The bad news: With Randy Gregory on injured reserve with a knee injury, the Broncos are without one of their dynamic edge rushers for at least a month.
The silver lining: The Broncos have a young but raw playmaker-in-waiting behind Gregory in Baron Browning, whom the team believes is capable of becoming a consistent disruptor. All Browning needs is reps to develop.
“It’s been a transition for Baron to go to outside linebacker from inside linebacker as a rookie, but during the preseason, he was doing great things with sacks and forced fumbles and even a touchdown (in the preseason finale),” linebacker Bradley Chubb said. “You see some of those same things budding in practice and during the regular season, and I know when he gets more snaps, those big plays are going to come to him.”
That’s exactly what the Broncos need to happen after losing Gregory, who was living up to his huge five-year offseason deal before getting hurt in the loss in Las Vegas Sunday.
Gregory has two sacks, two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss and nine tackles overall, but he won’t be back until at least Week 10 in Tennessee, after Denver’s bye. Gregory is having his right knee scoped to determine the severity of his injury and a course for rehabilitation, but head coach Nathaniel Hackett said the outside linebacker’s ACL is okay.
For now, it’ll be Chubb and Browning off the edges, with help from rookie Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper and potentially Jonathan Kongbo as a game-day practice squad elevation. Bonitto has only played 16 defensive snaps in two games this year, and the second-round pick out of Oklahoma has one tackle and zero sacks.
Browning, too, is still searching for his first NFL sack.
“(Browning’s) been getting better playing the edge,” defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said. “Last week was his best week playing in the run game. He hasn’t got as many rush opportunities just because of Randy and Chubb, so he’ll have the opportunity to show more of that now.”
Cooper has been nursing a hamstring injury but could be nearing a return for the Week 6 game against the Chargers, or more conservatively, Week 7 against the Jets. He has not yet resumed practicing but is working out and running on the side fields this week. It’s Cooper’s second health setback of the season after suffering a tendon tear in his left index finger during OTAs, which required surgery and a three-month rehabilitation.
“The finger thing was tough, and now this hamstring has been really frustrating,” said Cooper, Denver’s seventh-round pick last year. “But I’m staying around my teammates and staying focused and looking forward and trying to be the best player I can be. It’s tricky because it’s a hammy, and you can’t really rush back from them too crazy fast, but I’m definitely itching to get back out there.”
With Cooper still on the mend, and Bonitto still acclimating to the playbook, it’s mostly on Browning to pick up where Gregory left off. Browning played in 14 games with nine starts at inside linebacker as a rookie, and is looking forward to the opportunity to prove what he can do as a pass-rusher in his first NFL start at outside linebacker on Thursday at Empower Field.
“I definitely feel like I’m at home at outside, and the only place to go from here is up — just continuing to get better, working on my craft and my moves, staying in the moment and being where my feet are,” Browning said. “I’m feeling pretty comfortable (on the edge). I’ve been doing this since OTAs and I’ve had a lot of time between then, and all the way through training camp. All the 11-on-11 we did all that time help me get those game-like action situations, and progress, and get more comfortable at a faster rate.”
Browning also credits his relationship with Chubb, who has served as a mentor.
“When I had my (leg) injury last year, and (Chubb) was dealing with his ankle injury, he was always inviting me over to his house and he took me under his wing,” Browning said. “We kind of built the bond from there. For me, playing on the other side from him, it’s not about trying to overcompensate or trying to do too much. It’s just about playing to know I know I can and to the standard we have set in our room.”
After the Raiders gashed the Broncos for 212 rushing yards on Sunday, including 144 by Josh Jacobs, Chubb and Browning know that standard needs to be re-set on Thursday. The Week 4 loss in the divisional opener featured two sacks by Denver (one by lineman D.J. Jones and one by nickel back K’Waun Williams on a blitz), but Chubb said the Broncos need to up the pressure on Colts quarterback Matt Ryan.
In the meantime, Chubb is embracing his role as a leader.
“I’m going to be making sure I’m doing everything to keep (Gregory) encouraged, because I’ve been in that same position (after tearing an ACL in 2019),” Chubb said. “I’m gonna make sure he knows we still need him, especially when the season really starts to heat up.”