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Broncos Film Room: Three underrated options at inside linebacker

Andre Simone Avatar
June 2, 2019

Vic Fangio is synonymous with linebackers, building his reputation on coaching some of the best second-level units in recent NFL history.

Fangio hasn’t just coached up great linebacking units, he’s built schemes around them, perfectly countering modern NFL attacks built around quick passes over the middle of the field, with rangy, athletic backers with high-end cover skills.

Which is why the Broncos ignoring the position this offseason came as a bit of a shock, as the 60-year old rookie head coach begins to build his defense in the Mile High City.

That’s why we went back to the tape to breakdown three underrated players who could profile at inside linebacker in Fangio’s defense, and in their own way, fit the bill of what the ol’ ball coach is looking for to patch up the last remaining hole in a defense that could be among the league’s best. 

The swiss-army knife approach

In reality, the Broncos did add one linebacker this offseason with fifth-round selection Justin Hollins out of Oregon.

While Hollins was used as a typical edge rusher for most of his collegiate career and turned himself into one of the better pass-rushers in the Pac-12, the more we’ve learned about Ducks star defender, his fit at inside linebacker might be more natural than initially thought.

For starters, Hollins possess the type of raw athleticism that’s required to play coverage in Fangio’s defense, running a 4.5 40-yard dash, faster than what Roquan Smith ran back in 2018.

Outrunning Smith is notable, considering how much bigger the Broncos rookie is and more importantly because Roquan was a top-10 selection for Fangio’s Chicago Bears in 2018. Even more notable is how highly thought of Smith is by Fangio, who spoke glowingly of his former player, stating that he was better “at this stage” than either of the first-round linebackers taken in 2019.

Used primarily as an edge rusher, Hollins was only able to show his athleticism dropping in coverage in rare flashes, like this rep in coverage against Cal, running stride for stride with the Bears tight end and getting a touchdown-saving pass deflection in the end zone.

While Hollins might not be smooth or lightning quick like Smith, for a natural pass rusher with prototypical edge rushing length, he is incredibly fluid dropping in coverage and can cover a lot of ground, though he was mostly asked to cover the shallow flats in college.

Just like his pass deflection against Cal, Hollins showed flashes in coverage throughout his career and was impressive in the draft process where he looked more than equipped to play inside linebacker at the East-West Shrine Game and showcased nimble feet and fluid hips in workouts at The Combine.

Watch him here at inside linebacker in the East-West game, moving fluidly to cover 15-yards downfield.

Hollins also looked at ease running stride for stride with backs in his all-star game showcase.

Another strength of his game is in how disciplined he is sticking to his assignment, rarely overrunning a play or getting caught out of position, both big plusses in projecting his coverage ability.

Hollins is an instinctual defender who, in limited opportunities, appeared plenty comfortable dropping in zone coverage.

He might not be the smoothest turning and running after targets but in Fangio’s zone-heavy defense should be much more at ease.

With seven pass breakups in his final season in Eugene, most of which came at the line of scrimmage as he batted down throws while rushing the quarterback, Hollins has the length and potential ball-skills to disrupt and blanket targets in coverage, as he can match most tight ends’ length and is faster than most running backs or tight ends even at the NFL level.

The added advantage of having Hollins on the roster is that he can be a quality backup edge rusher and even be featured in formations where the Broncos line up with three outside pass-rushers on the field at once. In Chicago, Fangio would do this from time to time, utilizing Leonard Floyd, whose length and athleticism compare favorably to Hollins, in a variety of ways including dropping him in coverage.

Denver’s new fifth-round pick might not start but should bring a whole lot of value and versatility to the Broncos defense.

With a few more reps in coverage and at inside linebacker, there’s no telling how much of an impact Denver’s lone linebacker addition could have.

The special-teams ace

Recent Broncos history has taught us that quality linebackers can be found just about anywhere; from practice squared Brandon Marshall to the undrafted Wesley Woodyard or late-round pick Danny Trevathan, Denver’s filled the interior of their defense with underrated players who’ve had a big impact.

The next underrated inside linebacker to fill those shoes could be standout special teamer, Joseph Jones.

Jones has had very few opportunities to play linebacker as a pro, with the exception of 24 snaps in Week 13 against the Cincinnati Bengals last season, where his talent was clear to see.

Jones really stood out for his lateral mobility, range an instincts in coverage, with great sideline-to-sideline speed allowing him to fly to the ball.

As you’d expect from any hungry star-special teamer, Jones has a non-stop motor and runs everything down as if shot out of a cannon.

