ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos seem pleased with the recovery new edge rusher Randy Gregory has made from shoulder surgery.
His right shoulder is fully mended four months out from surgery. He’s been running and lifting weights, and he’s been doing these workouts during the 5 ½-week break between the final day of minicamp in mid-June and the opening of training camp on July 27.
Still, the Broncos are going to take it slow. Another two months to strengthen the shoulder can only help. Gregory is not expected to participate in position drills in the first week of training camp. He’s not expected to play in any preseason games, although there may be a slight chance he gets a few snaps in the (please-don’t-call-it) exhibition finale Aug. 27 against the Minnesota Vikings.
The course for Gregory is to buckle up, place both hands on the wheel, check the mirrors and move not one mph over the speed limit. Safe but sure is the plan for Gregory to play in the regular season opener Monday night, Sept. 12 against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Broncos want Gregory going after the Seahawks’ Drew Lock or Geno Smith when it counts, not the Cowboys’ Cooper Rush or Ben DeNucci when it doesn’t.
It’s protection on the $14 million-a-year investment the Broncos made on Gregory in March. The bet was Gregory, at 29, would have better days ahead than the older, more expensive -- and more accomplished -- Von Miller, the former longtime Broncos star who signed with Buffalo for essentially $17.49 million per year, and Chandler Jones, who wound up with the rival Raiders with a $17.14 million annual deal.
Gregory and Bradley Chubb, another talented but injury-plagued edge rusher, are confronting questions as the Broncos get ready to embark on their 2022 season with the start of training camp on July 27. The first practice session at UCHealth Training Center begins at 10 a.m. and is open and free to the public.
Chubb was the Broncos’ first-round selection, No. 5 overall, in 2018 and through his rookie season there was little doubt the Broncos had made the right choice. Chubb registered 12 sacks to break Miller’s team rookie record in 2018 while the No. 7 overall pick in that draft, quarterback Josh Allen, struggled through his first season in which he threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10).
In the three seasons since, though, Allen has developed into arguably the league’s No. 1 quarterback while Chubb has just 8.5 sacks over that period. Injuries explain his production drop. Chubb suffered a torn ACL early in his second season of 2019 and injuries to each ankle caused him to miss 24 of a possible 49 games the past three years.
A healthy Chubb looked close to his rookie self during this past offseason of minicamps and OTAs and with a $13.93 million salary for his fifth and final year of his rookie contract, he will bring expectations of double-digit sacks. Same with Gregory even though he’s never had more than six sacks in a season. Fair or not, 20 to 25 combined sacks are the expectation for the two edge rushers that will draw a combined $27.93 million.
But just in case one of those two starting outside linebackers experiences a setback, Broncos’ general manager George Paton loaded up on the depth at this position. He took edge rusher Nik Bonitto with his first pick in the draft – the final selection of the second round – and shifted Brandon Browning – the final selection in the third round of the 2021 draft – from inside to outside linebacker.
Bonitto started slow in the offseason as all rookies but perhaps tight end Greg Dulcich struggled with the mile high altitude. But Bonitto, the rookie edge rusher from Oklahoma, came on fast near the end. Browning, too, displayed enough speed and athleticism to stay outside as he continues to get used to the extra 10 pounds of muscle he was required to put on to hold up the edge.
Not to be forgotten are Malik Reed, a backup edge rusher on scouting reports but a productive starter on the field, and Jonathon Cooper, a pleasant surprise last year as a 7th-round rookie. Reed led all Broncos outside linebackers – even Miller and Chubb -- with a combined 15.0 sacks and 34 starts over the previous three seasons. Reed, too, is in the final year of his contract that will pay him a $2.433 million salary that won’t be guaranteed until he makes the season-opening roster.
Cooper overcame a heart ablation procedure that fixed a heartbeat irregularity to play in 16 games last season, recording 2.5 sacks and several new misses. Cooper, 24, suffered a finger injury that required surgery during the first OTA and missed the rest of the offseason. He is expected to be cleared for limited work for the start of training camp.
The outside pass-rush position by far has the greatest depth on the team. The reason is simple: The AFC West in which the Broncos play features the NFL’s best quarterback division. Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes II, who was widely considered the league’s best QB from 2018-2020 before he perhaps slipped to No. 2 behind Allen last year.
The Los Angeles Chargers have Justin Herbert, who has been so impressive through his first two seasons, throwing for 9,350 yards and 69 touchdowns while also rushing for another 536 yards and 8 touchdowns. He may already be a top 5 quarterback.
And the Las Vegas Raiders have Derek Carr, a steady, if not flashy, top-12 quarterback who has won four straight the previous two seasons against the Broncos.
Russell Wilson is the Broncos’ new offensive answer to this quarterback-strong division. On defense, Denver’s counter is a better pass rush – a challenge because Mahomes, Herbert and Carr are among the league’s most difficult-to-sack quarterbacks. In terms of sack-per-pass attempt, Mahomes has been the toughest to drop behind the line the previous five years among active quarterbacks as he’s only been sacked on 4.1% of his pass attempts. Herbert is the third-toughest with a 5.0 sack percentage and Carr is the sixth toughest among active starters at 6.1%.
If the Broncos are to qualify for the postseason this season – as is their expectation now that they have Wilson – they are going to need healthy, productive years from Chubb and Gregory.
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