ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Third-year outside linebacker Baron Browning is reminding Denver Broncos teammates and coaches why he was drafted.
What Browning is capable of and what he can mean to the defense was showcased in a flash of one play with just under a minute to go in the first half of the team’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Definitely an incredible play,” Broncos defensive end Zach Allen said.
The 240-pound Browning took a page out of the Von Miller guide to pass rushing as he attacked the outside shoulder of Chiefs tackle Donovan Smith — 6-foot-6, 338 pounds — shoved his left arm into Smith’s right collarbone, extended and then quickly disengaged. When Smith wobbled a fraction, Browning got to the outside shoulder for a sack and knocked the ball free from quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
It was one of two sacks in his second game back in the lineup after offseason knee surgery. It’s what the Broncos need in their pass rush as well as another glimpse of his potential.
Browning’s next chance to chase a quarterback will come Monday night in Buffalo (8:20 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+). It will also be the first time Miller, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl 50 MVP in his 10 seasons with the Broncos, will face his former team.
“Von is a one-of-one player … [but] it’s Von-esque,” said Broncos safety Justin Simmons said of Browning’s sack. “[Browning] has that bend and he has that athleticism to be able to put himself in the upper echelon of pass rushers and what makes a lot of guys special in our league in terms of getting the ball from an edge rush standpoint. Baron definitely has that.”
Browning came to the Broncos as a third-round pick in the 2021 draft and while he had played inside linebacker and edge at Ohio State. The Broncos put him at inside linebacker with Miller and Bradley Chubb as the team’s top edge rushers.
Browning started nine games as a rookie, finishing fourth on the team in tackles. But when the Broncos made a coaching change — Vic Fangio was fired and Nathaniel Hackett was hired — and Miller was traded to the Los Angeles Rams just before the 2021 trade deadline, then-defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero saw a different future for Browning.
Browning was placed at outside linebacker and flashed almost immediately, playing in 14 games, starting eight and missing two last season.
He finished with five sacks and often showed the power-speed-flexibility combination coveted in the position.
“You could see right away what he could do,” Chubb said earlier this season. “The little things, a dip of the shoulder here, a move there, the flexibility, it’s like he’s done it for a long time.”
But as Sean Payton and another coaching staff arrived this year with their own plan to unleash Browning in the pass rush, he suffered a knee injury during the Broncos’ offseason program.
He had arthroscopic surgery to repair the knee before minicamp and then suffered a wrist injury during his recovery. He missed the Broncos’ first six games before he returned for the Oct. 22 game against the Green Bay Packers and played 29 snaps.
“I’m just trying to do my job to help us,” Browning said. “I’ve said I’ve been on the outside looking in the last few months … you’re part of the team, but it’s different when you’re injured, so right now it’s about doing the things I need to do to help this group.”
But it was really the Broncos’ Oct. 29 win over the Chiefs, which snapped Denver’s 16-game losing streak against Kansas City, when Browning reintroduced himself to the intersection of vast potential and game-changing production. Browning, in his 36 snaps, sacked Mahomes twice, hit him three times and forced the fumble.
“It’s crazy to have that type of impact in like your first real game back,” Simmons said. ” … When you have a game-wrecker like that, in the back end it helps us so much … with Baron coming back that helps our pass rush and our pass coverage.”
Jamar Cain, a staffer who works with the pass rushers, has taken note of Browning stepping up.
“Beyond the physical, he has that drive,” Cain said. “If you see him during the game, he’ll often have the headset on after a series and he’s talking to me, like ‘Alright Cain, what did you see on that play, what did you see on this, how did you see my rush,’ so he’s always making an adjustment and that’s how you succeed.”
Since the Broncos traded outside linebacker Randy Gregory to San Francisco last month and released outside linebacker Frank Clark, Browning’s return will help a defense that needs to dig out from a first month of the season that saw it ranked at, or near, the bottom of most categories. Payton said Browning’s impact will also increase as he continues to find additional ways to attack opposing linemen.
“Just from a career standpoint with pressure players, they’re kind of like pitchers,” Payton said. “Generally, when they come to our game, they have one pitch, whether it’s speed or power. I think they have to develop the other pitch. I think that’s important. … I think it’s rounding out their game and having a handful of pitches that become problematic for guys that are blocking them.”