ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Randy Gregory missed more games than he played during his 18-month stint in Denver, where he had almost as many surgeries (two) as sacks (three).

The Broncos (1-3) parted ways with the immensely talented but often-unavailable pass rusher Wednesday, deciding to release him — even though they’re on the hook for the $10.9 million remaining on his 2023 salary — if they couldn’t find a trade partner.

“We just felt with some of our younger players and where we’re going, it was best for our team right now,” said coach Sean Payton, who disputed any notion that Gregory had asked for his release. “We just felt like these other guys were playing better.”

Gregory’s departure came 72 hours after he appeared disinterested in a game at Chicago after losing his starting job to second-year linebacker Nik Bonitto, who ignited Denver’s first victory of the season with a strip-sack of Justin Fields that turned into the game-tying touchdown from Jonathon Cooper.

Gregory’s benching came a week after he was shut out at Miami, where he failed to register a single tackle and had no sacks or pressures of Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Dolphins’ 70-20 onslaught in one of the biggest blowouts in NFL history.

Several Broncos said there were no hard feelings toward Gregory, whom they affectionately called by his initials.

“R.G. for me has been a great teammate,” safety Justin Simmons said. “He’s been a great friend and it was awesome just watching him play in Dallas all those years he was going crazy. So, a great man and teammate. It’s just the business side of the NFL. And I’m always rooting for R.G.”

Another veteran pass rusher, Frank Clark, expressed similar sentiments, calling Gregory “a great player, obviously a great teammate. He’s done a great job ever since he’s been in the league of being a pro. He had some mistakes here and there just like all of us, but a hell of a player, hell of a teammate.”

Gregory was close to re-signing with Dallas last year before Broncos general manager George Paton offered him a five-year, $70 million deal that included $28 million in guarantees.

Much of the fanbase preferred a reunion with Von Miller, who had expressed a desire to return to Denver after helping the Rams win the Super Bowl following his midseason trade to Los Angeles in 2021.

Paton said at the time that Gregory was his top choice in free agency and he never called Miller, who wound up signing a megadeal with the Bills, where his productive 2022 season was cut short by a knee injury.

Paton’s prized free agent, however, missed 11 games last season and he proved a bad fit for Payton and his staff this year.

Gregory played in just 10 of a possible 21 games during his time in Denver. He was limited to a half dozen games last season because of a knee injury after he missed all of training camp following shoulder surgery. He had two sacks last year and one this season.

Gregory has stayed out of trouble since being activated from the commissioner’s exempt list on Oct. 20, 2020, the last of his four substance-abuse suspensions including one that sidelined him for the entire 2019 season.

Although Gregory didn’t have any off-the-field issues in Denver like he did during his suspension-filled seven-year stint in Dallas, his production on the field never lived up to his lofty contract.

The Broncos’ pass rush is expected to get a boost with Clark (hip) and Baron Browning (knee) close to returning to action, although it’s unlikely they’ll play Sunday against the New York Jets (1-3) in a game that features the return of Nathaniel Hackett, whom Payton trashed in July for the work he did in Denver last season, particularly with quarterback Russell Wilson.


AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl