Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate DNVR Sports Community!

Nik Bonitto is ready to turn his breakout performance in Chicago into a full-time starting job

Henry Chisholm Avatar
October 8, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Nik Bonitto’s coach had bad news for him in a meeting this week.

“They’re not going to run that anymore,” Bonitto remembers him saying.

Just a few days earlier, Bonitto had turned in the first multi-sack performance of his career in a win over the Chicago Bears. His first two sacks came against a pulling offensive line. The tackle and guard on his side of the field slid inside, leaving Bonitto untouched off the snap. A couple of linemen pulled through the backfield from the far side to hit Bonitto with a running start.

But Bonitto was too fast. He knew when the tackle let him run free that linemen would come from the far side. By the time they got to his side of the field, he was already on top of the quarterback.

He doesn’t expect to see that particular protection from other teams this season. 

“They’ll obviously take that into account,” Bonitto told DNVR. “It is what it is.”

Bonitto, 24, finished the game with 2.5 sacks, including a strip-sack that resulted in the game-tying touchdown. The game was his second start of his career. The first came in January, in his final game of his rookie season.

This time around, Bonitto started in place of veteran edge rusher Randy Gregory. Five days after the game, the Broncos opted to trade Gregory to the San Francisco 49ers for a miniscule return, upgrading their seventh-round pick to a sixth-round pick. Denver had to pay the remaining $10 million in guaranteed money in Gregory’s contract for the deal to go through.

Maybe the Broncos planned to move on from Gregory before the game on Sunday. Maybe Bonitto’s performance convinced them. Either way, the message in Denver is clear: The young pass rushers are ready for larger roles.

Bonitto’s breakout performance was somewhat unexpected. After the Broncos selected him in the final pick in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Bonitto didn’t give them much as a rookie. He appeared in 15 games and registered 1.5 sacks and a tackle for loss.

A productive offseason helped him to 3.5 sacks in the first four games of the season (the 10th-best mark in the NFL) and six tackles for loss (the second-best mark.)

“I had to have a big adjustment because I felt like I was going out there more to not mess up instead of actually just playing,” Bonitto said.

After playing a more simplified role at Oklahoma, Bonitto was asked to expand his game as a rookie.

“I wasn’t having to set edges all the time,” Bonitto said. “Here you’re gonna have to do it a lot. You’re doing coverage and blitzing different places, spying, doing a lot of different stuff. So, it’s definitely a different role that took some adjusting to last year.”

In particular, setting the edge was a challenge. Bonitto has improved in that area in his second season.

“It’s a lot, especially when you’re going up against guys that are 300 pounds,” he said. “You want to kind of beat them to a spot, just to take away that momentum that they have.”

When Bonitto notched his third sack of the game on Sunday, the study habits he learned over the offseason from his veteran teammates were the reason. Bears quarterback Justin Fields faked a handoff to his running back before rolling out to pass. It was a “naked” bootleg, which meant the Bears left Bonitto unblocked on the edge of the defense, thinking he’d play his run responsibilities long enough to give Fields time to get outside of him. 

But Bonitto had picked up on one of Fields’ tendencies.

“His demeanor is a lot different when he’s actually handing the ball off and when he’s keeping it,” Bonitto said. “You can always tell. When the play is play-action, the quarterback is going to be a little more passive, not as much of an aggressive handoff. When the quarterback is going to hand it off, he’s gonna run and get to that spot and hand it to him. You’ve just got to kind of see stuff like that. That’s the kind of stuff you see on film.”

Jonathon Cooper, the Broncos’ other starting outside linebacker, thinks Bonitto is blossoming into a top-tier speed rusher.

“That boy is fast,” he told DNVR. “And his instincts are some of the best instincts I’ve ever seen in a player in football.”

For a guy who has shared a meeting room with Von Miller, that’s high praise.

Cooper, 25, knows what it’s like to be a young defender in the NFL. He was a seventh-round pick in 2021, but earned plenty of playing time in Denver. He started 14 games in his first two seasons and has started all four games this year.

“I just remember being nervous,” Cooper said. “I remember just being very raw to the game. I looked like a rookie. When I look at my old tape, you can tell like ‘Okay, there’s potential. But he looks young.’ I feel like now stepping into my third year and after these couple games, I’m really coming into myself and just being the player that I want to be.”

Cooper, who returned Bonitto’s strip-sack for a touchdown on Sunday, sees the same growth process playing out with Bonitto.

“When you watch him and he’s playing free and sound—he’s not really thinking too much—he’s super disruptive,” Cooper said. “He’s really elite when he gets to play like that because he plays free and his instincts are so good that they just kind of carry him.”

With Gregory out of the picture, Frank Clark is the only seasoned veteran remaining in the Broncos’ outside linebackers room. Clark, 30, is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion. He has the third-most sacks in NFL postseason history. He’s raked in more than $86 million in his career as a pass-rush specialist.

He’s been an invaluable resource for Bonitto, Cooper and third-year edge rusher Baron Browning, who should return from a torn meniscus in the next month.

“Different moves, what different guys like to do offensively—offensive line-wise—and all that type of stuff,” Bonitto said.

But Gregory was valuable, too.

“It was a bunch of things mentally,” Bonitto said, when asked about Gregory’s impact. “Randy always kept me in good spirits. He always was trying to get me better during practice, always trying to make sure my head’s on straight because he knows the talent we have in the room with the younger guys. I know he wanted us to be able to be prepared for situations where one of us had to play big-time snaps.”

While Bonitto certainly won’t turn down an increased workload that comes from Gregory’s departure—even if that means he feels the effects on his body more during the week—his excitement isn’t based on his new job as a starter. 

“I’m excited for our team in general,” he said. “I feel like we haven’t been playing necessarily our best ball yet. I know, especially defensively, we have another level we can go into.”

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?