What are the weakest and strongest position groups on the Denver Broncos’ defense?

Denver Broncos strong safety Kareem Jackson (22) celebrates after a reception by cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) in the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field. Strong Position Group
Sep 19, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Denver Broncos strong safety Kareem Jackson (22) celebrates after a reception by cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) in the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have one of the NFL’s better rosters, but it’s not without its flaws, as this team has both weak and strong position groups. For all the position groups they have like running back, which is among the strongest position groups on the roster, they still have quite a few with serious question marks from top to bottom.

Last week, we ranked all the Broncos’ position groups on offense, from weakest to most robust, and here, we’ll be doing the same thing with the defensive side of the ball.

Note: We are looking at players and position groups based on how they’re presently listed on the team’s initial roster.

5. Inside Linebacker

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes under pressure from Denver Broncos linebacker Jonas Griffith (50) in the third quarter at Empower Field at Mile High.
Dec 19, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes under pressure from Denver Broncos linebacker Jonas Griffith (50) in the third quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

While looking over Denver’s defensive roster, inside linebacker stands out for it’s lack of depth. That’s especially true now that it seems Baron Browning will be more of an edge rusher than an inside linebacker (though his presence might be more needed outside).

This is not of the Broncos’ strongest position groups.

Josey Jewell, the most underrated player in all of Broncos Country, is the clear top dog in the room despite missing most of last season with an injury. Over Jewell’s last eight games, he’s played the best football of his career and has looked every bit like a top-10 linebacker in the NFL, even though he’s lacking in flash.

However, outside of him, this linebacker room looks pretty suspect.

Jonas Griffith was terrific for a brief stretch last season, but whether or not he can replicate that performance has yet to be seen. The team signed Alex Singleton, but he’s likely nothing more than a special teams ace, as he functions like a lesser version of Jewell, so it would be odd to pair those two together. Griffith is the more natural complement.

Past those top three, the talent level drops off another cliff to the reserves, where there’s no one to get excited about really. Justin Strnad has disappointed, and outside of him, it’s a lot of undrafted free agents.

This team will struggle to survive injuries at linebacker.

4. Edge Rusher

NFL: Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sep 19, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Denver Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb (55) reacts against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the linebacker room, Denver’s edge rushing group has been built to survive injuries to the position, and with good reason. Bradley Chubb has spent two of his four seasons in the NFL battered by injuries, and Randy Gregory has yet to play 600 snaps in any NFL season.

They’re talented players, but depth will be key.

Baron Browning and Nik Bonitto are two reserves the team has invested a great deal in, and they’re both major X-factors for the 2022 season. Browning has reportedly wowed coaches and teammates during OTAs, as he transitions to the edge, but it will be hard to get an accurate read on him until the preseason. The same goes for Bonitto, but there’s little doubt he should be productive as a pass-rushing specialist as a rookie.

The talent is there, but uncertainty dings that second wave a bit, much as it dinged the starters.

Lastly, the roster bubble players in this group might be the most talented of any group on the roster. Jonathon Cooper greatly exceeded expectations as a seventh-round pick and will be looking to steal the job of Malik Reed — who has proven himself in his own right — at camp. Christopher Allen and Aaron Patrick add more depth.

Although this isn’t one of Denver’s strongest position groups, there’s undeniably a lot of talent in the room.

3. Cornerback

Denver Broncos cornerback Ronald Darby (21) breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) during the second half at AT&T Stadium...Strong Position Groups
Nov 7, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Ronald Darby (21) breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, we step up a tier and begin looking at the strongest position groups for the Broncos’ defense.

Before long, this unit might be home to the best player on the Denver Broncos, with Patrick Surtain II blossoming into a rare superstar in front of our eyes. Now, whether or not this magnificent gladiolus reaches full bloom or not, we can’t be certain, but the signs are beyond promising.

He checks every mental and physical box you could ask him to, is heralded across the Broncos organization for his absurd work ethic, and has no injury or off-field concerns to speak of. It is rare that you see a player at any position with all the mental gifts, all the physical gifts, and zero red flags. All that’s left is for him to piece it all together.

Even outside of Surtain though, the room is very promising.

