ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Baron Browning went through this at Ohio State.
A freakish, 5-star athlete out of Fort Worth, Texas, Browning played four years without redshirting for the Buckeyes, who won the Big Ten and reached the NCAA Final Four all four years. Browning played in 43 games, at three positions, and started just 10 as he rotated in with the likes of Pete Werner and Tuf Borland at linebacker, and even occasionally behind current Bronco Jonathon Cooper at defensive end in Ohio State’s 4-3 front.
“Sometimes his versatility has hurt him a little bit in his development,’’ then Broncos’ head coach and defensive play-caller Vic Fangio said minutes after Browning was the final pick in the third round last year.
“We’ll figure out where we’re going to put him first and see how he does there then make a final decision at some point. We like his speed, like his athleticism.’’
Although most NFL scouting reports said the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Browning projected best as an outside linebacker – mainly because that is where the greatest athleticism among the 11 defensive positions is most on display -- Fangio had more serious depth issues at inside linebacker. And Browning played well on the inside, too, starting nine games as a rookie last year and making at least five tackles in seven of them.
And he would have been better had he not suffered a hairline fracture in his leg in rookie minicamp that knocked him out of virtually the entire offseason and most of training camp.
“That’s one thing that I wish I had last year, just being able to get a full offseason underneath my body,’’ Browning said Wednesday after the Broncos’ fifth of 10 OTA practices. “I was just coming right off a leg injury and was thrown right into the fire and had to just go, so that’s kind of why I had the small injuries I had last year. I didn’t really have the chance to callus my body, as some people would say, before the season.”
A new coaching staff for the 2022 season brought renewed discussion regarding Browning between first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett, first-year defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and general manager George Paton. And while there still seems to be more depth issues at inside linebacker than the outside, getting the best out of Browning became the priority. He has been switched to outside linebacker, at least for this offseason. If it doesn’t work out, he has a full NFL season at inside linebacker to fall back on.
“I kind of wanted to make the move, but they felt the same way,’’ Browning said.
“He’s somebody that we saw a couple of things on tape last year that could potentially be something that he can do,’’ Hackett said this week. “His ability to bend and lower his hips and round that tackle is something that stood out on tape. That’s another rusher on the outside, and he’s doing a good job.”
Browning is now one of six edge rushers of note on the Broncos’ depth chart. That’s one or two more than most teams. But in an AFC West that boasts such excellent quarterbacks as Patrick Mahomes II, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr, the new way of thinking is there’s no such thing as having too many pass rushers.
There is Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory as the Broncos’ projected outside linebacker starters, Malik Reed and second-round rookie Nik Bonitto coming off the bench, and Cooper and Browning in the third wave. That’s if everyone is healthy, which is not currently the case – Gregory (shoulder) and Cooper (finer) are rehabbing from surgeries -- and may never be over a 17-game season.
“I don’t know if this is something for just this period for right now, but I’m just making the most of it and working on just perfecting my craft every day,’’ Browning said.
His biggest adjustment to date?
“I would just say that it’s different being up close on the line,’’ Browning said “I felt like when I first started out, I was kind of trying to hesitate as far as trying to see whether it was a run or a pass. When you’re inside, you have that time and distance to bounce your feet and really diagnose things. I would say that was probably the only small thing, but I really don’t feel like there have been too many crazy challenges. I feel like I’m pretty comfortable there and I’m making a lot of progress.”
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