It wasn’t bad enough that the Denver Broncos laid an egg in a pivotal matchup against the divisional rival Las Vegas Raiders on October 17, or bad enough that a star player was inherently unhappy with the team’s performance, but now comes news that yet another defensive starter is lost for the season.
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Ironically, it’s the same injury that knocked out Jewell for the season after he tore his pectoral muscle in a Week 2 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Is This the End?
The Broncos and both inside linebackers are going to have interesting scenarios, in the spring of 2022, as both Alexander and Jewell will be unrestricted free agents.
Currently, Jewell accounts for a 2021 cap hit of $2.26 million, including a base salary of $2.18 million. It was a relatively market-cheap value for an important cog, who made all the defensive calls and was the only starting defensive player on special teams coverage. Johnson accounts for $3.38 million in 2021 salary cap hit.
The 2021 season just may be Johnson’s swan song in Denver, considering there are some factors weighing against him. He entered the NFL as a 27-year old, and will be 30 years old by the beginning of the 2022 season. And, while he’s been a solid citizen in Denver, Johnson was mired in off-field issues during his college years. Plus, he can also be a liability in the passing game, and has been known to freelance his responsibilities in coverage, or miss sure tackles at times, leaving big gaps at the second level of the defense.
Johnson, known as “The Dinosaur,” was one of the better defensive performers for the Broncos in 2021, particularly against the run. What he lacked in pass coverage (Pro Football Focus rated him 63.2) and as pass rusher (68.4 rating), he more than made up for it as a thumper in run defense (90.4).
Johnson originally burst on the scene in Denver during a Week 5 contest in 2019, impressive considering he was an undrafted rookie (2018) out of the University of Tennessee and was cut by the Broncos, August, 2018, before being brought back to the roster, via a futures/reserve contract in January 2019. The 6-foot-2, 258-pound Alexander worked his way up the depth chart to become one of the better defensive starters in Denver.
The fourth-year player, who suffered the injury late in the first half against the Raiders, finishes his 2021 campaign with 34 tackles (24 solo and two for loss), two sacks, one fumble recovery, and three passes defended.
Next Men Up?
It was difficult enough trying to replace Jewell in the starting lineup, but now the Broncos will have to rework its entire inside linebacker unit in head coach Vic Fangio‘s 3-4 defense.
Likely getting first crack at filling two pairs of big shoes will be Micah Kiser, signed off the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad, on September 22, and who replaced Johnson in the second half of the Raiders game and played 18 defensive snaps, and second-year linebacker Justin Strnad.
A third option could be rookie linebacker Baron Browning, but he suffered a concussion against the Raiders and won’t be available on short week’s preparation. Browning is currently in the league’s concussion protocol and won’t be cleared in time when the Broncos visit the Cleveland Browns, October 21.
Fangio, during his October 18 press conference, said the Broncos would likely need to bring up one or two linebackers from the practice squad to help replace Johnson. Two undrafted rookies, Curtis Robinson, out of Stanford, and Barrington Wade, from Iowa, are the current options on the Broncos’ practice squad.
Follow Tony Williams on Twitter: @TBone8