DENVER — Where there is darkness, there is light.
Justin Strnad began his Broncos career with promise and it ended in a click. During an Aug. 23 practice, the rookie linebacker braced his hands as he blocked tight end Andrew Beck. Strnad told teammate Josh Watson he thought he broke his wrist. He played a few more snaps then went to the sideline for a drink.
"I grabbed the water, and I could feel my wrist click and I knew it was dislocated. It was clear," Strnad told Denver7 this week. "They tried to put it back in place for a long time, and it didn't work."
From the practice field to the hospital, Strnad underwent surgery. His season was over before it started. Though a fifth-round pick, the former Wake Forest star showed promise, hinting at a possible as a coverage linebacker in nickel packages.
Strnad instead spent his rookie season as the equivalent of a redshirt, watching, learning and recovering after six screws were removed in November. He worked out on a his lower body for months, and has been cleared for upper body exercises several weeks ago. It has required patience, but he found a purpose in watching, glimmers of light.
"I learned that the game is faster at this level. Everybody is good. There are no weak links on the field. The offensive line can move and the quarterbacks can make any throw," Strnad said. "Coming in during a pandemic was different. We had everything thrown at us all at once. I felt like covering Noah (Fant) and Albert (Okwuegbunam) was really good work in camp. I felt like I was getting better."
Strnad remains in Colorado this offseason, maximizing his training. What made him attractive to the Broncos in college still does. He is 6-foot-3, close to 240 pounds with 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash. Strnad represents a potential hybrid to help the Broncos defend tight ends like Kansas City's Travis Kelce and the Raiders' Darren Waller.
"Kelce's route running is amazing. Waller might be a little faster. Those guys are great players," Strnad. "I try to watch all of their games, study them and how they play. It was kind of why I was brought in here, to cover guys like that."
The Super Bowl offered a blueprint on how to slow the Chiefs. With Kansas City stubbornly staying in five-man protection 92 percent of the time despite playing backup tackles, the Bucs created pressure without blitzing and linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White roamed sideline to sideline, keeping completions in front of them.
For Strnad it brought mixed emotions. He followed Tampa Bay closely, regularly attending the Buccaneers' training camp every summer with his brother. Strnad even told former Broncos teammate Mark Barron, a one-time Tampa Bay first-round pick in 2012, a funny story last season.
"I let him know I had his (Tampa Bay) jersey and showed up trying to get his autograph after we was drafted," Strnad, laughing at the memory.
Any other February, Strnad would have been losing his voice yelling for the Bucs. Not this time. (I told him he could have gone crazy for a certain insurance commercial since he's a dead ringer for Jake from State Farm).
"It's crazy. I grew up as a Bucs fan. All my friends were going crazy for them. But I wasn't really cheering," Strnad said. "It's hard to cheer for a team that you might face. It's just different."
Strnad would welcome different for his football career after suffering the first two major injuries of his life in his final season at Wake Forest and last summer with the Broncos. He is ready to transition from patient to player from Zoom to real-life reps.
"I am inching to show what I can do," Strnad said. "To play in the NFL with all the guys from my class, I can't wait. I will make sure I show up at OTAs and camp ready to go. ... With guys like (Bradley) Chubb and (Malik) Reed, they come to work everyday and work hard. We have a lot of guys like that. I truthfully believe we are close to becoming a winning team in this league and I want to be part of it."