With January drawing to a close, NFL free agency will soon be upon us and the Broncos will be forced to make tough decisions on several quality players.

Of all those quality players, the one that Pro Football Focus’ advanced grades and analytics point towards being the least expendable is linebacker Josey Jewell, as stated in a recent article from Brad Spielberger.

Jewell seemed to breaking out in the 2021 season and was playing the best football of his NFL career, prior to suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2. Now, along with fellow inside linebackers Alexander Johnson, Kenny Young and Micah Kiser, Jewell is slated to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, and with that mass exodus at the position, the Broncos have to make sure they’re able to re-sign at least one of those linebackers.

So, why should Jewell be the choice?

The debate often seems to come down to Jewell vs. Young, as Alexander Johnson is the oldest of the bunch and Micah Kiser’s time with the team was forgettable, to say the least. However, Jewell vs. Young being a tight debate seems to be more a product of sample size and recency bias than anything.

Jewell, Johnson and Young all fill similar niches in a defense. They’re quality run-defenders that struggle in space and with change of direction due to a lack of athleticism, which hurts their ability in coverage. Those limitations clearly affected Young and Johnson the most, as Jewell’s high-end instincts help him mitigate those athletic shortcomings to some extent.

Broncos Country doted over Young after he was inserted into the defense midseason, but the improvement many credited Young with, clearly had more to do with Baron Browning earning a starting role than it did with Young. Had Jewell been healthy and granted the same luxury of playing with Browning, it feels beyond likely that the results would have been even better.

One could see this when Young was removed from the starting lineup due to injury but was kept out once it became clear that the formerly unknown linebacker Jonas Griffith was outperforming him.

All of this is supported by PFF’s advanced analytics and grades too, so it’s not just the eye test that favors Jewell.

Meanwhile, Jewell was PFF’s fourth-highest graded linebacker on the season, and — in a stat that will shock many Broncos fans — their second-highest graded linebacker in coverage on the season (min. 80 snaps).

That unexpected stat is supported by the fact that, among linebackers, he allowed the seventh-lowest completion percentage and passer rating when targeted, and allowed only 1.6 yards per attempt when targeted (fourth-best). He’s also one of three linebackers (Alexander Johnson being one of the others) without a single missed tackle on the season (all stats minimum 80 snaps).

The paltry sample size is a major issue with all these ranks, but it still reflects just how high a level Jewell was playing at prior to his injury. Yes, it’s likely that over the course of the season he wouldn’t look like an elite linebacker in every facet of the game, and that some of those stats and grades would come back down to earth.

However, it’s unlikely that Jewell’s play would’ve dropped to the level of Young’s play in the eyes of PFF, as they view the gulf between the two to be very wide. Young is ranked 80 spots (there are 134 qualifying linebackers) lower than Jewell in terms of overall grade, 89 spots lower in coverage grade, 116 spots lower in completion percentage allowed when targeted, 94 spots lower in passer rating allowed when targetted, 84 spots lower in yards allowed per target, and 25 spots lower in missed tackle rate.

That gulf is larger than Mexico’s.

Now, let’s also acknowledge the flaws with PFF grades and with these individualized stats. They’re certainly imperfect metrics. However, it doesn’t make sense to act like those imperfections are the sole factor in one linebacker looking elite, while the other looks well below-average. That divide can’t be covered by margin of error alone. It is just far too wide. Plus, the conclusions of the data support those of the film study.

The Broncos have to bring back one of their inside linebackers this offseason, and while Young was a valuable in-season trade that Broncos Country should be grateful for, Jewell was the better player.