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Film Room: Examining Whether OLB Nik Bonitto Offers Long-Term Starter Upside

Can Nik Bonitto offer anything more than a situational pass-rush specialty to the Broncos? The film tells the tale.

With the No. 64 overall pick of the 2022 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos selected Oklahoma edge rusher Nik Bonitto. A former four-star recruit from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Bonitto showed tremendous growth as a player during his time with the Sooners.

The rookie figures to add a nasty pass-rush presence as a rotational depth piece early on with the potential to develop into a high-quality starter at the next level here in the next few years. Bonitto — a redshirt junior with three years of starting experience for the Sooners — was named as the 2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year according to Pro Football Focus.

He has incredible tools to succeed early as a pass rusher and can line up all over the middle level of the defensive front. Bonitto's best fit early should come as a true pass rusher coming off of the edge in obvious passing situations with the ability to play off the ball in special packages that bring rushers from many different positions along the defensive front.

With a massive need to improve the depth of the edge-rushing unit in the immediate future as well as major question marks regarding the future of former No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb, Bonitto is a fine pick to fit multiple needs for the Broncos now and in the future should his development continue. With the athletic profile that he possesses, Bonitto could also offer some impact on special teams units as well early in his career.

I went back and re-studied Bonitto's performances against Texas, Oklahoma State, and TCU from this past season to get a better look at what he brings to the Broncos. What did I learn? 

Let’s dive into the tape. 

Play 1: Burst & Bend Around the Edge

In this first clip, while playing against Oklahoma State, we see one of Bonitto's best attributes in his incredibly explosive first step. His 1.59 10-yard split at the Combine shows on the tape as he gets to full speed rather quickly off of the snap. He attacks the outside shoulder of the tackle with ease, setting his pad level incredibly low as he bends around the arc.

With his pads already down and his inside arm ready to attack and rip through the contact at the point of attack, Bonitto explodes to the quarterback with a mid-section strike right as the ball is released. The reverse angle on this play does incredible justice to his ability to utilize his ankle flexibility, maintain balance through contact and finish the rep with power and accuracy.

This aspect of his game should translate easily to the next level.

Play 2: Closing Speed to Get Home Quickly

This next rep against Oklahoma State doesn't start well, but it finishes with a tremendous showing of twitch, closing speed, and length when attacking the quarterback. Bonitto does a nice job of setting up the tackle here with a delayed jump off of the snap, showing a look to the inside shoulder before exploding to the outside to set up the rush.

Despite taking an incredibly wide angle around the arc to avoid contact from the left tackle, he uses his lower body flexibility and incredible length to force a strip-sack. Notice how even when the quarterback steps up to deliver the ball, Bonitto has already started his climb back up the field and is coming with full force to make the play.

Rather than attacking the midsection for a sack, his right arm goes directly to the release point of the throw and lands with force to knock the ball free, nearly resulting in a turnover. Bonitto's ability to accelerate to the ball is tremendous, and there are several examples of this kind of closing speed in every game he has played in.

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Play 3: A Relentless Motor

A big part of Bonitto's game that goes relatively unnoticed is that he does a nice job of keeping himself on task despite being forced out of the play by an offensive lineman. With a red hot motor that doesn’t stop, Bonitto constantly comes back into the play even if it goes away from his direction.

Here against Texas, Bonitto does a great job to create instant pressure up the middle of the pocket by using a smooth move to cross the face of the tackle. When the guard initiates contact, Bonitto loses his balance and falls, essentially eliminating himself from the play as the quarterback vacates the pocket to his left.

However, Bonitto manages to free himself from the two linemen that tackled him to the ground, keeps his eyes on the prize, and finishes the play nearly 20 yards away from where it started. While the Texas quarterback wasn’t going to escape from a couple of other Oklahoma defenders, the fact that Bonitto wrecked the play from the snap, got back into it after falling, and helped finish the rep with a big sack on third down is impressive.

