BRONCOS

Sean Payton sent a message to the entire team by cutting Randy Gregory

Oct 4, 2023, 11:31 AM | Updated: Oct 5, 2023, 1:37 pm

The sign of the imminent release of Randy Gregory actually came Tuesday.

It was the Broncos’ off-day, and they waived defensive back Essang Bassey. Beyond Denver, that roster move passed with scant notice. Bassey, after all, was a bubble player through most of the spring and summer, only emerging as a roster lock after intercepting one pass in each of the Broncos’ preseason games, while also being the beneficiary of the injury to nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams.

Williams went on injured reserve after the cut to 53 players. Bassey surged to the first team, a place where Gregory resided since the moment he arrived in March 2022 as the signature acquisition of general manager George Paton’s second free-agent class.

But by Sunday afternoon on Chicago’s lakefront, the Broncos took their first defensive snaps without either on the field. Bassey lost his nickel cornerback role to Ja’Quan McMillian. And Gregory stood on the sideline, watching 2022 second-round pick Nik Bonitto make his second career start and first of this season.

Both eventually saw action. Gregory played 33 snaps; Bassey 10. But they were at the flashpoint of the changes made in the wake of the 70-point tsunami Miami dealt the Broncos a week earlier.

The team’s head coach, Sean Payton, pointed to the changing rotation when asked about the moves in the wake of the 31-28 comeback win.

But as I often counsel, “Focus on what they DO, not what they SAY.”

Sunday, the Broncos removed Gregory and Bassey from the first team.

Seventy-two hours later, neither are on the roster.

It isn’t a coincidence.

NO ROOM FOR RANDY GREGORY

There really was no reason to keep Randy Gregory around any longer, although the Broncos could certainly have retained him as a rotational player.

For starters, other players in the Broncos’ outside-linebackers room are just better at the moment. Jonathon Cooper is more effective, and is the best run defender in the room — even when Baron Browning and Frank Clark return from their injuries.

And Nik Bonitto — a rotational player until last Sunday — has 3.5 sacks. Two-and-a-half of them came in Chicago. So did the play that dragged the Broncos’ season off of life support.

Gregory’s production, comparatively, lacked. Fewer sacks, QB hits and forced fumbles than either Cooper or Bonitto so far. Quietly and perhaps under the radar given the Broncos’ collectively poor start to the season on defense, Bonitto and Cooper have become a productive pair.

Further, the Broncos have reinforcements coming soon. Baron Browning can begin practicing this week, giving the Broncos a three-week window in which they can activate him from the physically-unable-to-perform list. And last week, Frank Clark targeted the Kansas City game on Nov. 12 as a target date for his return from a partial tear of his abductor muscle.

If neither is ready on Sunday, the Broncos will hang on with rookie Thomas Incoom as the top backup. But the Broncos are poised to have a solid four-deep rotation — with Cooper, Browning and Bonitto all qualifying as young players with upside still being explored.

When in doubt, play the kids.

And if you’re doing that more, and using Gregory sparingly, you’re left with a pricey rotational player.

A MESSAGE SENT TO THE LOCKER ROOM

“Pricey,” of course, implies that a player might stick around longer than their performance could warrant because of the terms of their contract. After all, why flush more cap space down the commode?

The Broncos will pay Randy Gregory $10.89 million — the balance of his base salary for this season — to not work for them. There is also the pro-rated portion of his signing bonus that remains for future years.

Gregory signed a 5-year, $70-million contract 19 months ago that was effectively a 2-year pact. All of the guaranteed salary kicked in during the first two seasons of the deal. Making it a 5-year contract allowed the Broncos to spread out the signing bonus over the salary cap — up to five seasons, had he remained with the Broncos for that long.

It already seemed unlikely that Gregory would remain with the team beyond next March. At that point, the cap savings created by releasing Gregory would be greater than the dead-money hit created. That is the key juncture of any multi-year deal in terms of salary-cap management.

But that hits next year.

For now, the Broncos will swallow nearly $10.9 million this year to pay someone to not work for them.

They feel it will be addition by subtraction. And by making the move, they didn’t fall into the sunk-cost-fallacy trap — continuing to keep a highly-paid player under contract when his performance doesn’t match that of other potential options just because of the need to justify a regrettable contract.

Vast swaths of Broncos Country wanted accountability in the wake of surrendering more points than any other team in nearly 57 years. The Broncos benched two players — and subsequently cut them — within 10 days.

No one is above being jettisoned. Not even the signature signing of a recent free-agent class.

And that message will resonate.

***

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