3 Broncos position battles to watch on defense

Northwestern Wildcats wide receiver Bennett Skowronek (88) reaches for a touchdown catch as Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Michael Ojemudia (11) defends during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium.
Nov 10, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Northwestern Wildcats wide receiver Bennett Skowronek (88) reaches for a touchdown catch as Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Michael Ojemudia (11) defends during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Year 2 of the Vic Fangio era, the Broncos’ defense is primed to take a big leap.

They have one of the league’s best safety tandems, a dynamic duo wreaking havoc off the edge, and a downright loaded defensive line.

However, they still have lingering questions at every level of the defense that they’ll have to answer. So, let’s take a look at those questions and at who the potential solutions are.

Cornerback No. 3: Duke Dawson Jr. vs. Davontae Harris vs. De’Vante Bausby vs. Isaac Yiadom vs. Michael Ojemudia

Offseason addition A.J. Bouye has one boundary cornerback spot locked down, and Bryce Callahan is the presumptive favorite — and rightly so — to win the starting slot corner job. That leaves just one vacancy in Denver’s secondary, opposite of Bouye.

That said, it’s a pretty major hole on the Broncos’ defensive roster and one that could easily leave them hamstrung this season.

Duke Dawson is the most talented of their options at the position, but his 5’10”, 198-pound frame could prevent him from playing outside. Last season, when injuries put the Broncos in desperate need of another boundary corner, Dawson still played 87.6 percent of his coverage snaps from the slot.

Davontae Harris, De’Vante Bausby and Isaac Yiadom all filled that outside cornerback role at different points last season, but they were all pretty inconsistent and, as a result, were regularly targeted by opposing quarterbacks. Out of the three, Bausby was the best, but who knows how he’ll recover from the gruesome neck injury he suffered in Week 5.

Last, but not least, you have the third-round rookie from Iowa, Michael Ojemudia. It’s only a matter of time before he gets a chance to hold down the outside corner job, but whether or not he’ll be ready to take advantage of that opportunity this season remains to be seen. His college tape suggests he’ll need a fair amount of development to avoid going the way of Yiadom, but he’ll get his shot sooner rather than later.

Backup Defensive End: Dre’Mont Jones vs. DeMarcus Walker vs. McTelvin Agim

How many pass-rushing specialists do the Broncos really need at defensive end, considering their starters — Jurrell Casey and Shelby Harris — are already more than adept at pressuring the quarterback?

Probably not three.

That means there’s a good chance you’ll see Denver’s three young, promising, pass-rushing defensive linemen battle it out for just two roster spots.

Dre’Mont Jones is the leader in the clubhouse, for now, because of how great he looked filling in for Derek Wolfe at the end of last season. His pass-rush productivity rating (per Pro Football Focus) of 6.8 was the best on the team outside of Von Miller (min. 100 pass rushes).

DeMarcus Walker finished just behind Jones and Miller on that list, but he’s still never really popped during his NFL career. Walker saw the field more last season than during any other year in his young career, and yet he still only beat out Deyon Sizer, Jonathan Harris, and Kyle Peko in terms of total snap count.

With Walker barely clinging onto the small role he has, that opens the door for another third-round Broncos rookie, McTelvin Agim. Agim was a monster in the SEC while at Arkansas, and though he’s very unrefined and didn’t get many opportunities to rush the passer in college, his upside is tantalizing.

Backup Linebacker: Josey Jewell vs. Justin Strnad

Alexander Johnson is the top dog at inside linebacker for the foreseeable future, and though the Broncos have wanted to replace Todd Davis for a long time, it’d be fairly stunning if he wasn’t the Week 1 starter.

That said, the fact they’re looking to replace him, makes the backup linebacker job a coveted one.

In one corner, we have Josey Jewell, who was originally drafted to be the Todd Davis replacement, or at the very least his running mate. He hasn’t lived up to those expectations and has often been a liability in coverage. Despite his coverage woes, he is still a valuable asset as run defender. His PFF run-defense grade was fifth-best among all linebackers that played at least 200 snaps last season (side note: Alexander Johnson ranks 1st).

In the other corner, we have the anti-Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad. Strnad isn’t the most impressive run-defender, but he’s excellent in coverage. His athleticism allows him to mirror tight ends and running backs and his safety-like instincts help him make plays on the ball.

The decision as to who wins this job will likely come down to which flavor of linebacker the Broncos prefer to pair with Johnson, as opposed to which is most productive.

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