Broncos’ edge-rush competition changes with Jonathon Cooper injured
“You can never have enough pass rushers,” both George Paton and Nathaniel Hackett often say. Even one of their own players, Malik Reed, repeated that sentiment at a press conference May 19.
But now the Broncos are down two of those edge rushers. as they progress through Phase 3 of organized team activities.
Monday, second-year edge rusher Jonathon Cooper suffered a tendon injury in his left ring finger. The injury was first reported by Mike Klis of KUSA-Ch. 9. He underwent surgery and should return in time for training camp.
Cooper joins free-agent pickup Randy Gregory on the sideline. Gregory, who in March signed a five-year, $70-million contract with $28 million guaranteed, underwent rotator-cuff surgery earlier this offseason. The Broncos expect Gregory back by the start of the season.
The injury is a blow for Cooper, who saw some work with the top-line defense Monday. Cooper’s fill-in work came while Bradley Chubb was not on hand for the voluntary session. Chubb returned Tuesday.
It also comes at a particularly inopportune time. Not only does it limit his opportunity to rotate in for potential first-team repetitions, but it opens that window for others.
Those others include:
NIK BONITTO: Denver’s second-round pick now has a clearer path to show his potential over the next three weeks. An immediate starting spot is likely not in the cards with Chubb and Gregory in the mix.
But he will have the opportunity to show that he can be the first edge rusher off the bench this year … and potentially more, which could illuminate future roster decisions, starting with Chubb’s contract for 2023 after his fifth-year option season.
BARON BROWNING: His transition from inside linebacker to edge rusher has been one of the storylines of the offseason. Browning started nine of the Broncos’ final 10 games last year at inside linebacker before his offseason shift to the edge.
“He did really well in the first minicamp we had,” defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said. “He really displayed some things, showed some really good rush ability. Obviously, with the transition, he has to get better at some of the fundamentals in terms of hitting blocks and setting the edge and he’s been doing a great, great job.”
While Bonitto is the new piece, it’s not like the Broncos don’t have a reasonable draft investment in Browning. Like Bonitto, Browning was a Day 2 pick — albeit at No. 105, he went 41 slots below Bonitto’s 2022 slot.
MALIK REED: Who leads the Broncos in sacks over the last two seasons? It’s Reed, with 13 sacks in 30 games played over the last two seasons, nudging him just ahead of defensive end Dre’Mont Jones with 12. He returned as a restricted free agent on the right-of-first-refusal tender. Now, he will get plenty of repetitions.
Reed has a simple task: Avoid being caught in a roster squeeze from big-money players atop the depth chart and younger options like Browning and Bonitto chasing from behind.
AARON PATRICK: Mostly a special-teamer, Patrick made his only Broncos start last Jan. 2 at Los Angeles after COVID-19 positive tests decimated the roster. His role on Dwayne Stukes’ unit will likely determine where he lands.
Last year, he caught the eye of general manager George Paton in that phase.
“If you watch him on special teams, this kid — he’s a freak,” Paton said last November.
CHRISTOPHER ALLEN: The undrafted rookie pickup will be brought along deliberately as he completes the recovery from a Lisfranc injury that he suffered in Alabama’s first game last season. That sent the 241-pounder sliding out of the draft entirely.
The Broncos demonstrated their belief in his value by giving him the most guaranteed money of any of their rookies. The speedy Allen flashed in 2020 and his single 2021 game, notching 14 tackles for loss and 7 sacks in 14 games.
But any chance of early impact depends on his foot.
“You get him mentally prepared and all of that stuff,” Evero said during rookie minicamp. “But at the end of the day, he has to get healthy.”