The Denver Broncos linebackers made the most of an injury plagued season

Alexander Johnson. Credit: David Berding, USA TODAY Sports.
Alexander Johnson. Credit: David Berding, USA TODAY Sports.

The starting linebackers for the Denver Broncos last season saw many iterations as injury plagued the group, but it was a rare opportunity to see the depth in the room. Denver saw seven different starters at the inside linebacker position with varying levels of success allowing for a real chance to assess individual skillsets.

With the free agency on the horizon Denver will need to make decisions surrounding this group and their play in 2021/22 will be the most prominent factor in determining who is wearing orange and blue next season and who won’t.

Josey Jewell’s stellar start and cut short

In an unfortunate accident, Josey Jewell was injured in the Broncos second regular season game making a special teams tackle. It was reported later that week that he would be placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle, ending his campaign prematurely.

Jewell had shown flashes of promise during preseason and in previous regular season snaps and was playing very well up until his untimely injury.

There was concern that he may have lacked the level of athleticism required to play at an elite level, but Jewell had shown a propensity to take strong angles on tackles as well as shed blocks to be effective in both stopping the run and in coverage.

He was constantly around the ball and was utterly reliable. It would have been exciting to see where the season ended up taking him. Instead, he will have to prove he can stay health enough to be a regular starter for the Broncos or another suitor.

Alexander Johnson was a jackhammer in the run game

Aside from the controversial COVID-19 takes off the field and on social media, Alexander Johnson was able to make a good impression on the gridiron last season.

Johnson made a statement with his play and peddled a very physical brand of football. His ability to punish the ball carrier and use his size and strength to move them backwards and create opportunities for turnovers was second to none on the Broncos front seven.

Johnson was dominating on the field but again the injury bug plagued the Broncos and he was lost for the season following Denver’s first spar with the Las Vegas Raiders, with a torn pectoral, the same injury that ended Josey Jewell’s season.

Up until that point, Johnson was one of the best playmakers to take the field for a very strong defensive unit and impacted the game as mush as anyone. He even ended the season as the Broncos highest rated defender according to PFF.

Again, another player who may explore free agency, Denver will have to decide on the retention of a strong veteran like Johnson and no matter the decision, he showed himself to be a more than capable starter for the majority of NFL teams.

Baron Browning, when healthy, flashed

As a third-round pick by George Paton, Browning was one of the players Broncos Country was most excited to see on the field. At Ohio State he flexed is freakish athletic ability and on-filed range and proved to be one of the more gifted players in the draft.

His debut with Denver would be put on hold though, as he dealt with a lower leg injury that he suffered in the team’s offseason program.

Browning was not able to make an impact as a starter until week 8 against the Washington Football Team. In that game, he wasn’t flawless, but he showed glimpses of the talent he was initially targeted for.

Through the next few games Browning filled in for the injured starters admirably and played above the expectations of a third-round pick. He quarterbacked the defense and made plays with his raw physical tools but still looked to be adjusting to the speed and talent pool of the NFL game.

All-in-all he ended the season with a total of 58 tackles in nine starts, with 2 tackles for loss. Not mind-blowing numbers but very solid for a rookie just cutting his teeth in the NFL.

Jonas Griffith, the steal of the season

When Jonas Griffith was brought over in the early days of training camp, the idea was to acquire a special teams talent that would serve as a high-ceiling depth piece in an emergency situation. Tom McMahon up to that point, had failed to get quality play from his unit and Griffith had proven to be a dynamic special teams player in San Francisco.

With the various injuries to multiple starters, he found himself thrust into a starting role and really made the most of it.

Like Baron Browning, his lack of experience showed on occasion but he more than made up for it with passion, strenuosity and tenacity. He’s another pure athlete who really demonstrated his prowess in ability to travel sideline to sideline and make physical tackles.

The Broncos would be wise to roster him next season, if only as a depth piece. He proved to be effective in spot start situations and the trajectory is travelling uphill.

Kenny Young’s play was good, not great

One week prior to the Von Miller trade with the, now champion, Los Angeles Rams, Denver made a move to shore up the linebackers’ room in Dove Valley by making a trade form Kenny Young. That addition did help lessen the sting of losing an all-time Broncos great, but the luster wore off quickly.

Young was plugged into a starting role immediately and did well. His impact was not to the level of Jewell or Johnson but he added experience to an inexperienced group and brought a personality and leadership that was otherwise lacking.

However, he was not exactly the playmaker that was advertised when the deal was made. That’s not to say Young was terrible, he wasn’t. In fact, he played well overall but he arguably didn’t do enough to solidify a roster spot for himself moving forward on unit where the only guaranteed returning player is a rookie.

Young had full license to go ball out and lock himself into next season’s plans, but he just never did on stout Vic Fangio defense full of opportunity.

Synopsis

Given the injuries that plagued this unit and the adversity that injects into a season, the linebacking group showed out extremely well. Micah Kaiser and Barrington Wade also took snaps at the position but proved to be depth pieces for a reason and solid ones at that.

It’s impossible to know what the construction of this group ends up looking like for the 2022 season and it will most assuredly go through a face lift as nearly all of these players are on expiring contracts.

The choice of who to bring back will be difficult and likely some sort of formulaic approach with regards to cost, productivity and injury history. Paton and crew will most assuredly have their work cut out for them when deciding who stays and who goes. Lets hope it works out for the Denver Broncos in the end.

Overall position group grade: B
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