With the No. 64 overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos selected Oklahoma rusher Nik Bonitto. A former four-star freshman from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Bonitto experienced phenomenal growth as a player during his time with the Sooners.
The rookie believes he will add an unpleasant presence early on as a rotational depth piece with the potential to become a next-level high-quality starter here in the next few years. Bonitto — a redshirt junior with three years of starting experience for the Sooners — was named the 2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year according to Focus on professional football.
He has incredible tools for early success as a pass thrower and can line up with the entire middle tier of the defensive front. Bonitto’s best fit early on should be a true pass thrower coming off the edge in obvious passing situations with the ability to play the ball into special packages that bring in rushers from many different positions along the defensive front.
With a massive need to improve the depth of the leading unit in the immediate future as well as major question marks over the future of former No. 5 choice Bradley Chubb, Bonitto is a good choice to meet the multiple needs of the Broncos now. and in the future its development should continue. With the athletic profile he possesses, Bonitto could also make an impact on special teams units early in his career.
I went back and re-examined Bonitto’s performances against Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU last season to better see what he brings to the Broncos. What did I learn?
Let’s dive into the tape.
Game 1: Burst & Bend Around the Edge
In this first clip, while playing against Oklahoma State, we see one of Bonitto’s best attributes in his incredibly explosive first pitch. His 1.59-second gap on 10 yards at the Combine appears on the tape as he comes up to full speed fairly quickly after the snap. He easily attacks the outside shoulder of the tackle, setting his pad incredibly low as he leans around the arc.
With his pads already down and his inside arm ready to attack and tear up contact at the offensive point, Bonitto explodes towards the quarterback with a center strike just as the ball is released. The reverse angle of this set does justice to his ability to use his ankle flexibility, maintain balance through contact, and complete the rep with power and precision.
This aspect of his game should easily translate to the next level.
Game 2: Closing speed to get home quickly
This next rep against Oklahoma State doesn’t start well, but it ends with a terrific display of contraction, closing speed and length on the quarterback’s offense. Bonitto does a good job of setting up the tackle here with a delayed jump from the snap, showing an inside shoulder look before exploding outward to set up the rush.
Although he took an incredibly wide angle around the arc to avoid left tackle contact, he uses his lower body flexibility and incredible length to force a strip-sack. Notice how even when the quarterback steps forward to deliver the ball, Bonitto has already started his upfield run and comes in full force to make the play.
Rather than attacking the midsection for a sack, his right arm goes straight to the launch point of the pitch and lands hard to release the ball, almost resulting in a roll. Bonitto’s ability to accelerate to the ball is enormous, and there are several examples of this type of closing speed in every game he has played.
Game 3: A Relentless Engine
A big part of Bonitto’s game that goes relatively unnoticed is that he does a good job of staying focused despite being forced out of play by an offensive lineman. With a red engine that won’t stop, Bonitto constantly comes back into play even if he veers away from his direction.
Here against Texas, Bonitto does a great job of creating instant pressure in the middle of the pocket using fluid motion to cross the face of the tackle. When the guard initiates contact, Bonitto loses his balance and falls, essentially knocking himself out of the game as the quarterback leaves the pocket to his left.
However, Bonitto manages to free himself from the two linemen who have tackled him to the ground, keeps his eyes on the prize and ends the game almost 20 meters from his starting point. While the Texas quarterback wasn’t going to escape a few other Oklahoma defenders, the fact that Bonitto destroyed the slam game, got back into it after falling and helped finish the rep with a big sack on the third try is impressive. .
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Play 4: Coverage is a plus
A big part of why we might see Bonitto play as a hybrid edge and off-ball linebacker is his added ability as a coverage defender. While it might not be the first way you want to use his athleticism, the ability to turn and run with running backs is there and he does a great job of hitting his landmarks in zone coverage. .
There were a few games against Texas where Bonitto was paired on men’s cover with phenomenal running back in Bijan Robinson. Bonitto ran step-by-step with Robinson on the field and was not targeted.
During a game against Oklahoma State, Bonitto got caught in traffic on a pick play while in men’s coverage on running back. His recovery ability and speed got him back into position quickly on the wheel road, forcing the quarterback out of the read and out of the pocket in the opposite direction.
In 2019, Bonitto made a sealing interception against Baylor on a road he read perfectly and easily undermined. But the best cover play I’ve seen in games I’ve failed was this gem against TCU. Bonitto was falling in his hook/flat zone while reading the play in front of him. As he reaches his landmark, the TCU running back takes a fast flat route as he slips out of the backfield.
What makes this impressive is what happens after capture. Notice how Bonitto keeps his composure going uphill rather than panicking in the open field. As soon as the full-back tips the football over and needs to redirect his focus to securing the hold, Bonitto explodes into a great-form tackle to complete the repeat with minimal gain.
It doesn’t show much in terms of hip fluidity or ball skills, but a big part of playing in coverage is being able to figure out your assignments, quickly close the gap between you and the receiver, and make good tackles in the open field. This is a multi-pronged textbook cover.
Play 5: More play effort required
The positives are very nice with Bonitto, but there are still some flaws in his game that he needs to fix especially in the running game. Part of the problem with Bonitto is that his 32-1/-2 inch arms are short for an edge defender, so he doesn’t have much length to keep linemen at bay and lose at the point of attack. .
What makes it even worse is that he doesn’t use his arms to fight at the start and his level of effort and strength to drop an anchor to give the advantage in the running game is also mediocre. With his smaller frame and shorter arms, Bonitto typically uses a slashing attack in the running game and shoots into the gap rather than the heads-up approach.
However, when the game comes straight at him and a blocker kicks in, Bonitto is kicked out of the spot, opening huge holes in the running game. Here against TCU, Bonitto gets a double team square to the face at the snap of his fingers. You can see how the effort to beat the double team is lacking, the hand technique is poor, and his playing strength is not enough to give an advantage to the attacking point.
It’s hard to blame Bonitto for being washed up with a double team, but there has to be improvement here at the next level. His lack of physicality, poor length and guessing rather than reading and reacting open up a massive reduction path for the running back, who trots for a long touchdown run. Luckily for Bonitto and the rest of the Oklahoma defense (which also had a bad missed tackle in the hole on that play), the touchdown was called off due to a holding penalty.
This isn’t the only instance where Bonitto has been swept away in the racing game. There were several games against TCU and Oklahoma State where Bonitto was easily moved out of place or buried in the turf by an offensive lineman. He needs to get stronger and more physical at the point of attack. Period.
Despite the running game’s issues with his playing strength, Bonitto was a fine selection for the Broncos with the No. 64 overall selection. that breakdown is his ability to win again in the running game with his explosiveness off the slam and his sharp mentality when attacking the ball carrier.
There’s still something to work on here if the Broncos plan their defense in a way that limits its exposure to facing offensive linemen and establishing a firm advantage. A pass thrower with his turn, contractions, and polished technique is certainly a good choice for a team that needs immediate depth improvement and a long-term plan at the position.
Denver doesn’t have to trot out Bonitto as a day one starter and have him make an immediate impact as a three-hit defenseman. The Broncos can use him as part of a rotation or in subsets with guys like Chubb, Randy Gregory, Baron Browning and Dre’Mont Jones alongside him to wreak havoc in the backfield.
The athletic traits and tools available to Bonitto can easily be leveled up, and there is still room for him to improve specifically with his hand-to-hand combat technique. Quality coaching in the NFL can turn this dynamic pass-rushing threat into a high-quality starter at the next level.
Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH.
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