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State of the Broncos: Defense Needs Bolstering

Diving into the Broncos' defensive outlook reveals more needs than fans realize.
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The Denver Broncos' defense was supposed to be the team's strength going into the season, but it has failed to be that in 2021. Between injuries and players not getting it done on the field, the Broncos' defense has been a big disappointment. 

The unit was supposed to be good enough to take pressure off of the offense to produce, but it's been a liability in multiple games. We have to wonder what should come next for the defense and who on the roster is likely to be around next season. 

Von Miller has been traded and there are several free agents who will likely be allowed to leave. In Part III of Mile High Huddle's 'State of the Broncos' series, we'll examine the defense, what to expect for the rest of the 2021 season, and what it means for the future.

Defensive Line

Shelby Harris and Dre'Mont Jones have been good this year, even if the statistics don't show it. They've been good at generating pressure, but because opposing teams know this, they've schemed to take Harris and Jones out of the picture as much as possible.

Mike Purcell has been a good nose tackle, but he's missed time with injuries. DeShawn Williams has had to step in for him in multiple games and hasn't been as effective. Williams will be a restricted free agent, but it's debatable whether he's even worth the right-of-first-refusal tender, likely to be more than $2M.

Shamar Stephen hasn't been effective when in the lineup and probably won't be back as an unrestricted free agent. McTelvin Agim hasn't developed as expected, after being the team's 2020 third-round pick, and has been inactive for multiple games.

The starting trio will likely be back, and GM George Paton will continue to keep an eye on Jones for a possible extension. However, the Broncos will need to shore up the depth in 2022.

Edge Rusher

Bradley Chubb has missed all but the entirety of the season with injuries and Paton is likely to hold off on any extension talk until the edge defender gets more games under his belt. Most likely, it will be after 2022 before Paton moves forward, at which point, the Broncos will know whether Chubb is worth extending and, if so, at what level.

Meanwhile, a bigger question comes with Malik Reed, who is a solid pass rusher but is a liability in run defense. Before the season, he looked like a candidate for a second-round RFA tender. Now, he's trending toward right-of-first-refusal tender, if not going untendered and instead signed to a one-year deal below the tender cost.

Rookie Jonathon Cooper shows promise, but at what level remains to be seen. After arriving via trade from Minnesota a few weeks back, Stephen Weatherly has been decent in his short time with the Broncos and might be worth keeping for depth.

But given that the Broncos don't have a clear starter opposite a healthy Chubb, expect the team to be looking for an edge rusher next season — most likely the draft, if Paton doesn't trade away premium picks for a quarterback.

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Off-ball Linebacker

Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell entered the season poised to bring stability to this position. But both were lost for the season to injuries and, ever since, the position has been a mess.

Justin Strnad struggled and any thought of him being a starter should be put to rest until and unless he shows strong signs of development. Newcomer (via trade) Kenny Young looked good in his first game with the Broncos but hasn't followed it up.

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That leaves rookie third-rounder Baron Browning, who shows potential but still needs experience. It will be interesting to see how he fares the rest of the season.

For 2022, it's possible the Broncos could bring Jewell back on a one-year deal, or they could go with Johnson or Young if Jewell moves on and the team doesn't find a better option. However, expect the Broncos to draft at this position again.

Cornerback

Going into the season, the Broncos had Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, and rookie first-rounder Patrick Surtain II as the top four, with solid depth in Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey. It sure looked like this would be a position of strength.

However, that hasn't come to pass. Ojemudia and Bassey missed the first half of the season, the former with an injury and the latter recovering from one. We'll likely see them take the field at some point after the bye.

Callahan was playing well, but once again, an injury cut his season short. He's an unrestricted free agent and won't be back, given his health and his age.

Darby has been inconsistent this season, while Fuller hasn't been good at all. Fuller won't be retained as an unrestricted free agent, while the Broncos will have to roll with Darby for another season.

Surtain, though, has been good this year and definitely looks like a long-term guy at cornerback. Here's hoping he stays healthy and finishes the season strong.

One player who has done good things with limited snaps is Nate Hairston. He might be worth bringing back on a one-year deal to provide depth in 2022.

Safety

Justin Simmons was off to a slow start, similar to last year, but he's gotten better as the season has progressed. Perhaps he was trying to do too much at the start of the year to compensate for the failure to launch at cornerback. Regardless, he's settled down and has been more effective on defense, and with any luck, he'll continue to do so after the bye.

Kareem Jackson, though, is nearing the end of his career. There's no question he was great for the Broncos two years ago, but he's not the same player he once was. He won't be back next season.

Rookie fifth-rounder Caden Sterns does give the Broncos cause for optimism in the future, perhaps as somebody who can start alongside Simmons in 2022. That leaves the depth, with fellow rookie fifth-rounder Jamar Johnson not having seen much time on the field and others not really standing out. 

I wouldn't be surprised if the Broncos continue to look for depth upgrades at safety during the offseason.


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