Almost every off-ball linebacker I spoke with at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine told me that they’d met with the Denver Broncos in Indianapolis. The Broncos are on the hunt for help and depth at the position, for a couple of reasons.
First, the team hired Vic Fangio as head coach. Fangio’s defensive scheme is heavily-reliant on the off-ball linebackers, both in run fits and in coverage. There’s a certain prototype that Fangio likes at linebacker for his scheme, and there are questions as to whether the Broncos possess such players currently on the roster.
Two, the Broncos have decided not to bring back Brandon Marshall, who’s been a starter on defense for the last five seasons. 2019 was a team-option year for Marshall, and the Broncos informed him that they will not pick it up. He’ll be a free agent.
That vaults Josey Jewell — a 2018 fourth-round pick — to the top of the LB depth chart opposite of Todd Davis. It’s debatable whether either Jewell or Davis fit Fangio’s scheme, but behind them, the talent level at LB falls off a cliff.
I’m highly doubtful that Davis will be a strong fit for Fangio outside of first and second down. But I still believe that due to his football IQ and knack for being in the right place at the right time, there’s a much better chance Jewell can thrive and project as a day-one starter for Fangio.
Fangio said at the Combine that that Jewell is a “very instinctive” linebacker and that the coach is “confident” in Jewell heading into year two. Fangio isn’t much for subterfuge at the podium. He’s fairly transparent. I believe him. That doesn’t mean Denver won’t look to upgrade the position, though.
There’s no question that the Broncos need help at off-ball linebacker. The NFL free agency market could offer up a solution or two, but the Broncos are hedging their bet by scouting the 2019 draft class hard.
There are three sleeper off-ball LBs the Broncos have shown interest in who could end up hearing their name called by Denver on draft day. Let’s go through each one, highlighting what they bring to the table. We’ll lean on our expert draft analysts at MHH/247, Erick Trickel and Nick Kendell, to help sketch out why the Broncos are interested in each LB.
Cody Barton had a very productive meeting, according to him, with the Broncos in Indy. He was tested on his football IQ, which talking to him and watching him play, I assume is quite high.
Barton is coming of a senior season at Utah in which he totaled 117 tackles, with 11.5 tackles for a loss. He’s got nine career sacks on his college resume.
Trickel: Barton has good instincts that constantly show on tape. His Combine drills showed good technique, but his athletic testing really stood out. Each step in this process has seen Barton rise.
Kendell: Barton, while less renowned than his teammate Chase Hansen, had a really solid showing at the Combine. While not the biggest or most explosive, Barton’s agility and power were well on display, measuring over the 80th percentile in every agility drill. Aggressive on the field, used in blitzes and solid in coverage, Barton is a day three sleeper for Denver.
Blake Cashman confirmed to me that he had indeed met with the Broncos at the Combine. Cashman is coming off a senior campaign in which he produced 104 combined tackles and 15 TFLs.
He leaves the college ranks with 12.5 sacks, which is more than solid for an off-ball LB, and two forced fumbles. Here’s what our experts say about Cashman.
Trickel: The question was never whether Cashman can play. You can turn on his tape and see it right away. The question has always been health and his shoulders. If he didn’t have those medical concerns, he would likely be LB3 in this class.
Kendell: Perhaps no linebacker helped themselves more at the NFL combine than Cashman. While Cashman’s arm length resembles that of a T-Rex (30-1/8 inches for the 1st percentile) his athletic testing and display in drills sent many scrambling back to the tape. Instincts and athleticism make up for the stature and lack of length, but medicals will be key for his evaluation. If medicals come back clean, Cashman could wind up a top-100 pick.
Bobby Okereke was a very impressive prospect to talk to at the Combine. He’s in a master’s degree program, which has caused some NFL teams to question his passion/commitment for football, but he’s assured teams that he’s 100 percent locked in on pro life.
Okereke posted 94.5 tackles last season as a senior, with 7.5 TFLs. He leaves the college ranks with 10.5 career sacks.
Trickel: Okereke is a long linebacker who knows how to use his length in coverage. He needs some refinement when taking on blockers against the run, but he flashes potential there.
Kendell: Okereke made himself some money in Indianapolis this weekend. With incredible arm length and wingspan, Okereke will have teams hoping to land another Darius Leonard at linebacker. Okereke also showed well in field drills and in athletic testing outside of a 23rd percentile 3-cone. He will need to continue to add strength and work on his play diagnosis, but his upside could land him as a top-100 pick, if not an early day three selection.
There are some big LB names at the top of the draft, like Devin White and Devin Bush, but the Broncos might not want to spend a top-10 pick on a LB, and that’s if a player like White is even on the board still. More likely, the Broncos will wait until day two, early day three to add to the their LB corps through the draft.
These are the LB prospects are sleepers to keep an eye on, as MHH/247 has confirmed the Broncos’ interest in each one. Any of the three would bring an infusion of play-making ability to the Broncos’ front seven.