A jolt that Denver hasn’t felt on special teams in almost a decade might return this season.
Enter Montrell Washington.
The 5-foot-9, 181-pound return man from Samford, drafted in the fifth round (162) by Denver this past April, has averaged almost 16 yards per punt return in college and scored five combined kick and punt return touchdowns in his last three seasons. And, with KJ Hamler coming off a torn ACL and the departure of Denver’s return specialist since 2019, Dionte Spencer, kick and punt return duties are Washington’s job to lose.
“I’m fearless back there,” Washington said May 14 at Broncos rookie minicamp. “Just catch it and go.”
Washington’s looking to be the latest Denver return man among a litany who’ve been back deep in recent memory. Since 2014, the year after Trindon Holiday’s mixed bag of jaw-dropping Houdini acts and hair-pulling muffs left the Mile High City, Denver’s seen just two punt-return touchdowns and no kickoff-return touchdowns — seven other teams have also returned a combined two kickoffs and punts for touchdowns in that span; only Cleveland, Las Vegas and San Francisco (1) and Tampa Bay (0) have fewer. In just two years, 2012-13 and 2013-14, Holiday returned two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns.
Kansas City’s returned a league-high 10 kickoffs and punts for touchdowns since 2014. Tyreek Hill has accounted for half of them — same number of touchdowns, five, as Washington returned at Samford. The average number of kick- and punt-return touchdowns per team since 2014 is 3.94, nearly double what Denver’s produced.
The former First-Team All-SoCon return specialist is looking to change that — and it doesn’t matter what he’s back deep for, Washington said.
“I’m kind of in the same mental place,” Washington said regarding his mentality on a kick versus punt return. “Catch the ball and do what you have to do.”
Other highly touted rookies selected by General Manager George Paton higher in the draft, edge rusher Nik Bonitto and tight end Greg Dulcich, have formidable competition at their position group, unlike Washington at returner. Bonitto sits behind starters Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb, with Malik Reed, Jonathan Cooper and undrafted free agent Chris Allen all in the mix for playing time on the edge. Dulcich joins Albert Okuegbunam at tight end in an offense already littered with weapons.
Washington, therefore, will likely be the only rookie heavily relied upon to produce Week 1 at Seattle barring an Okuegbunam injury or setbacks with Chubb’s ankle or Gregory’s shoulder.
But Week 1 at Lumen Field won’t be the first time Washington’s stepping into a hostile environment. Despite playing mostly FCS competition in college, Washington shined in “the swamp” versus SEC talent. Against Florida on Nov. 13, 2021, he accounted for 322 total yards and three touchdowns — 10 catches for 124 yards and a TD, three rushes for 19 yards and a TD, a pass completed for 16 yards and five kick returns for 179 yards, including a 98-yard return TD in Samford’s 70-52 loss to the Gators.
“Montrell Washington … he’s one of the best in the FCS today,” Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said postgame. “He showed he can play on the biggest stage.”
Denver special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes caught wind of Washington from wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni, who liked the Samford prospect as a potential slot receiver, Stukes said at rookie minicamp. Azzanni asked Stukes what he’d think of Washington as a returner. Stukes put on the tape.
Washington’s just one of Paton’s day-three picks that looks to bolster the Broncos’ special teams: Oklahoma safety Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pittsburgh cornerback Faion Hicks were also selected to improve Denver’s kick coverage, joining who Stukes calls “core players” on special teams in wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland and outside linebacker Aaron Patrick.
But, as far as being the special teams game-changer Denver’s lacked for eight seasons, Washington’s trying to simplify that task.
“I would say it’s just like backyard football,” Washington said. “As kids, you throw the football in the air, and you catch it, and all your friends try to get you. That’s kind of how punt return is for me when I’m back there. I feel like it’s a game and I’m in the backyard. I just have to go score.”