Two third-round picks and a surprising seventh-rounder. Players without a ton of notoriety or long lists of college football accolades. Hell, two of the three could have been considered recruiting busts by the time their Ohio State careers were done. But Dre’Mont Jones, Baron Browning, and Jonathon Cooper quickly formed a productive NFL trio and a triumvirate of important pieces for the Denver Broncos in 2021.
These former Buckeyes joined forces (again) last year when Browning and Cooper were both taken by the Broncos in the 2021 NFL Draft. Jones has been with the club since 2019, and there were no introductions needed, as there was plenty of familiarity stemming from the players’ time in Columbus. Jones and Cooper were teammates for three seasons (2016-18) at OSU, and Browning shared a locker room with them for two. During the time they all occupied the same field (17-18), Ohio State went a combined 25-3, and won two Big Ten titles and two bowl games.
In the Mile High City, Jones’ role has grown over time, whereas the more recent draftees were thrust into action quickly – perhaps even surprisingly – out of borderline necessity. Each of them played in at least 14 games last season, and while their stats might not jump off the page, their importance to the Broncos should not be understated. Roles are likely to change in 2022, but the former Buckeyes should not be slept on as potential foundation pieces at the next level.
Jones is almost assuredly going to start for the Broncos next season — or at least be on the field for a majority of the snaps. He started in just 15 of his 29 appearances over the last two years, but played more than 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He was also a regular on special teams. Due to his combination of size and speed/athleticism, Jones plays defensive end in Denver’s 3-4 base, which is honestly just a perfect role for him. At 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, he lacks the size of a traditional defensive tackle and the speed of an elite pass rusher. But as a 3-4 end, he can both stop the run and get consistent pressure on passing downs.
The big man from Cleveland St. Ignatius had 12 total sacks in 2020-21 combined and tied for the team lead with 11 quarterback hits last season. Jones has shown an ability to get the QB going back to his time in Columbus, so I would not be surprised to see him reach double-digit sacks at some point during his career. He is not asked to rush the passer on every down, but he is disruptive nonetheless. As his playing time increased and the production kept pace, Jones’ profile and importance to the Broncos continued to grow. He is now entering the last year of his rookie contract, and I expect him to get “the bag” if his strong play continues. That bag should most certainly be dropped in Denver, and I look forward to watching Jones become a franchise cornerstone.
Browning and Cooper find themselves in the same situation as each other, but very different than that of Jones. Both exceeded expectations as rookies, however, their opportunities came about primarily as a result of multiple injuries and a blockbuster trade. Bradley Chubb, Josey Jewell, and others missed considerable time for the Broncos, and Von Miller was traded midseason, all of which culminated in additional playing time for the former Buckeyes. Browning played 60 percent of the defensive snaps (58 total tackles), while Cooper played 45 percent (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks). We have seen plenty of players get a chance and run with it, but BB and Coop are both expected to slide down the depth chart in 2022.
That is because Denver will get Chubb back, and they signed Randy Gregory as a free agent, giving them two dynamic pass rushers. They will play outside linebacker in the Broncos’ base defense, which is the position at which Browning and Cooper are currently listed. So the young guys will likely take a seat. However, last season should have gone a long way towards at least securing rotational reps for the OSU OLB duo. Gregory also doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to staying on the field, so his long-term availability is not a foregone conclusion.
In Browning’s case, the former all-world recruit can also play middle linebacker, providing flexibility for both him and the team. But they signed Alex Singleton away from the Philadelphia Eagles — a player who totaled 137 tackles last year, despite only starting eight games. For a Denver team that has playoff and Super Bowl aspirations, there is competition everywhere. So both Browning and Cooper (and Jones, for that matter) will need to earn playing time.
Three former Buckeyes who were underappreciated and out shadowed by some of their teammates. Dozens of them, across a handful of years. Now they find themselves making a tangible impact in the NFL... together. With Jones leading the pack, and Browning and Cooper possibly on the ascent, the Denver Broncos could find themselves in a similar situation to that of the Cincinnati Bengals and/or New Orleans Saints recently — flourishing among the league’s best, aided by the scarlet and gray. Ohio State fans will certainly be paying attention. Go Bucks!