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OLB Nik Bonitto ‘has to be ready’ to step into larger role for Broncos

With star OLB Randy Gregory out multiple weeks with a knee injury, the young second-round draft pick will be expected to help fill the void

NFL: Denver Broncos Training Camp Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The attention paid to the Denver Broncos during the 2022 NFL Draft wasn’t as heavily scrutinized as it has been in recent years (not having a first-round pick or top-20 pick for the first time in 4 years can do that), so it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that the team’s top draft pick, outside linebacker Nik Bonitto out of Oklahoma, has coasted quietly in the background as he adjusts to NFL life.

Now, the training wheels are coming off, and his coaching staff is expecting him to step into the role he was drafted for.

“He has to be ready,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said earlier this week. “It’s that simple. He’s a young guy, and he’s played in some big games in college, and we’re excited to see him get out there.”

Gregory has been among the most impactful players on the Broncos’ defense this year, earning every bit of his 5-year, $70 million contract he was awarded in the offseason, and although he only has a pair of sacks, he has been a prominent feature in opposing backfields in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

That kind of impact is not going to be easy to replace, especially by a rookie picked in the late second round who has only seen minimal playing time this season. He of course won’t have to fill the role of Gregory all on his own, as second year OLB Baron Browning will be counted on as will Jonathan Kongbo, called up today from the practice squad.

Still, in the coming weeks, or however long Gregory is out, Bonitto is going to have to embrace a larger role and make some plays, something Hackett believes he is prepared to do.

“He’s developed every week, and he’s gotten better and better,” said Hackett. “Even in practice, his practice habits have gotten better. As any rookie, there’s a process of learning how to be a pro, a process of learning throughout everything, so it’s just going to get better.”

It all starts with the proper mindset, and according to both Hackett and defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Bonitto’s mental game is progressing in a way where they hope he can be able to utilize his physical skills in a successful manner that will keep the Broncos’ defense dominant.

“He’s just done a good job in practice in terms of [having] a conscious approach to getting better, whether he’s on the scout team or taking reps,” said Evero. “I think that’s where it starts. You just have to have a mindset of, ‘I’m going to improve every day,’ which has been cool because it didn’t just start last week, he’s been doing this for the last couple of weeks. It’s perfect timing for him.”

As is the case with many rookies, it’s unfair perhaps to expect him to just explode out of the gate with increased reps, but for a guy that was a two-time All-American in college with size and ability, it’s not out of the ordinary he gets it sooner than later, especially if his work ethic matches up with what Hackett and Evero have been seeing.

Whether the timing is as “perfect” as Evero believes it to be, or whether it is just coach speak to instill some confidence into a rookie who will be taking on a bigger load, that timing is now. And with Gregory out an indefinite amount of time, it is his opportunity to become an integral part of the defense both now and when the starter returns to the lineup.