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'You're going to see more of a confident player': OLB Nik Bonitto looks to translate strong training camp into more productive Year 2

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Nik Bonitto didn't offer a number.

The 2022 second-round pick didn't predict how many sacks or tackles for loss he'd record in 2023.

But following a recent training camp practice, the young outside linebacker did say that Broncos fans could expect to see a "more confident player."

"I don't want to put lofty goals out there, but I feel like I'm definitely going to be more productive," Bonitto said last week. "I'm definitely, I feel like, going to be more disruptive. I feel like you're going to see more of a confident player. Last year I wasn't very confident going out there. I kind of wasn't the guy that I know I can be when I was out there. Definitely more confident."

Bonitto said his transition to the pro level was more difficult than he expected as he adjusted to playing against NFL offenses.

"I feel like seeing how offenses were in the NFL, it was completely different from Big 12 offenses, which is just spread," Bonitto said. "The different terminologies in the defense and how it is here and where I was at OU, it was a little different, so it was a little bit of a learning curve. But I feel like I'm getting better."

Bonitto called his rookie season — in which he recorded 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble — a "decent" start to his career. He played at least 40 percent of the team's defensive snaps in eight of the 15 games in which he appeared, and all eight of those games came in Week 8 or later. Though the Broncos missed Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb, those snaps were invaluable to Bonitto.

"Obviously I wish I could've been better, but for what they asked of me, what was I was able to do and what I was able to learn, I feel like it was good for me having that year," Bonitto said. "I wouldn't trade nothing for it. Just being able to learn from older guys, being able to have game experience, seeing NFL offenses."

His debut campaign, though, was not perfect. Bonitto said he was playing "to not mess up" at times, and he'll aim to play more freely in 2023.

Bonitto's improvement has been on display in training camp, as he's been a constant fixture in the backfield and has gotten an increasing amount of work against the Broncos' starters. He's been particularly savvy against the run, which he noted was an area where he looked to improve this offseason.

"It helped a lot just gaining a little bit of weight for sure, but also just watching guys and studying," Bonitto said of playing the run. "It's a lot of technique that goes into it. Just watching guys on film throughout the offseason and just constantly trying to get stronger, trying to get bigger. I feel like it should pay off."

Perhaps the most encouraging part of Bonitto's progression may be how Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph plans to use him. Bonitto's best attributes are likely his quickness and bend off the line of scrimmage, and he's used those traits to stop the run through the first 10 practice of training camp. Bonitto said Joseph has encouraged him to use his natural skill set, rather than try to change him into a different player.

"Especially with what Coach Vance is trying to teach me, I might not be a guy that has to set an edge all game," Bonitto said. "He wants me to use my skill set to the best of my ability, so whether that's coming over and swimming over or maybe slipping off and making a tackle in the backfield — stuff that he knows I can do and what he's seen me do in my career — [it's about] just using that to the best of my ability."

Bonitto said Joseph believes in his skill set, and that's been important for the second-year player to hear from his coach.

"He has confidence that I can go out there and be a starter and do things the right way and make plays in the backfield and have sacks and do all that stuff," Bonitto said. "It's just been good hearing it from him."

As training camp continues and the preseason approaches, Bonitto will look to keep a strong start going by "being confident and playing fast." He acknowledged that he's flown a bit under the radar this offseason, and he's motivated to remind people of his potential.

"Yeah, 100 percent," Bonitto said. "I'm the type of guy that takes anything as disrespect anyway. … I'm always finding something and I'm always going to take it as a little bit of disrespect and always have that chip on my shoulder. It's really nothing new to me."

Should Bonitto translate a strong camp to the preseason and beyond, he'll certainly offer that reminder — and take a step toward being the player he knows he can be.

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