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The ‘void’ at edge rusher could be a problem for Denver

There are a lot of question marks on how - and if - this defensive group can bring the heat.

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DENVER BRONCOS VS SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Happy Fourth of July, Broncos Country!

The Athletic’s NFL beat writers each gave “an area of concern” for their respective teams, and Nick Kosmider offered an unsurprising but slightly overlooked problem area for the Broncos that bears repeating.

Edge rusher.

For obvious and mostly fair reasons, much of the offseason emphasis has been on Sean Payton and how he’s going to fix the offense - namely Russell Wilson.

But there is a glaring hole on the Broncos’ defense that could be a real Achilles heel this season given Denver is in the AFC West and faces two of the best/better quarterbacks in the league in Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

The biggest issue is that last season’s best edge rushers on the team, Baron Browning and Randy Gregory, are both starting the season with huge question marks.

Browning will begin the season on the PUP list after offseason knee surgery, and Gregory will begin his second season in Denver after having spent most of the 2022 season on IR, playing just six games.

Though both can - and did - wreak havoc on the field, It’s no guarantee their dominance will be least not right away.

A lot will depend on their recoveries and continued durability as well as how much of a second-season jump Nik Bonitto makes and whether 30-year-old Frank Clark has a few more strong seasons in him.

Last season the Denver defense was stingy, allowing just 17 points per game through Week 13. Three times the Broncos kept opponents to 10 or fewer points. And despite a 33% blitz percentage, the defense still only had 36 sacks (24th in the league) and 81 QB hits (26th).

And after trading Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins in November, Denver could only muster 12 sacks in nine games.

As Kosmider put it, Broncos have “a significant void on the edge.”

“During the second half of 2022, the Broncos ranked 31st in quarterback pressure rate. They will hope some combination of new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheming, a few new additions and better health can help reverse that trend.”

One way Sean Payton is already hoping to do that is by brining in what he is calling “a pass rush specialist.”

“I guess I broke the rule a little bit,” Payton told Kosmider recently when noting he made an exception with a sexier job title.

At the Saints, Payton hired Brian Young, a former linebacker who helped the team rank second in total sacks. For the Broncos, Payton brought in Jamar Cain from LSU who has some prior experience coaching Bonitto, but whose primary goal is to give the entire unit a huge boost.

“It’s helping guys out with particular moves they might be working on, just breaking down the nuances of the pass rush,” Cain told Kosmider after a minicamp practice last week, adding that he gets to work with different groups including the defensive line and linebackers. “The biggest thing we’re looking at is you win a rush by having a good get-off, and then the moves are secondary. So getting off the ball, seeing the ball and understanding how offensive linemen are attacking them, it’s working on the little nuances with that.”

And then, of course, there are scheme adjustments that Vance Joseph and Payton can install to hopefully bring other players into the pass-rushing mix.

“Hopefully, our outside linebacker position are guys that we look at as pressure players,” Payton said last month, adding that Clark is one of those pressure players. “You don’t have to be an outside linebacker to be a pressure player. You can be an interior lineman that is exceptional, but there are some traits. … We use that term when evaluating talent. ‘Does this guy have the potential to be a pressure player?’”

In a perfect world, Gregory picks up where he left off and avoids major injury again; Clark shows his once-rival teammates he still has the moves and the speed to take down the QB, and Browning comes back soon and stronger than which case the pass rush will be just fine.

Broncos/NFL News

One summer concern for all 32 NFL teams - The Athletic
The trade of Bradley Chubb last November netted Denver the first-round pick it ultimately used to compensate New Orleans and hire Sean Payton, but it also left them with a significant void on the edge.

Broncos employ new approaches to boost last year’s anemic QB pressure - The Athletic
"Pass rush specialist" is a role in Denver that now belongs to Jamar Cain, who was one of the top teachers of pass-rush technique at the major college level before leaving LSU to join Sean Payton’s staff in late March.

Frank Clark brings a veteran presence to pass rush, but Randy Gregory’s health, young players’ growth will be essential to improvement from last season
The three-time Pro Bowl selection has totaled 30 quarterback hits and 53 pressures in the past two seasons with the Chiefs. Can he bring that again to the Broncos?

Denver Broncos: Sean Payton to utilize pass rush depth in 2023
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Denver Broncos New Pass-Rush Coach Jamar Cain Says Nik Bonitto Will 'Be a Good Player' - Sports Illustrated Mile High Huddle: Denver Broncos News, Analysis and More
If there's any coach with an expert insight into Nik Bonitto's outlook, it's Jamar Cain.

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