Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson have a lot in common.
Both joined the Broncos in 2018, Jewell as a fourth-round pick and Johnson as an undrafted free agent. Both had career-high tackling numbers in 2020, Jewell with 113 and Johnson with 124.
And both are fighting for their starting jobs.
While Jewell and Johnson were consistent at inside linebacker last season — Jewell at right, Johnson at left — it's assumed that rookie Baron Browning and second-year linebacker Justin Strnad will certainly be in the mix to earn one of those two starting spots. In a defense that is believed to have a great pass rush in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and a revitalized secondary with the additions of Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain II, linebacker is the one area where the Broncos' defense needs to get better.
"Me and Josey are going to be the starting guys just from our performance and how we carry ourselves on the field," Johnson said. "Rotation wise — we've been rotating pretty good with Strnad and the other guys. The new guy (Browning) we got in hasn’t been able to rotate with us much. It's more so getting out there and playing.
"Rotation is good. ... If we're able to rotate more, I feel like we'll have fresher legs on each play.”
Strnad looked poised to play a lot last season before having season-ending wrist surgery. And Browning has missed all of organized team activities with a "lower-leg injury," but is expected to be a real threat to steal one of those jobs. He was one of the more athletic linebackers in the draft and is great in coverage — something Jewell and Johnson have struggled at.
But Jewell and Johnson do have experience over Strnad and Browning and have a good understanding of where they need the most improvement.
Coach Vic Fangio said Johnson needs "to be more assignment and technique conscious" to which Johnson mostly agreed.
“I feel like I’m pretty sound, and I’m pretty technique (conscious) already," Alexander said. "I feel like he may be saying that over some of the mistakes I made last year, but those just came with playing the game instead of just me doing my job and trying to help out or fall into another gap if I see a gap open instead of just sticking to — it's my job, stick to my job and let the other stuff play out.”
And Jewell said he needs to work on his speed and coverage in space.
“There's been a couple different things," Jewell said. "It's the short-area quickness, to be able to cover people within that 5-10-yard range which we usually get, then just trying to work on the long speed and just trying to get overall upper body strength increased to play the box better year-by-year.”
Jewell and Johnson both said their starting spots are theirs to lose, having both started at inside linebacker all of last season and heading into their fourth years with the Broncos.
But there's a lot riding on Jewell's and Johnson's development, and not just their jobs. With how good the Broncos' defensive line and secondary are expected to be, the linebacker unit could be the difference between a top-15 and top-five defense next season.
“Our rush is going to be pretty dang good it seems like with the guys we have and with the corners we have. It's pretty exciting just to see those guys out there every day and just see what they can do because they are nothing short of spectacular," Jewell said. "It frees us up to be able to maybe lurk in the middle a little more, be able to go off quarterback eyes, and just be able to roam around sometimes. But we'll see how (Fangio) wants to use it. Right now, there's a lot of potential, and hopefully it goes well.”