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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Among the surprises when the Broncos released their first depth chart of camp on Tuesday was Bradley Chubb’s inclusion in the starting lineup. Although Chubb is a premier prospect at outside linebacker, veteran Shane Ray had taken the majority of the first-team reps throughout training camp and seemed primed to hold onto the starting job, at least on the first copy of the depth chart.
Not the case.
“He’s earned that right,” Vance Joseph said of the rookie.
Chubb hasn’t been the shining star of training camp, that honor goes to the Broncos pick after him, Courtland Sutton, but while the NC State product hasn’t stuffed the highlight reel, he has been a consistently solid performer. The fact that he’s still a starter despite his lack of game-breaking plays is a testament to his versatility. His value to the Broncos’ defense comes in his ability to be a plus-player on every down.
“We’ve been pleased with him,” Vance Joseph said of the rookie. “Not just with his physical abilities, but his football IQ. He’s so smart, and he’s walked in and done a good job for us in the passing game, the run game, with the pressure.”
Chubb’s ability to stop the run is likely why he got the starting nod over Ray. The rookie is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker, meaning he’ll generally line up on the same side as a tight end, where the offense is most likely to run the football. Ray is listed as a weak-side linebacker behind Von Miller, making him less likely to be put in run-stopping situations when he’s on the field.
But Ray should still get plenty of playing time, even if he’s coming in off the bench as a situational pass rusher. When Wade Phillips joined the Broncos as defensive coordinator in 2015, he debuted a NASCAR package that featured Miller, Ray, Shaq Barrett and DeMarcus Ware on the field at the same time. This year, you should expect to see more packages with four pass rushers, with Chubb filling in for Ware.
“When you have that many guys that are really good pass rushers, it gives you the ability to rotate the guys,” second-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods said earlier in camp. “It gives us the ability to create packages. We have our NASCAR package where we put all four of those guys out on the field at the same time. It’s definitely a luxury.”
The Broncos will probably keep their preseason schemes fairly vanilla, to avoid putting their tricks on tape. While that means the Broncos’ front-seven won’t be at full force on Saturday, we will get to see what happens when Chubb goes toe-to-toe with the Vikings’ offensive line.
It can be difficult to evaluate players who work primarily in the trenches on their training camp performances because coaches limit physicality in an effort to keep the team healthy. Saturday’s contest will be the first time Chubb gets to play in a Broncos uniform with zero restraints.
“You actually get to bring guys to the ground,” Chubb said. “Those sacks you see in practice that you don’t know if it’s really there or not, we’re going to find out if you were really there or not. It’s going to be fun.”
Many of those sacks probably are there for Chubb. His physical tools are obvious, but he has a very refined technique for a rookie. Chubb had multiple pass rushing moves in college, which is rare, and his ability to close on the quarterback once he beats the blocker is remarkable.
If the rookie proves that he can be an effective rusher, offenses will have to push blockers to his side, freeing up Miller to get to the quarterback. The Broncos are banking on Chubb’s ability to force opponents to pick their poison. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a rookie, but Miller isn’t worried.
“I feel like he’s going to be great,” Miller said. “Number-five pick. I’ve already talked about how I feel about Chubb. I feel like the sky is the limit for him. He’s going to be a great player. Every single day he gets better and better. That’s all you can really ask of young guys, and that’s exactly what he’s out here doing.”
Last season, the Broncos defense combined for 33 sacks compared to 52 during their Super Bowl season in 2015. For the team to get back to the playoffs they have to find a way to put even more pressure on the quarterback and Chubb’s presence will be crucial.
“We just know we want to go out there and make plays and cause havoc on opposing teams,” Chubb said.