When he was a senior at East Lake High School in Florida Justin Strnad (pronounced stir-NAD) listed his height and weight at 6' 3" 205 lbs. Five years later after his redshirt senior year at Wake Forest he checked in to the combine at 6' 3" 235 lbs. I don't know if we want to take high school Justin at his word about his height and weight, but putting on those 30 lbs was enough for him to switch positions from strong safety to FBS inside linebacker.
I love that Strnad has that background as a hard-hitting safety. It provides excellent insight on his play style, as his standout traits are speed, ranginess, and coverage ability.
These also happen to be the exact traits that Broncos head coach Vic Fangio prizes most at inside linebacker. Strnad was in the midst of a fantastic follow-up season to his strong junior year when a ruptured biceps sidelined him in October. While unfortunate for Strnad, it may have been a stroke of luck for the Broncos; Strnad profiles extremely well for Fangio's system and may not have been available in the 5th round if he had continued playing so well for a full season.
Let's take a look at what Strnad brings to the table at inside linebacker.
Sideline to Sideline Athleticism
One of the first things that is apparent about Strnad when watching his tape is that he is a true sideline to sideline player. This is not a surprise given his background as a safety. He regularly displays speed and ranginess that are more common in a defensive back, and that allow him to patrol a huge area of the field. On this 3rd and 14 play, Strnad is well outside the hashmarks by the near sideline when he recognizes a screen developing on the opposite side of the field. He lines the ballcarrier up from half a field away, effortlessly closes the necessary distance, and delivers a solid hit to force a fourth down (left ILB, number 23).
It's a remarkable amount of space to cover on a single play.
His "former-safety" speed also shows up in the run game, where he is more than capable of beating running backs to the edge. On this play Strnad out-sprints the Utah St. running back to the flat, forces him to attempt a spin back inside, and drags him down at the LOS. The RB never stood a chance—Strnad was simply the superior athlete (left ILB).
Fangio prizes top-tier mobility from his inside backers. Think Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Danny Trevathan, and Roquan Smith—all players with the ability to defend sideline to sideline. At least in this one regard, Strnad fits the mold.
Top-Flight Coverage Ability
Strnad really brings his speed and athleticism to bear in the way he defends the pass. At Wake Forest he spent most of his coverage snaps patrolling the middle of a zone defense—and he really excelled at it. Here, he sits in his zone in the middle of the field until he diagnoses the bubble screen developing in the flat. Once he sees where the ball is headed he jets over and makes the play (right ILB).
It's a simple example of what makes him effective in zone coverage. Manning the middle of the field allows him to sit back, figure out where the play is developing, and head that way to make a play on the ball.
Here's another example of Strnad doing exactly that. His speed really pops here, as he easily runs with the wide receiver before kicking into an even higher gear to close and make the tackle (MLB threatening a blitz).
Strnad also has solid feel for routes that develop behind him. Here he is on a critical 1st and 10 play with 18 seconds left in the game against Utah St., protecting a three point lead from first round pick QB Jordan Love. He's again in zone coverage, and does an excellent job playing two men at once—the RB that's leaking toward the sideline in front of him, and the wide receiver running a crossing pattern behind him. The RB is his primary responsibility but he sees Love trying to fit a pass in over his head and comes down with the game-winning pick (ILB threatening blitz between LDE and DT).
Strnad is even capable of mirroring wide receivers on occasion. Here's another high leverage end-of-game play with Strnad again in zone coverage. This time, however, he knows from the snap that the inside slot receiver is his responsibility, giving the play more of a man coverage feel. The receiver runs a hook/curl, but Strnad is all over it and looks like a DB as he comes out of his backpedal to contest the pass (LB lined up in slot, outside far hashmarks).
This is rare footwork for a linebacker. That right foot sticks in the ground cleanly without any double clutching—just plant and break on the pass. (It's possible he got to the receiver a hair early, but I think it's a good no-call. And it's the footwork that speaks most clearly to Strnad's game in a generalizable way, not the intensity of contact prior to the ball's arrival).
All in all, Strnad is excellent in the pass game. The PFF grades bear this out, with a mid-season 90.2 coverage grade in 2019 (he ruptured his biceps tendon in October). For the sake of comparison, Roquan Smith led the 2018 LB class with a 90.6 grade in coverage. Wake Forest does play an easier schedule than Georgia, but it's hard to ask for much better than what Strnad delivered this season as a pass defender.
Inconsistent Run Defense
Strnad's play against the run is a different story. It's not as though he's a disaster, but there's an inconsistency to his game that kept his performance in this area well below what he did against the pass.
Strnad does excel in space as a chase-down run defender, which is unsurprising given his movement skills and build. Here he is running down a toss from the back side. It's the sort of rangy play that should look familiar by now (MLB, on near hash).
He's also capable of filling lanes on the inside and doesn't shy away from contact (ILB, on near hash).
When confronted with a blocker, however, Strnad can struggle to make the play. On this play he overruns the hole and locks up with the pulling TE, leaving a massive lane for the RB (near-side ILB).
Strnad's instincts are also inconsistent. Here, for example, Strnad takes himself out of the play by needlessly crashing toward the H-back as the ballcarrier scampers in the other direction (near-side ILB).
From what I can tell, Strnad's run defense isn't so egregiously bad that it should prevent him from being on the field, but it's certainly a step below his outstanding ability in the pass game. Let's call it a growth area.
There's a natural power to Strnad's game that causes him to casually de-cleat blockers on occasion (ILB in motion towards far sideline).
That pop translates to his tackling. Revisiting the play shown in the first clip in this article, check out how much force Strnad puts into this open field hit even while coming in at an angle.
He's all over any chance to blow someone up (bottom of the screen between the numbers and the hashmarks, in off-coverage).
Joe Marino of The Draft Network writes that Strnad is "not immune to missed tackles" and "needs to be more consistent with technique so the missed attempts diminish." I agree, and would add that being "more consistent with technique" in this case means (a) doing a better job of breaking down before a tackle attempt, especially in the open field, and (b) taking better advantage of help, whether that comes in the form of a teammate or the sideline.
This clip, in which Strnad has the ballcarrier pinned dead to rights against the sideline but misses the tackle, illustrates both points. Strnad needs to come in at a better angle to make this play. Instead of working all the way to the edge of the field and coming flat down sideline, Strnad should attack at an angle and squeeze the runner toward his help—in this case, the out of bounds line. He also needs to chop his feet and break down as he comes in for the tackle instead of gliding towards the contact. Here's the play (right backer).
These aren't major issues, and Strnad has the intelligence and athleticism to clean them up but they are part of the reason he wasn't more highly regarded as a prospect.
All in all, the Broncos found a player in Strnad with starter-level attributes that should be able to contribute immediately on special teams. Todd Davis will become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and it wouldn't shock me in the slightest to see Strnad playing heavy reps at inside linebacker as soon as next year. Not a bad prognosis for a 5th round pick.