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Play 4: Coverage Ability is a Plus

A big part of the reason why we could see Bonitto playing as a hybrid edge and off-ball linebacker is his plus ability as a coverage defender. While it may not be the first way you want to utilize his athleticism, the ability to turn and run with running backs is there and he does a great job getting to his landmarks in zone coverage.

There were a couple of plays against Texas where Bonitto was paired up in man coverage with a phenomenal pass-catching running back in Bijan Robinson. Bonitto ran stride for stride with Robinson up the field and wasn’t targeted. 

On a play against Oklahoma State, Bonitto got caught in traffic on a pick play while in man coverage on the running back. His recovery ability and speed got him back into position quickly on the wheel route, forcing the quarterback to come off the read and vacate the pocket in the opposite direction. 

Back in 2019, Bonitto made a game-sealing interception against Baylor on an out route that he read perfectly and undercut with ease. But the best play in coverage that I saw in the games I broke down was this gem against TCU. Bonitto was dropping into his hook/flat zone reading the play in front of him. As he hits his landmark, the TCU running back catches a quick flat route as he slips out of the backfield.

What makes this impressive is what happens after the catch. Notice how Bonitto keeps his composure while coming uphill rather than panicking out in the open field. As soon as the back bobbles the football and has to re-direct his focus on securing the catch, Bonitto explodes himself into a great form tackle to end the rep with minimal gain.

It doesn’t show much in terms of hip fluidity or ball skills, but a big part of playing in coverage is being able to understand your assignments, close out the gap between you and the receiver quickly and make good tackles in the open field. This is textbook coverage on multiple fronts

Play 5: More Run-Game Effort Required

What makes it even worse is that he doesn’t use his arms to hand fight initially and his effort level and strength to drop an anchor to set the edge in the running game is poor as well. With his smaller frame and shorter arms, Bonitto typically uses a slashing attack in the running game and shoots the gap rather than the stack and shed approach. 

However, when the play is coming directly at him and a blocker gets engaged, Bonitto gets blasted off of the spot opening massive holes in the running game. Here against TCU, Bonitto gets a double team square in his face at the snap. You can see how the effort to beat the double team is lacking, the hand technique is poor, and his play strength isn’t nearly enough to set an edge at the point of attack. 

It’s hard to blame Bonitto for getting washed out with a double team, but there has to be an improvement here at the next level. His lack of physicality, bad length, and guessing rather than reading and reacting opens up a massive cut-back lane for the running back, who scampers for a long touchdown run. Fortunately for Bonitto and the rest of the Oklahoma defense (who also had a bad missed tackle in the hole on this play), the touchdown was called back due to a holding penalty.

This isn’t the only example of Bonitto getting washed out in the running game. There were multiple plays against TCU and Oklahoma State where Bonitto was either moved off of his spot easily or buried into the turf by an offensive lineman. He has to get stronger and more physical at the point of attack. Period.

The Takeaway

Despite the issues in the running game with his play strength, Bonitto was a fine selection for the Broncos with the No. 64 overall selection. While there are concerns there, what wasn't shown in this breakdown is his ability to still win in the running game with his explosiveness off the snap and slashing mentality when attacking the ball-carrier. 

There is still something to work with here if the Broncos scheme their defense in a way that limits his exposure to taking on offensive linemen and setting a firm edge. A pass rusher with his bend, twitch, and refined technique is certainly a good get for a team that needs immediate depth improvement and a long-term plan at the position. 

Denver doesn't have to trot Bonitto out there as a starter on day one and have him create an immediate impact as a three-down edge defender. The Broncos can use him as a part of a rotation or in sub-packages with guys like Chubb, Randy Gregory, Baron Browning, and Dre'Mont Jones alongside him to wreak havoc on the backfield.

The athletic traits and tools Bonitto has can easily translate to the next level, and there is still room for him to get better specifically with his hand fighting technique. Quality NFL coaching can turn this dynamic pass-rushing threat into a high-quality starter at the next level. 

Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH.

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