Nik Bonitto is a type of edge rusher Cowboys haven’t employed in a very long time

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Pass rushers come in many different shapes and sizes in the modern NFL game. One way to analyze it is in boxing terms. Some are power punchers, using height, length, and strength to impact the game. They can stay inside and withstand the hits. Defenders in this category set edges and use leverage and hand usage to impact the pocket. They push it in, instead of going around the outside and they can move inside a play with interior offensive lineman because they can handle that strain with their size.

On the other side there are the boxers who can connect and make opponents miss based on their quickness. They’re more about finesse, using agility and explosiveness to make an impact. Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto definitely falls under the second category; smaller frame, average length, but heavy on athleticism.

Bonitto has a skill set that makes his ideal position in football history as a 3-4 edge rusher, and most teams with that style of defense will be interested. Nowadays so many teams want 4-3 off-ball linebackers with coverage and pass rush skills that it’s likely multiple types of defenses will look to draft him on Day 2.

Measurables and Stats

Listed Height: 6-foot-2

Listed Weight: 231 pounds

Year: Redshirt Junior

Games Played in 2021: 11

Jersey Number: 11

Impact Plays (2021): 15 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 force fumble, 2 fumble recoveries

Stat (2021): 23 solo tackles, 16 combined tackles, 39 total tackles

Film Study Information

Games Watched: Utah (2020), Oregon (2021), California (2021), Oregon State (2021)

Best Game: California (2021)

Worst Game: Oregon (2021)

Physical Skill Evaluation

Most of the pass rushers now stand 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, weigh over 260 pounds and have great movement skills for men their size. Bonitto is the rare, pure speed, explosiveness, ankle flexion and bend type edge rusher. He doesn’t rely on length to keep an OT off balance or move them with the power in his hands. At only 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, Bonitto isn’t going to overpower the man across from him, but instead will try to beat him around the edge or get him off balance in order to slip inside to get pressure.

In the vein of Haason Reddick, who has had double digit sacks the last two seasons, Bonitto would best be used as a stand-up pass rusher in a 3-4 defense. He will use the leverage he gains from his great athleticism to counter with an excellent array of pass rush moves. The get off, the ability to move laterally, getting slim to slip through openings in the offensive line makes it tough to handle him on passing downs. Blockers find it to be an issue getting their hands on him.

In the limited snaps he was asked to do so, Bonitto has shown the ability to be good enough in coverage as well. Unlike at edge rusher, where size is key, the new style of off-ball linebacker is more his size and weight range. The giant, take on blocks type backers are rare now, and the speedy, agile, coverage guys are what coaches look for.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Bonitto’s strengths begin with excellent get off. Everything he does comes off of that. He is explosive and agile, can win by beating an offensive tackle around the corner, and bending around his outside edge to get to the quarterback. Bonitto isn’t a one trick pony though. If an offensive tackle beats him to the outside, his great agility allows him to counter with a spin move, or a change of direction that cause the blocker to miss him on his way to getting pressure from the inside.

The versatility to be a pass rusher or be able to cover could be a huge boost to any defense as well. The fact he could be a weapon in any defensive system will move him up boards because he isn’t limited to certain teams.

Bonitto also has an excellent motor, which adds clean up sacks and the ability to tackle from the opposite play side on runs. He will play nonstop through the whistle, and with all-out effort.

Weaknesses for Bonitto ironically begin with his lack of size and strength. Against bigger offensive tackles, and even some tight ends he can have trouble setting an edge. Getting off blocks can be an issue as well and this lack of strength can show up on pass rush as reps as well.

Due to his lack of superior length, offensive lineman can get to Bonitto and make it difficult for him to get wins on his pass rushes. In order to avoid physical tackles, Bonitto sometimes takes bad angles and overshoots the quarterback as well.

As a 4-3 LB, Bonitto just doesn’t have much experience. The skills to do so exist, but it is unknown if he can do it at the highest level consistently.

Fit with the Cowboys

After the loss of Randy Gregory, the restructuring of Demarcus Lawrence, the addition of Dante Fowler, and the re-signing of Dorance Armstrong, the Cowboys could go into the season with a need for a pure speed and bend edge rusher. Nik Bonitto could fill that missing piece to this Dallas pass rush. If all of the edge rushers bring a similar style they can be boxed in.

Bonitto brings a speed and bend rush that isn’t a regular presence outside of when the team brings Micah Parsons off the edge. Even Parsons leans more on strength, length, and speed, than get off and bend like Bonitto.

The Cowboys could use Bonitto as a designated pass rusher on clear passing downs to attack the quarterback with speed, then move Lawrence inside and Parsons over the center as a blitzer in order to stop the QB from stepping up. A core of linebackers consisting of Parsons, Jabril Cox, and Bonitto could bring an elite three-down unit that could bring coverage or blitz ability from all three positions on every down.

Bonitto doesn’t fit the typical size, and length Will McClay or Dan Quinn covets, but maybe it’s time to update that style of thinking, and Bonitto could be just the value Dallas is willing to try that move at on day two of the draft.

You can find Mike Crum on Twitter @cdpiglet or at Youtube on the Across the Cowboys Podcast.

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