Broncos HC Sean Payton Addresses OLB Nik Bonitto's Outlook Entering Year 3

Nik Bonitto could be in line for a big third season.
Nov 26, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto (42) looks on before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 26, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto (42) looks on before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports / Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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As a rookie, Denver Broncos rush linebacker Nik Bonitto finished with just 1.5 sacks. Although he was drafted in the second round to get after the quarterback, his year-one impact was minimal, leading many Broncos fans to worry that it would be a wasted pick.

However, Bonitto built massively on his rookie totals in Year 2, nearly leading the team in sacks with eight. Jumping from 1.5 to eight sacks over the span of one season — there has to be an explanation.

Broncos head coach Sean Payton was happy to provide one this week.

“I think to his defense, he had more opportunities relative to the depth in his second year," Payton said of Bonitto's 2023 season. "I think that will continue to trend that way. It’s that growth we always talk about from Year 1 to Year 2, but I think he had more playing time snaps, too.”

Indeed, Bonitto's snap share increased from Year 1 to 2, going from 357 snaps as a rookie (which accounted for 35% of Denver's defensive snaps) to 524 in 2023 (52%). It wasn't just the 17-point increase in percentage of snaps that explains Bonitto's uptick in production.

Bradley Chubb was gone, dealt away to the Miami Dolphins halfway through Bonitto's rookie year. A few months later, the first-round pick Denver received in exchange for Chubb was parlayed into the Payton hire. The Broncos traded it, and other compensation, to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Payton's coaching rights.

Chub's absence freed up snaps for Bonitto in 2023, while Baron Browning's preseason injury, which saw him absent for the first six weeks or so of the regular season, also helped. The Broncos' experiments with Randy Gregory and Frank Clark imploded early in the season, opening up even more playing time.

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Bonitto and Jonathon Cooper were tasked with manning the edge of Vance Joseph's defense, and Browning would eventually become part of that rotation as the season marched ahead. Cooper narrowly edged Bonitto out for the team lead in sacks (8.5), but it was an encouraging sophomore campaign for the former Oklahoma Sooner.

Bonitto needed to continue honing an NFL body so he could anchor and hold up at the point of attack in run support, and he showed improvements in both areas in Year 2. He got bigger and stronger, and modestly more trustworthy against the run. But that's being generous.

That has to be one of Bonitto's remaining priorities. Earning the trust to be on the field on first and second down would go a long way toward cementing a possible starting role.

Otherwise, Bonitto is destined to be a No. 3 rush linebacker tapped to see the field in obvious passing situations or to spell one of the guys ahead of him. And lacking impact as a run defender, when he's called onto the field in relief of a Browning or Cooper on first or second down, opposing offenses run right at him.

That'll continue to happen until he proves he can set the edge. Bonitto has the twitchy speed and explosion to keep building his pass-rushing tool kit. But that's all God-given.

Whether Bonitto shows the work ethic needed to progress as a run defender will be the best predictor of whether the Broncos opt to re-sign Browning or Cooper after this season. Both enter a contract year.

If Bonitto shows progression, that would make one of the veterans expendable. If 2024 third-rounder Jonah Elliss garners enough bites at the apple in Year 1 to show something to the coaches, combined with a Bonitto taking the next step, it would really give the Broncos flexibility relative to Browning and Cooper's coming free-agency.

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Chad Jensen

CHAD JENSEN

Chad Jensen is the Founder of Mile High Huddle and creator of the wildly popular Mile High Huddle Podcast. Chad has been on the Denver Broncos beat since 2012 and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.