacks, and four quarterback hits. He started all 16 games in 2020, tallying 124 tackles, one sack, and five QB hits. He's a Pro Football Focus darling, as evidenced by the analytics site ranking him as the 10th best off-ball linebacker going into 2021.
Why he May be Back in 2022
Johnson, though not elite, has been one of the more productive off-ball linebackers the Broncos have had the past two seasons. He's a solid fit for Vic Fangio's defensive scheme, is a good run defender, and doesn't miss tackles often.
Why he May not be Back in 2022
Johnson is older than people may realize — he'll turn 30 years old in December. Because he didn't play football from 2015-17, he missed out on three years' worth of opportunities to improve his NFL game.
The Broncos took Ohio State's Baron Browing in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft and will look to give Justin Strnad, who missed 2020 with injuries, an opportunity for playing time. One can't rule out Johnson's fellow linebacker incumbent Josey Jewell, who improved in 2020, but will also be up for an extension.
Johnson got the second-round restricted free-agent tender and will enter 2021 as a starter. The opportunity is there for Johnson to show he is worth a big second contract.
However, he will need to demonstrate he can keep playing at a high level, be more disciplined to the coaches' instruction, and that his relatively advanced age (for a fourth-year player) won't be a performance factor in the future. Johnson can still improve his coverage which, while not bad, isn't quite at the level you expect from a starter.
The off-ball linebacker market got pricey back in 2019, but time has shown those costs were way over the market. If Johnson plays well in 2021, he's more likely to fall into the $10-11M APY range for a new contract.
The question is whether the Broncos will want to pay that to a 30-year-old player or move forward with the younger guys on the roster. And while it's easy to dismiss Jewell, he improved in 2020 and would be a younger, cheaper option to extend than Johnson.
While you can't rule out an extension for Johnson, it's far from guaranteed.
Odds he'll be back in 2022: 50-50.
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