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State of the Broncos roster: Edge Rushers

The inability to consistently rush the passer really hurt the Denver Broncos defense in 2023.

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

If you are confused as to who is an edge defender, you are not alone. I wrote about this last year. For the purposes of this article will be looking at and focusing on the Denver Broncos outside linebackers:

  • Nik Bonitto
  • Baron Browning
  • Jonathan Cooper
  • Ronnie Perkins
  • Thomas Incoom

I will not be discussing Randy Gregory.

However, I want to show how poor the Bronco pass rush was in 2023 before we focus on the edge guys.

According to PFR, the Broncos finished the season 29th in pressure rate at 18.2%. The best in the league was the Lions at 28.2% and the worst was the Commanders at 16.8%. Of the five worst pass rushing teams in the league, only the Saints finished with a winning record and they finished 9-8. If you go by sacks alone, the Bronco defense was a little better, finishing tied for 22nd at 42 sacks. You could argue that many of the sacks resulted from playing against backup QBs who are generally more prone to taking sacks.

PLAYER POS PFF Grade 2023 PFF Grade 2022 PR SNAPS 2023 Pass Rush% Sacks Hurries Hits Knckdns Pressures PFR pressures PBU Pressure%
Nik Bonitto OLB 64.0 52.4 261 84.5 8.0 29 30 11 47 24 0 18.0%
Alex Singleton ILB 61.2 79.1 74 11.9 2.0 10 6 4 13 6 0 17.6%
Josey Jewell ILB 67.2 71.7 63 13.9 3.0 5 4 1 10 5 0 15.9%
Jonathon Cooper OLB 65.2 63.1 387 81.8 8.5 36 22 6 53 22 0 13.7%
Baron Browning OLB 74.5 55.3 225 84.9 4.5 19 14 4 28 10 0 12.4%
Zach Allen DE 71.9 72.7 523 98.9 5.0 35 30 17 54 27 1 10.3%
Elijah Garcia DT 44.4 59.2 14 100 1.0 0 0 0 1 1 0 7.1%
Randy Gregory DE 45.5 76.9 73 93.6 1.0 4 3 1 5 13 0 6.8%
Ronnie Perkins OLB 38.9 64 79 0.0 3 1 1 3 2 0 4.7%
Jonathan Harris DT 52.0 61.8 282 99.3 1.0 9 8 3 12 3 0 4.3%
Mike Purcell DT 49.8 67.7 195 97.5 0.0 2 7 5 7 4 1 3.6%
D.J. Jones DT 56.2 63.6 308 98.7 2.0 7 4 2 10 4 0 3.2%
Drew Sanders LB 38.3 68 47.2 0.0 2 1 0 2 2 0 2.9%
Matt Henningsen DE 46.6 63.1 110 100 0.0 2 1 1 2 1 0 1.8%
Frank Clark DE 37.6 67.2 24 88.9 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Tyler Lancaster DT 29.8 20 95.2 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Thomas Incoom OLB 31.2 8 88.9 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0%

According to PFF all our primary edge defenders (OLBs) improved year over year.

Nik Bonitto

Nik Bonitto was the only above average pass rusher on the Broncos. He missed two games with injury, but his pressure rate was among the best in the league at 18.0%. According to SIS (which has some errors and shows his pressure rate at 18.5%) he was fifth best pass rushing LB in the NFL last season behind Ernest Jones, Da’Whaun Bentley, Andrew Van Ginkel and Devin White. This is among high volume rushers - 100 or more pass rush snaps. Bonitto finished second on the team in sacks with 8.0. He was also the only player on the team with double digit TFL at thirteen. Cooper and Zach Allen were tied for second with eight.

Bonitto, as a second round pick is under contract for 2024 and 2025. For the Bronco defense to improve in 2024, Bonitto will have continue his improvement as an edge defender in the NFL. His ability to set the edge against the run was better in 2023 relative to 2022, but he was still below average as a run defender. For him to get into the Pro Bowl and All-Pro discussion, he will need to improve his run defense ever more in 2024.

Baron Browning

Baron Browning missed seven games in 2023 with injury and his presence was sorely missed. Among the Bronco edge defenders he was the only one who is above average against the run and as a pass rusher. The Bronco defense was much better in 2023 when he was playing. By PFF grade Browning showed a huge improvement from 2022 to 2023. I didn’t see that myself, but take it for what it’s worth.

SIS, which is much more generous with pressures, shows that Browning finished the season with 28 pressures on 225 pass rush snaps. That means that he was less effective at generating pressure than Bonitto or Cooper. SIS credits Browning with 36 pressures on 266 pass rush snaps in 2022, which is a pressure rate of 13.5% so his pressure rate dropped off somewhat year over year. It’s hard to square that with his big jump in PFF grade, but maybe he improved his run defense markedly relative to last season. That would be hard to swallow though since the Bronco run defense was one of the worst in NFL history, but maybe much of that was a result of the seven games where he didn’t play.

Browning will be playing for a free agent contract in 2024 since he was a third round pick in 2021. I would expect him to have his best season so far next year.

Jonathan Cooper

The seventh round pick has been one of the few day three gems found by the Broncos since George Paton took over as GM. Cooper was the second best volume pass rusher on the Broncos in 2023, but he appears to have lost weight (he doesn’t look like he’s 257 lbs) and he was generally a liability against the run but he did lead the team in sacks with 8.5. He was also a close second to Zach Allen in total pressures with 53 (Allen had 54).

Cooper also finished tied for second on the Broncos in TFL with eight. He was also the OLB most likely to be used in coverage since he only rushed the passer on 81.8% of passing plays. This does not count Ronnie Perkins who only rushed 79% of the time, but had very limited total snaps.

Like Browning Cooper was also a 2021 draft pick so he will be playing in the final year of his rookie contract in 2024. It’s fairly normal for players to have their best season in the NFL while playing in the fourth year of their rookie deal. It would not surprise me in the least to see Cooper also have a great season in 2024.

Ronnie Perkins

Perkins was a third round pick of the Patriots in the 2021 draft (which gave us Browning and Cooper). The Broncos picked him up off the Patriots practice squad in September of last year and signed him to a reserve future contract last month. Perkins only played 149 total defensive snaps for the Broncos generating three pressures and making 13 combined tackles. He did not play at all in the 2021 or 2022 NFL seasons.

Perkins showed that he was decent when he dropped into coverage. Despite his limited playing time he still finished with two TFL. He is quick for his size and could turn into a decent rotational OLB for the Broncos in 2024.

Thomas Incoom

Thomas Incoom was a rookie undrafted free agent for the Broncos last season. He has elite physical skills, but very limited football experience. He came to the game late and is still learning. He was able to get by on using his physical abilities in college, but he has much to learn before he can be a contributor in the NFL. He only played 20 defensive snaps for the Broncos in 2023. Because he has potential and because he is cheap, I expect him to compete for a roster spot at edge in 2024. He is listed at 265 lbs and he appear heavier than that which would make him the heaviest of the Bronco OLB/edge group.

His size and quickness could be a plus for 2024 if the Broncos hope to improve the horrid run defense from 2023.