Vic Fangio is arguably the greatest inside linebacker coach in NFL history. He’s coached the likes of Sam Mills, Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman among several others during his time in the league.
Unfortunately, the Broncos haven’t provided Fangio with that same level of talent at his ‘pet’ position. Alexander Johnson has been an incredible find, especially considering the bargain he’s been financially, but he’s nowhere near the aforementioned quartet of linebackers from Fangio’s past. He’s also sneakily old for a three-year veteran, at age 29.
Johnson’s sidekick, Josey Jewell, doesn’t bring much excitement either. He’s a smart player who doesn’t make mistakes often, but his athletic limitations consistently hurt the Broncos in coverage against receiving backs and talented tight ends, which the AFC West is full of.
Plus, both of those two are unrestricted free agents after the 2021 season.
That means the Broncos should heavily prioritize finding a coverage linebacker in this year’s draft for Fangio to work with, and Baron Browning might just be the man for the job.
The best word you can use to encapsulate Browning’s style of play is explosive. He flashes to the ball with lightning quickness — thanks to his instincts and high-level athleticism — and when he makes contact, there’s a thunderous clap. That quick reaction speed will be huge in Fangio’s defense.
For your own health, don’t come across the middle when Baron Browning’s lurking in zone
— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) April 6, 2021
That explosiveness shows up the most in Browning’s run defense. He’s very aggressive and can slip between tackles with ease allowing him to quickly penetrate the backfield and blow up the run before it even has a chance to get started.
Also, while there are some inconsistencies to his form, he’s an excellent tackler a majority of the time. The times he does whiff has more to do with lack of experience and muscle memory than a lack of physicality or aggression.
The top concern for Denver’s next linebacker though is how they can help the team in coverage, where Browning receives another large checkmark. He has no problem matching up with running backs and carrying them upfield if necessary. The same could be said for his ability to cover tight ends, though the Buckeyes didn’t match Browning up against Travis Kelce and Darren Waller like the Broncos will be.
One of the most appealing elements of Browning as a prospect is how much better he can be. He’s already got terrific burst, speed, size, strength and power, he just needs to further refine those tools and understand how to better utilize them.
Given his track record, Fangio might be the coach to do just that.
A lot of Browning’s problem areas can be tied back to a lack of experience or consistency in any of the roles he played while at Ohio State. Over the course of 32 collegiate games, he spent a considerable amount of time playing the Mike, Will and Sam linebacker-roll in the Buckeyes’ defense.
As a result, Browning can look like a jack of all trades, but a master of none. He probably won’t be a day one starter, but that’s fine as Justin Strnad, Jewell, and Johnson can handle those snaps early on in the season while Browning adapts to his role.
That inexperience also rears its head with some inconsistent tackling and also when it comes to how quickly Browning can read a play and then react to it. Once he deciphers what’s going on, he’s quick to react, but that time-to-reaction will have to shorten at the next level. Fortunately, that should just be a matter of time and reps.
Alongside Kentucky’s Jamin Davis (who we already broke down) Baron Browning might be the ideal second-round pick for the Broncos.
Linebacker is the one positional weakness present on Denver’s defense, and Browning has the potential to quickly be the team’s best inside linebacker. Realizing that potential might take some patience and some coaching, and while those issues should (and will) scare off some other teams, but it shouldn’t scare off Denver.
They have the best linebackers coach around and they also don’t need Browning to be a day one starter. That’s not to say he couldn’t become one, but the Broncos wouldn’t need him to have an instant impact, which makes them one of the most ideal landing spots for Browning.
Draft Projection: Picks 25-50
MHS Broncos Big Board ranking: 22nd (Third among linebackers)