Welcome to the first official week of preseason football, Broncos fans. Or, for your team, the second preseason game of the season.
And, only two weeks in, the Broncos have lost both starting inside linebackers in Todd Davis and Josey Jewell, at least for the short term. Tonight, when Denver lines up their could-be best NFL defense against the Seahawks in Seattle, there will be a glaring weakness in the middle as Alexander Johnson, Josh Watson, Joe Dineen and other relative unknowns try to fill the voids.
Davis was injured in the first practice of training camp and remains out, although he confidently tweeted he will be ready to play in Week 1 of the regular season. This week in practice it was Josey Jewell, the second-year linebacker who had taken over play-calling duties for the defense, who strained an oblique and will be held out of tonight’s game.
“Invariably, every camp, there is one position group that kind of gets it more than other. Tight end has been that position in this camp. Linebackers, ILBs, has kind of now joined that crowd,” Vic Fangio said on Tuesday. “It’s a concern, but I don’t think any of them are long-term and I think they’ll be back eventually. We just got to trench through it.”
This is a major story which could have ramifications throughout the rest of the preseason and during the course of the grueling marathon which is the regular season in the NFL. It’s so important, the lack of playmakers inside could end the team’s aspirations of finally making it back to the playoffs.
While the Broncos were out signing Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson to stack the secondary with stars, Denver completely ignored the fact that longtime starter Brandon Marshall was leaving. The Broncos didn’t sign anyone in free agency who could possibly fill his shoes, instead, they stayed pat with Davis and Jewell, who were the 71st and 108th-best linebackers respectively in the NFL last year.
Davis was graded out at a 71.5 by Pro Football Focus, while Jewell earned a grade of 67.0 in his rookie season. Neither of them excelled in one particular aspect of defense and it was a huge gamble going into this 2019 season with those two as the starters inside Denver’s defense.
Instead, John Elway and the front office should have used that No. 10 overall pick to take Devin Bush, the inside linebacker from Michigan and address that glaring need at inside linebacker. But, they traded down, allowing Pittsburgh to nab Bush, and then Denver made a real head-scratching move by taking tight end Noah Fant at No. 20.
Hey, at least tight end is also a position of need for the Broncos. But, to expect a rookie tight end — who was the second-best tight end on his college team — to step in and immediately contribute is likely foolish.
Over in Pittsburgh, Bush is already incredibly impressive and “He can do everything,” as his position coach Jerry Olsavsky said yesterday in their camp. Bush wasn’t as great as Devin White, who went No. 5 overall, but it looks like Bush is progressing quickly and will be ready to start in Week 1, while Denver now looks to undrafted rookies to do the same in case either Davis or Jewell can’t go.
Luckily for Denver, Johnson stepped up in a huge way last week in the win over the Atlanta Falcons, with five total tackles including a near strip-sack, a tackle for a loss and he broke up a would-be touchdown. That’s something positive to build on, and he’s got to continue that growth not only in camp but tonight when the Broncos face the Seahawks (8 p.m. MT).
Behind him there’s undrafted rookie Josh Watson from Colorado State who also played well last week with five total tackles of his own.
And taking the place of Jewell tonight will be Joseph Jones first, followed by Keishawn Bierria and then Dineen. Keep an eye on the inside of the defense tonight both on runs as well as when the Seahawks pass to their tight ends; Denver could get slashed.
Simply, after forgoing picking up any veteran inside linebackers and skipping over inside linebackers in the draft, Denver’s ignoring of this massive lack of depth leaves the Broncos hoping multiple of these unknowns can impact the defense immediately.
It’s still just preseason, but the work the team does now prepares them for the regular season. And even if both Davis and Jewell are back in time for Week 1, which they should be, keep an eye on the middle of the defense all year long as it’s likely one or more of those younger linebackers will need to step in at some point.