BRONCOS

Among the biggest Broncos position battles will be inside linebacker

Jul 2, 2024, 1:50 AM

Like many rosters in flux, the Denver Broncos have some budding position battles.

On defense, there’s good reason. Their longtime team captain, Justin Simmons, is gone. So too is their “green dot,” six-year inside linebacker Josey Jewell, who relayed the play calls from the sideline via the radio receiver in his helmet.

Change was going to happen because the status quo wasn’t good enough. Even when removing the 70-point debacle against Miami from the equation, the Broncos still ranked 20th or worse in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense when dropping the best and worst performances for each defense from the equation.

In other words, while Miami was an extreme outlier, the overall body of work wasn’t good enough. To that end, Vance Joseph has tried to simplify things.

But one thing that isn’t simple is his decision at a few positions.

1. SAFETY

P.J. Locke appears poised to not only be a Week 1 starter for the first time, but to assume a leadership role as the Broncos attempt to fill the Simmons void. But beyond him, questions emerged from OTAs. Free-agent pickup Brandon Jones dealt with an injury and missed time. Caden Sterns continued work on the rehab field after suffering a torn meniscus in Week 1 of last year. That left players such as JL Skinner and Devon Key to see some work alongside Locke. Hopes remain high for Skinner, even though he played just two games last year.

But no matter what happens, the Broncos will have a safety corps that is relatively thin on starting experience. They’re counting on Locke’s form in the back half of the 2023 season being a harbinger of big days to come — and on Jones staying healthy and improving in coverage to add to his work against the run … or on Key or Skinner making massive leaps.

2. INSIDE LINEBACKER

The Broncos signed Cody Barton in March to be a potential starter alongside Alex Singleton. But as Sean Payton indicated, it won’t be just Barton in the mix; Jonas Griffith — who is returning from a torn ACL — will be there, along with Justin Strnad and, as Sean Payton mentioned in OTAs, even undrafted rookie Levelle Bailey could rotate in.

Barton brings some coverage ability, but Griffith was a solid starter before injuries derailed him. If healthy, he still possesses some upside.

3. EDGE RUSHER

This could be one of the most fascinating battles of training camp if Nik Bonitto improves at the point of attack against the run. In backside run pursuit, Bonitto showed some strong flashes during OTAs, but until pads go on and full contact begins, the Broncos won’t have much of a gauge on Bonitto’s improvement against the run. If he’s made progress and could handle base-package work, he could shuffle the deck for playing time among himself, Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning, with the potential for Jonah Elliss to sneak in with some rotational snaps, as well.

Browning and Cooper are a solid starting duo, but this group could see some upward mobility from its younger players during training camp.

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Among the biggest Broncos position battles will be inside linebacker