The Broncos No. 43 is also sticky in coverage and plays with an aggressive edge, not giving opposing targets an inch. He reads and reacts to the ball well and is very instinctual in underneath coverage, while also playing assignment-sound football.

Jones’ athleticism and fluidity stand out in coverage as well, as he’s perfectly suited to turn and run with tight ends and running backs.

In his one game against the Bengals, Jones showed great focus reading the quarterback and reacting to the ball quickly, often breaking to the right spot before the ball was even released.

Of course, that aggressive approach could hurt him against more competent NFL quarterback than Jeff Driskel but the tools are all there to be a very talented cover backer in Fangio’s scheme.

Dropping in coverage and flying around sideline-to-sideline are real strengths of Jones’ game but he’s not dynamic coming downhill, especially as a blitzer, and lacks some power to his game.

However, he’s so quick and active that he won’t stay blocked for long and can be a strong enough run defender to warrant regular playing time in a scheme that values his primary strengths.

Jones is disciplined enough to plug gaps against the run but he’s a much more impactful moving backward than he is forwards, a bit surprising for a stud gunner like him.

Jones received a B in our game grades for his showing against the Bengals, a game Denver won, but the flashes he demonstrated were really impressive as he split time and outplayed Su’a Cravens most of the game.

Given his impact on special teams, he also has a greater chance of making the roster than most backup linebackers on the roster and is naturally suited for Fangio’s scheme.

Upon further review

Maybe it was this vicious second-level block Dalton Risner laid on him, or maybe it was simply a lack of lateral mobility that doesn’t fit Fangio’s scheme.

But for whatever reason in our film analysis of the Broncos top undrafted free agents, Kansas’ Joe Dineen wasn’t all that impressive at first glance.

However, with Dineen already turning heads within the Broncos facilities, we went back to the tape to see what we missed.

Upon further review, what stands out about the former Jayhawk is his north-and-south athleticism, which was confirmed by the 4.6 40-yard dash he ran at his pro day.

This shows up when Dineen is coming downhill and shoots gaps as a blitzer or when roaming the line of scrimmage and defending the run, where he was extremely productive in college. Because of those traits, the Big-12 standout posted an impressive 36 tackles for a loss in his final two seasons and seemed to always be around the ball, especially close to the line of scrimmage.

That underrated speed also allowed him to turn and run with tight ends and running backs alike. For reference sake, Dineen’s 40 time was as fast as Josh Jacobs, the top running back selected in the 2019 draft and faster than T.J. Hockenson, the top tight end selected this year.

So while he’s not the most natural in coverage, especially in man, the requisite speed is there and he showed enough range to drop over the deep middle fairly competently and cover a decent amount of ground.

The other quality Dineen has that we likely underrated is his tackling ability, as his 201 solo tackles in the past two seasons can attest. His finishing ability in the open field stands out as he can wrap up with sound technique and strong hands.

Add to that his ability to blitz and defend the run and Dineen checks off some important boxes at inside linebacker.

His lateral mobility, or lack thereof, is the big glaring question surrounding Dinneen, especially in Fangio’s defense. That lack of sideline-to-sideline speed can also make him a liability defending the run, as quicker athletes will exploit him in space.

Dineen might not be the flashiest and is a somewhat awkward fit in Fangio’s defense but he has an NFL skill-set as a two-down backer who can do enough against the pass to not be exploited.

He’s far from the answer at linebacker but can be a quality member of a unit that plugs holes at the position with a by-committee approach.

Dineen is also a team captain who’s been lauded for his IQ and work in the classroom, important traits that can help him make up for what he lacks in raw tools.

He’ll be an interesting player to follow throughout camp and preseason as there’s certainly more to his game than met the eye on our initial viewing.

In conclusion

Combined together Jones, Hollins and Dineen’s strengths could be the perfect fit in Denver’s new defense but all have their flaws individually.

Hollins’ versatility and raw tools will certainly allow him to see the field early on and Jones feels like the most underrated piece on this roster right now.

The early buzz Dineen has created could also be seen as a nice endorsement for Josey Jewell, who has almost identical size, with some of the same athleticism concerns and outstanding tackling production.

How Fangio makes the Broncos inside linebackers work is going to be a key for the defense this year and could prove to be the difference between having a top-10 unit and a top-three juggernaut, all three of Jones, Hollins, and Dineen could play a part in that.

For more linebacker film breakdowns and scouting reports, check out our analysis of Josey Jewell, Su’a Cravens, Keishawn Bierria, and Alexander Johnson.


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