The Denver Broncos have to be thrilled about linebacker Alexander Johnson's breakout season. Has he saved the team a high draft pick?
Going into the 2019 NFL Draft, many people felt like the Broncos had to come away with Devin White or Devin Bush at the linebacker position to find a player who could play all three downs and actually help cover backs and tight ends in the passing game along with playing the run.
White and Bush were both top 10 picks and deservedly so, but the Broncos knew they had more needs than just inside linebacker to fill and they also put a vote of confidence in players who were already on the roster.
Todd Davis was coming back from a strong season in 2018 and second-year player Josey Jewell -- a fourth-round pick in 2018 -- was supposed to be the starter next to Davis in Denver's defense.
Through the first few games of the 2019 season, the Broncos couldn't find a winning combination at inside linebacker mostly due to injuries. Davis missed the first part of the season with an injury and then Jewell was injured early on as well.
It wasn't until week five against the Jacksonville Jaguars that the Broncos replaced Corey Nelson in the lineup with Alexander Johnson, a second-year player who signed on in 2018 as an undrafted free agent late in camp.
Johnson's physical talent was always evident, but he drifted on and off the Broncos' active roster last season after choosing the Broncos over a host of other teams that tried to sign him.
Denver's patience with Johnson paid off and he racked up eight tackles in his 2019 debut, as well as breaking up a couple of passes and picking off a Philip Rivers pass in the end zone.
Johnson has been all over the field in every game since then, showing great range and instincts at the linebacker position and giving the Broncos a true star on the inside.
In the Broncos' most recent victory over the Chargers, Johnson played hurt and Vic Fangio applauded his efforts.
“Very impressed that he battled through. He didn’t play quite as good as he had been, but he was out there battling. By no means was he even close to 100 percent. You saw it on some plays where he was reluctant to stick his foot in the ground and contributed to him getting blocked sometimes, but overall, he battled through it and played well.”
Vic Fangio (quotes via Broncos PR)
Playing injured, Johnson was able to pile up nine tackles and two tackles for loss, even though he wasn't able to plant his foot in the ground and move around like he wanted. He was able to make a couple of really nice plays and pull out his dinosaur walk for some celebrating.
This guy has been an absolute beast for the Broncos this season, and perhaps the most important part of his development is the fact that he's going to save the Broncos a high draft pick at the position.
Even passing on Devin Bush looks like the wise decision in hindsight here, as Johnson has progressed at a rapid pace and has become a player the Broncos can truly rely on on a week-to-week basis.
Inside linebacker is not anywhere near the top of the Broncos' needs list right now, and in fact, they can probably take it off the list of needs completely with how well Johnson and Todd Davis have played together.