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Denver Broncos may have struck gold with a couple of former Buckeyes

Baron Browning and Jonathon Cooper both started the year as onlookers, but are now balling out in elevated roles.

Moving on from Columbus to Denver, former Buckeyes are playing well

The Denver Broncos doubled up on former Ohio State defenders in the 2021 NFL Draft, perhaps surprisingly so. They gambled on upside by taking linebacker Baron Browning in the third round, and targeted a high character individual and the owner of a congenital heart defect with their selection of Jonathon Cooper in the seventh. Buckeye fans saw each of these guys produce big games from time to time, but both were inconsistent during their career(s) in Columbus. Fortunately for Denver, rolling the dice on Browning and counting on the health, hard work, and improvement of Cooper, has been a worthwhile investment.

Browning and Cooper both battled health issues during the 2021 NFL preseason, the most serious of which was Coop’s heart surgery. Both were brought along slowly, until they essentially popped at the same time. They now look to be foundational players for a stout Broncos defense… side note: their defense has to be stout, because the franchise is paying their receivers approximately one billion dollars, but lacks a quarterback who is capable of getting them the ball. I’m not bitter that my fantasy season ended with Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton on the bench, I promise.

Browning was an absolute ghost until injuries forced the coaches’ hand prior to Week 8. He had played a total of four defensive snaps over the first seven weeks, but was thrust into a starting role when the Broncos lost both of their starting inside linebackers. He has played over 80 percent of the snaps since then, and has consistently been the dynamic player we saw in spurts at Ohio State. Browning’s development has clearly been aided by the influence of his head coach, Vic Fangio.

Fangio was a long-time linebacker coach and defensive coordinator, before landing the head gig in Denver. He has raved about his young linebacker, and that’s a strong endorsement from a coach of his caliber. He should have a good sense of how to use the former Buckeye, whereas I think the OSU staff experimented with him too often. The coach and player have one-on-one film sessions occasionally, and text when they are away from the facility.

Browning’s biggest strength, is arguably his insane athleticism. With the ability to recover from a misread or poor play diagnosis, he is then able to be aggressive and attack downhill — which he has done in the run game. His speed and coverage ability have allowed him to also defend the pass well, as evidenced by the plays he made against Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers. Browning seems like a potential star in the making, and if you want to read more about either one of these guys, check out Mile High Report, also on SBNation.

As for Coop, how can you not love the guy? Ohio State clearly developed an affinity for the first recipient of the “Block O” jersey, and it appears as if Denver fans are quickly becoming huge fans as well. Hampered by injuries throughout his college career, Cooper probably did not warrant a draft selection solely due to his on-field production. However, his leadership, toughness, and football pedigree made him worthy of a late-round look. The Broncos have to be pleased that Cooper, the football player is catching up with Cooper, the man.

Unsurprisingly, Cooper faced adversity before he even suited up for Denver. After dealing with various injuries in Columbus, he was snake-bitten once again, this time by the recurrence or discovery of his Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. He was eventually cleared for football activities after three, eight-hour procedures, and impressed during the Broncos’ preseason games… then he sat for the majority of the first six weeks of the season — similar to Browning.

When the Broncos decided to move on from Von Miller, Cooper was given the starting nod, and he has flourished ever since. Despite lacking world-class athleticism, the former Buckeye captain has gotten the job done with technique, relentless pursuit, and a high football IQ. He is also healthy and playing nearly every down, which was not always the case in college. It’s like they always say: opportunity breeds success.

In his first three starts, Cooper was credited with 13 pressures — second among rookies, and tied with superstar Myles Garrett. The rookie has continued to start and play the majority of the defensive snaps, and although he has not earned a sack since Week 9 in Dallas, his impact is being felt by the opposition. Now that he has tape out there, it is entirely possible that teams are game-planning for him, which was not the case when he first became a surprise starter. Coop has 30 total tackles to go with those two sacks, and I predict he finishes the season with a few more.

It looks like the Broncos may have really found something with their former Buckeyes. Browning and Cooper worked their way up the depth chart, and have proven themselves to be at least quality starters in the NFL. Both were 5-star recruits who experienced ups and downs while at Ohio State, but they kept grinding and improving, and the evidence of their hard work is showing up on Sundays. Just a few more Buckeye success stories for the program to hang their hat on. Go Bucks, and Merry Christmas!