Inside linebacker corps lean on Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson
Sixth in a series previewing the Broncos’ position groups entering training camp:
The big question at inside linebacker — will another year in coach Vic Fangio’s scheme produce more big plays from incumbent starters Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson?
They certainly made a ton of tackles in 2019. Davis led with 134 despite missing the first two games (calf injury) and Johnson was tied for second with 93 despite playing no defensive snaps during the 0-4 start, but the two combined for one interception (by Johnson).
Who’s back: Todd Davis, Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Joe Jones and Josh Watson. It was a perfect offseason for Davis, whose contract option was picked up ($6 million cap hit) and then he saw the Broncos stand almost completely pat at his position group. Johnson is all kinds of athletic and said he will embrace the opportunity to have more responsibilities in coverage. Jewell got a chance to start in 2018, but is now a reserve.
Who’s gone: Corey Nelson (free agent).
Who’s new: Justin Strnad (fifth-round pick from Wake Forest) and Tre’ Crawford (free agent). The preseason games would have been huge for Strnad to prove he could play well in coverage. Now he’ll have to show it in practice. If he proves capable, the Broncos could use Strnad as the only inside linebacker in their dime package.
Pressure’s on: Johnson. Davis is in the final year of his contract and if Johnson takes another step forward as an every-down player, the Broncos could commit long-term to Johnson (who is a restricted free agent) and pair him with Davis’ replacement in 2021.
Camp competition: Watson vs. Jones. If the Broncos feel Jones remains a special teams core player (277 snaps last year, second on the team) and adequate as a fill-in linebacker, he will get the edge. But don’t count out Watson, who played 138 special teams snaps as a rookie in 2019. Like other bubble spots, the Broncos have to choose between who they know well (Jones) and the upside play (Watson).
Key statistic: 8 1/ 2. Run “stuffs” (gain or one or fewer yards not counting short-yardage/goal-line) for Johnson last year, tops among the Broncos’ inside linebackers.
Quote: “He brings that coverage element and the adaptability to match up with some great offenses in our division.” — defensive coordinator Ed Donatell on Strnad.
Final thought: This picture would look a lot different had the Broncos been able to draft LSU’s Patrick Queen. But receiver Jerry Jeudy was too good to pass at No. 15 and Baltimore took Queen later in the first round. As it is, it will be Davis and Johnson who will again start at the two inside linebacker spots.
Previous previews: Quarterback, defensive line, running back, tight end, outside linebacker.