What constitutes a draft-day “steal”? The intelligence of one team selecting a specific player or skill-set passed on by other teams? A well-known and renowned prospect that “slides” only to see a team scoop him up down the draft board?
A draft-day steal, much like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately for the Denver Broncos and their recent draft haul, many media outlets from across the league are calling the pick of Oklahoma edge rusher Nik Bonitto one of the better Day 2 selections of the 2022 NFL draft. One such outlet is Pro Football Focus.
While the debate will likely rage on about Bonitto’s long-term prospects in developing into a player capable of starting all three downs on defense, there is one fact that is simply undebatable: he's a twitchy athlete that excels at harassing quarterbacks with his ability to speed rush.
Bonitto may not be the longest player nor does his current body lend itself to the ability to set the edge against the run, let alone play across multiple gaps, he should be a dynamic pass-rushing option even if his role is limited early in his career. According to PFF’s Anthony Treash, Bonitto was one of the nine best “steals” of Day 2 in this year’s draft.
Denver beefed up its pass-rush in free agency with Randy Gregory, and the unit got another jolt in Round 2 of the draft with Oklahoma edge defender Nik Bonitto.
The 6-foot-3, 248-pound edge defender was one of the nation's most productive pass-rushers over the last couple of years, and he is a high-level athlete. Since 2020, Bonitto ranks first among all FBS edge defenders in pass-rush grade (94.6), pass-rush win rate (27.8%) and pressure rate (22.2%). He may serve as a designated pass-rusher to start, but he can provide value in that role.
Bonitto’s role years down the line will be very interesting to follow. Does he improve his strength and run game technique enough to play a more NFL demanded edge-setting ability against the run? In Alex Grinch’s 3-3-5 defense at Oklahoma, the front was far more slanting-based and asked its front players to penetrate and disrupt as opposed to reading and keying in the run game.
While this worked at Oklahoma, Bonitto's reps on tape against the run that are truly translatable to Sundays are rather limited. Further adding difficulty to Bonitto’s projection is just how much of his pass rush production was due to his ability to close in on the passer as a quarterback spy.
Instead of rushing the passer and playing through and around blockers, many times Bonitto would loop from the edge and provide a pseudo-coverage role over the short middle of the field and read the quarterback. As soon as that quarterback broke the pocket, Bonitto hunted down the quarterback like a lion pursuing a gazelle.
Flashy on tape and in highlights, but again how often on Sundays do we see teams dropping their most important pass rushers into quarterback spy assignment? Not very often if at all in the way Bonitto was tasked to do so from the edge.
Long-term there are three likely outcomes for Bonitto and his avenues to varying degrees of success. He might never get strong enough to hold up at the point of attack against the run, thus relegating him to a “DPR” (designated pass rusher) status for his career. This isn’t the worst-case scenario if Bonitto can rush the quarterback at an elite level, but it does make the range of his value and impact much smaller.
Ideally, Bonitto could get stronger, and add more mass going from college level to professional football strength and conditioning on top of nutrition. He did not attend some small school with disadvantage in the finances his college program could put into development, but looking at him on tape, it does seem he could certainly add more muscle to his base to provide more speed to power in his pass rush and better hold up when taking on blockers.
The third, and perhaps most interesting option for Bonitto finding success is transitioning to a Micah Parsons-esque role, such as was suggested by NBC analyst Chris Simms. This role would have Bonitto play more of an off-ball linebacker role on the second level of the defense on run downs moving him down over different gaps to press and confuse offensive lines and quarterbacks on pass downs.
While the transition from edge to off-ball is far from an easy one given how much more important intelligence, processing, and instincts are in playing linebacker vs. that of a “pin your ears back and go hunt” of an edge rusher.
Even if Bonitto only winds up a sporadic first and second down player for his entire career that needs to be hidden a bit in the run game, such as Vic Beasley, Yannick Ngockwe, and Bruce Irvin have for their careers, if he is a dynamic pass rusher and provides versatility and twitch in attacking the quarterback, he should provide decent value given he was the very last pick in the second round.
There is a reason that in spite of his pass-rushing metrics and athletic measurables and overall dynamic ability getting after the quarterback, Bonitto fell to 64. His projection as an every-down player is very much in the air.
That doesn’t mean he can’t provide value given what he does best is probably the most sought-after defensive skill in all of football. Whether or not Bonitto truly becomes one of the bigger steals in the 2022 draft will likely come down to just how much stronger he can become during his career to better project as a quality three-down defender.
Even still, given his pass-rushing juice, versatility, and the value and demand for players with the speed, twitch, and bend that Bonitto possesses if he only ever is a “DPR”, that might still be enough to constitute a draft-day steal for George Paton and the Broncos.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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