ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Speed. Burst. Bend.
These are all terms that General Manager George Paton used to describe outside linebacker Nik Bonitto's skill set after the Broncos selected him with the 64th-overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.
The rookie did not have many opportunities to showcase these talents in the first half of the season, as he battled for reps behind a wave of pass rushers that included Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory and Baron Browning. But in the NFL, things can change at a moment's notice — one minute you're on the bench, and the next you're thrown into the action and expected to make a play.
As the Broncos approach the final nine games, Bonitto's big opportunity has arrived. With Denver trading Chubb to the Dolphins and Gregory still working his way back from injured reserve, Bonitto now has the chance to claim a significant role on the Broncos' commanding defense.
Bonitto earned his largest snap share of the season in Week 8 while Browning was inactive with a hip injury, taking the field for 58 percent of Denver's defensive snaps. He recorded the first 1.5 sacks of his career over the last two games, and the rookie will look to build on his recent success as his role is expected to increase.
"[I'm] just doing the same thing I've been doing: Taking the coaching points, looking at the guys ahead of me [to] see what they're doing and just continually trying to improve every week," said Bonitto when asked about potentially earning more responsibility.
The learning curve from college to the NFL is steep for any rookie, as the game is faster and more complicated at the professional level. Bonitto is the first to admit that his transition has not been seamless, but he has made leaps over the last several weeks as he has gotten more game experience.
When given a chance to show what he can do against Jacksonville, the rookie did not take the opportunity for granted. The Jaguars held a 10-7 lead in the third quarter, and they entered Broncos territory with a chance to extend their lead. On second-and-14, Bonitto made an athletic spin move around Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson to strip-sack quarterback Trevor Lawrence, forcing Jacksonville into a third-and-28 from which it would not be able to recover.
Snuffing out that drive turned out to be a crucial moment, as Denver's offense responded with a 98-yard drive to take the lead.
"Just playing faster and confident I feel like is the main thing for me," Bonitto said. "Not so much thinking, but going out there and knowing what I have to do and just playing fast."
His development has been apparent to Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero, who praised the rookie's coachability and willingness to evolve as a player. Part of Bonitto's adjustment to the NFL has involved learning skills that were not part of his game in college, and Evero noted that he has made tremendous progress throughout his time as a Bronco.
"[Bonitto has grown] in all areas," Evero said. "I think, first of all, [his] understanding of the game. [Outside linebackers] Coach [Bert] Watts has done a great job with him, just trying to educate him on the NFL, and half the battle is [to] know what to expect, so he's grown with his knowledge. He's hitting blocks, playing a different style than he was asked to [at] Oklahoma, and he's really responded to that and he continues to get better and better. We're still expecting more growth, obviously, but he's been doing a good job."
Adding new elements to one's game while adapting to the fast pace of the NFL is no easy task, but Bonitto noted that he is proud of his growth so far. The Broncos' coaching staff has been working with him to get better at setting the edge in the run game, and the rookie has already noticed an improvement.
"It's getting better just because it wasn't something I was asked to do in college," Bonitto said. "It was more, for me, stunting and shooting gaps instead of actually holding edges, so like I said, just more game reps and practice reps, I'm getting better for sure."
As Denver prepares to face Tennessee on Sunday, the outside linebacker will have a great opportunity to prove that he is a complete player on defense. With the 2019 Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and current NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry in the Titans' backfield, Tennessee is expected to lean heavily on the run game. This may prevent Bonitto from showcasing his acclaimed pass rushing ability, but he could make a major statement if he successfully sets the edge and helps limit the Titans' rushing attack.
"[The key is] just playing team defense," Bonitto said. "That's something 'Coach E' [Evero] has been preaching all week; 11 men doing their job, 11 men going to the ball. It's going to take more than one guy to tackle a guy like that, so just playing team defense."
A great challenge awaits the rookie on Sunday, and Bonitto will look to meet it with confidence.