Ronald Darby didn’t get nearly enough last season for doing as phenomenal a job as he did. Oftentimes, when the Broncos faced a three-by-one alignment (three pass-catchers to one side of the line, with one pass catcher on the other), it was Darby, not Surtain, that the team placed on an island, and he was excellent. Health will always be a concern, but Darby’s a damn good No. 2.

Then, the Broncos have K’Waun Williams, who might be underrated by the media, but has solidified himself as one of the best modern nickels in the NFL, with his blend of sticky coverage and raw physicality.

Michael Ojemudia and Damarri Mathis help round out the room, and while both are very promising, both are also relatively unknown commodities. Ojemudia was very up-and-down as a rookie and then played just two games last season, with one being at a near-elite level. Mathis, meanwhile, is a mid-round rookie.

Corner finds itself behind the next two positions because although the top three look fantastic, the depth has a lot of question marks, and after the top five, there’s a steep drop-off.

2. Safety

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys...Strongest Position Group
Nov 7, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Denver Broncos safety Caden Sterns (30) intercepts a pass by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (not pictured) during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As has been the case for the past few seasons, the Broncos are absolutely loaded at the safety position, and this year, that top-end talent is paired with tremendous amounts of depth.

Of course, leading the unit is Justin Simmons, who was recently voted the top safety in the sport by his peers, but, for the first time in a few seasons, who his co-star will be is still up for debate.

Kareem Jackson showed the occasional sign of age and decline last season and might be better suited for a role closer to the line of scrimmage, such as being the second slot corner in the team’s dime package. Meanwhile, Caden Sterns thrived in that slot-corner role last season and looks ready to take over a starting job.

Will the Broncos make that transition now, or will they hold off while Jackson is still on the roster, and keep him as the starter?

No matter what they decide, the Broncos will have a bevy of supremely gifted safeties on the roster, and that’s especially true considering P.J. Locke, who’s been a valuable special-teamer and backup, will also be a part of the position group.

Behind him, you have Delarrin Turner-Yell, J.R. Reed and Jamar Johnson, who all feel like high-end reserve pieces, and those that don’t make the roster will likely find an opportunity elsewhere pretty quick.

Safety just missed out on the top spot because there are still some questions about who’s starting alongside Simmons, but it’s still undeniably among the strongest position groups on the team.

If it’s Jackson starting alongside Simmons, will he be the Jackson of 2020, or will the decline we saw in 2021 continue? If it’s Sterns, will he be ready for the inflated role, or will he flounder under pressure?

1. Interior Defensive Line

NFL: Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars...Strongest Position Group
Sep 19, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Dre’Mont Jones (93) against Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman A.J. Cann (60) at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This selection will almost certainly be an upset in the eyes of Broncos Country, as the team’s collection of safeties has long been near the top of the NFL, but when you look at the position from top to bottom, the defensive line looks a little more like the strongest of the position groups on Denver’s defense.

While the Broncos ‘base personnel’ might be a 3-4 that features three defensive linemen, the modern NFL has shifted more and more to nickel and dime packages — often featuring just two defensive linemen — and that shift should be even more extreme under new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.

With that in mind, few NFL teams have a better pairing of starting defensive lineman than D.J. Jones and Dre’Mont Jones. Both excel in all facets of the game, but also complement each other very nicely, as D.J. Jones is one of the league’s truly elite run-stuffers and Dre’Mont Jones is one of its truly elite interior pass-rushers.

The second unit is also very gifted with known commodities.

When the Broncos want to go heavy up front, they can pair Mike Purcell with D.J. Jones and have two players that are among the best at stopping the run when healthy. DeShawn Williams has also been a valuable rotational piece for multiple seasons now, and that should continue in 2022. Denver also shouldn’t forget about McTelvin Agim, who continues to flash potential brilliance, but just has to add a little more power to his game.

In the reserve group, the Broncos have highly intriguing rookies Eyiomia Uwazurike and Matt Henningsen, and more players that could contribute in a pinch. From top to bottom, there isn’t much to really sweat or worry about with the defensive line group, and there’s a ton to be excited for.

What heights can Dre’Mont Jones reach now that he’ll get to play with a lead more frequently? How dominant can the run defense be if Purcell returns to form? How dominant can the interior pass rush be if McTelvin Agim takes that next step?

The season can’t come soon enough.

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