Justin Hollins switching to inside linebacker for Broncos

Justin Hollins, Denver Broncos (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Hollins, Denver Broncos (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) /

Justin Hollins is moving back to inside linebacker after Justin Strnad’s injury.

In the NFL, versatility is often a huge advantage for players. For Denver Broncos linebacker Justin Hollins, versatility was more of a projection than anything else, but his experience in 2019 could soon benefit him greatly in 2020.

When the Denver Broncos drafted Hollins out of Oregon, they had planned on making him a hybrid player who could both rush the passer and potentially match up on tight ends or running backs in coverage.

Why would they do that with a guy who is bigger than 6-foot-5, 250 pounds? Well, because that massive, long-limbed pass rusher put up numbers in the 72nd percentile or better at the Scouting Combine in 2019 when it comes to speed, explosiveness, and short-area quickness.

At the time, Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley (now the defensive coordinator for Sean McVay and the LA Rams) envisioned Hollins as a matchup chess piece kind of player, but the Broncos and Hollins both learned that the kind of versatility they envisioned is not so easily taught.

Hollins’ experience last year learning the inside linebacker position was on the backburner for Vic Fangio and the current Broncos coaching staff, but it has now been thrust back to the forefront. Fangio said the Broncos worked Hollins exclusively at inside linebacker at what amounted to about a half-speed or three-quarters speed practice on Monday.

Fangio also noted that the Broncos had planned on keeping Hollins outside, but that his experience last year was always something they had at their disposal just in case.

"“We were originally planning on leaving him at outside in this camp with the thought of knowing that he might be able to play inside some particularly in nickel in the back of our mind. Now with the injuries that we’ve had at ILB, it has kind of forced our hands to do that a little earlier. You never know. It could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Justin and for us. We’re not putting him in there just because we need somebody in there. He’s a guy that has a chance in there. Sometimes when you’re forced to do something both as a coaching staff or as a player it ends up being a blessing. I’m hoping that’s what happens here.”Vic Fangio (quotes via Broncos PR)"

When Fangio said that it could turn out to be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for both Hollins and the team, I got the impression that the recent injury suffered by Justin Strnad could have potentially saved Hollins’ roster spot in Denver.

Fangio saying that the Broncos aren’t just putting Hollins out there because they ‘need somebody’? Well, you can decide if he’s telling the truth for yourself. The timing, to me, says it all.

Hollins’ athleticism is certainly welcomed off the edge but if he can take a step forward in his second season as an off-ball coverage linebacker? That would be absolutely massive for the Broncos moving forward.

Expectations for Strnad were pretty high for a fifth-round pick because of the fact that he is really the only true off-ball linebacker the Broncos have drafted since Vic Fangio became the head coach, and now that pressure shifts back to Hollins, who is certainly more of a natural as a pass rusher.

With his athletic traits and size (Hollins is pretty similar athletically to Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam), it’s reasonable to expect the Broncos can achieve what they set out to, but there will need to be patience in the process.

It will be fascinating to see if they leave Josey Jewell on the field in nickel situations or if it’s the two more athletic ‘backers on the team right now — Alexander Johnson and Hollins.

Next. Players playing their way to roster spots in camp. dark

The switch to inside linebacker may not be permanent for Hollins, but the Broncos will certainly ramp up his reps there with their recent injuries. With Strnad’s potential involvement as a rookie in the nickel defense, Hollins now has a chance to really seize the day and become a significant contributor to the Broncos’ defense when it appeared he may have been a longshot to even make the roster in a loaded OLB group.