BRONCOS

After risky signing, George Paton needs more pass rushers in draft

Apr 27, 2022, 6:32 AM
Nik Bonitto...
(Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On paper, it all sounded terrific. After general manager George Paton — with a notable assist from new quarterback Russell Wilson — swooped in to steal pass-rusher Randy Gregory from Jerry Jones’ clutches in Dallas, the Denver Broncos looked to pair their new addition with 2018 first-round draft pick Bradley Chubb, creating a top-tier tandem set to spend their Sundays chasing the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr all over the football field.

And then, it didn’t.

Gregory, who had left knee surgery in January, also needed arthroscopic surgery to repair his right rotator cuff. He underwent the procedure shortly after signing a five-year, $70 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus and $28 million guaranteed. He is expected to be ready by the beginning of the regular season in September.

“He’s a prototypical rusher. He has size, he has length, an explosive get-off, he has burst, he can bend, he can flatten,” Paton said at Gregory’s introduction in March. “He can win with speed, he can win with quickness, he can win with power. He has an arsenal. He played 38 percent of the snaps and he was (among the) top 10 in pressures in the league. So we feel — with him and Chubb and the group we have and the secondary — that he’s going to be that much better here as a Bronco.”

The Broncos will eventually find out if Paton was right, but with Wilson’s addition, the clocks have changed at Dove Valley. It’s time to win now. And that means that the Broncos can’t afford to wait.

Shortly after the Gregory signing, news out of the Broncos’ headquarters was that new head coach Nathaniel Hackett was planning to move second-year linebacker Baron Browning to the outside; a curious move given not only Gregory’s presence, but the fact that Browning ably stepped in to start nine games last season at inside linebacker, where his sideline-to-sideline speed seemed a nearly perfect solution for one of the Broncos’ most troublesome problem spots.

It was at that point that observers began to suspect that something was amiss with either Gregory or the oft-injured Chubb. But Paton attempted to deflect those suspicions by suggesting that the Broncos simply needed more edge-rushers.

“You need to have a good wave, especially in our division. You need to have four guys rushing the passer, and I feel like we do,” Paton said. “I feel good about Randy.”

At the time, the “four guys” were presumably Gregory, Chubb, Malik Reed — whose 15 sacks over the last three seasons lead the Broncos during that span — and seventh-round selection Jonathon Cooper, who proved that, were it not for a heart ailment that has since been remedied, he would have been picked much higher in the 2021 draft. Even if they were, now the Broncos know that they’ll be fortunate to have Gregory on the field by the time the season starts, which means they need to add even more at the position in this week’s draft… now, and for the future.

“I hope Bradley is here a long time. I know he’s going into the last year of his deal,” Paton said last week.

Chubb has yet to realize the promise that he showed as a rookie in 2018, when he had a dozen sacks across from former Bronco and future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller. Chubb’s totaled only 8.5 more over the last three seasons combined, including a 2021 campaign that saw him go without a single tally in his seven games. The Broncos exercised the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, guaranteeing Chubb $13.9 million this season, after which he’d become an unrestricted free agent.

“This is the first offseason he hasn’t had to rehab. He’s out there working. We’re really high on him as a person; the passion, the grit, the physical-ness. You just can’t have enough pass-rushers,” Paton said of Chubb. “If we take a pass-rusher, that has nothing to do with Bradley. We can’t have enough. Randy Gregory, Malik Reed, Jonathon Cooper — that’s how you win; when you get a wave. You get a wave of rushers, and you get an offense that can score points, you get leads, and then you throw this pass rush at them. You get the lead, you add the pass-rushers, you let them go. I think that’s a formula, and you just can’t have enough of those players, whether it’s inside rushers or edge.”

Fortunately for Paton, this year’s draft appears to fit that bill, despite not having a first-round pick as part of the king’s ransom that the Broncos paid Seattle to land Wilson.

“I think the edge class is really strong. Everyone needs pass-rushers, and I think there are a number of pass-rushers in this draft,” Paton said last week. “I would say that would be the strength. There are other positions that are strong, but I think edge is probably the No. 1 strength.”

Indeed, with a plethora of pass-rushers that may be available when the Broncos draft at No. 64 on Friday (assuming they don’t trade out of it, of course), at least a few players from a notable group that includes Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto, South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare, Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone, Kentucky’s Josh Paschal and Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders should be available for Paton to pick, should he choose. It’s even possible that one or two of them would be still available at No. 75 in the third round, if Paton decided that a cornerback was too good to pass up in the second.

In the AFC West’s escalating arms race, two positions reign supreme: The quarterback, and the guy that gets after the quarterback. The Broncos know they have the first; they’d love to have even more of the latter.

At his introduction in March, Gregory, while describing his own approach to the game, unintentionally explained why Paton and Broncos continue to focus their efforts on his position.

“For me, just impacting the passer and not only getting there, but hitting as hard as you can, taking swipes at the balls, things like that and being in pursuit — I’ve been lucky that I’ve been coached by some good D-line coaches and coordinators that instilled in me a certain mentality as far as getting to the football, running to the football, and always having the pursuit,” he said. “If you’re always around the football, you’ll always have a chance to get the ball and cause a turnover. My main goal as a pass-rusher is to do that, and get the ball back to the offense. We have guys like Russell Wilson that can go down there and score for us.”

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After risky signing, George Paton needs more pass rushers in draft