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Broncos due for some improved special teams

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There have sparks on the defensive side, but the returning absolutely needs to be better.

New England Patriots v Denver Broncos Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Despite most of the talk for improvement in 2017 coming on offensive production or defending the run, an improved special teams is definitely on the wish list.

There were some sparks last year - Justin Simmons’ simultaneous leap over center/block ball/hit ball to teammate Will Parks for stunning return to the end zone comes to mind as do some phenomenal downs inside the 10 thanks to Kayvon Webster and a few monster tackles by Cody Latimer.

But when it came to the most basic function on special teams - returning the ball on kick-offs and punts - the Broncos were pretty pathetic.

Ranking 11th in the league on kick and punt returns, according to NFL.com, is not terrible. But when you see an average kick-off return of 22.9 yards (where 25 is the number of yards needed most often just to get to the touchback yardline) plus an average punt return of 8.5 yards (when not dropped), it’s clear there is plenty of room for improvement.

But without even reminding ourselves via statistics (cue Joe Mahoney) of the poor showing, we all remember the muffed catches that had most of us pulling our hair out and Aqib Talib screaming at Jordan Norwood...well, shoving him actually.

So obviously improvement is needed, and now with a group of fast rookies added to the squad, it’s clear the Broncos are expecting it too.

John Elway noted after choosing Carlos Henderson in the third round that a big part of his “upside” was the versatility as a wide receiver with good yards-after-catch instincts but also his speed as a possible returner.

“That’s why Carlos was so valuable to us,” Elway added.

The Broncos are definitely due for “some better performance in that department,” as Mile High Sports’ Les Shapiro noted this week.

With an energetic new special teams coach in Brock Olivo plus a lot of speed among several rookies - namely WR Carlos Henderson, CB Brendan Langley, WR Isaiah McKenzie and RB De’Angelo Henderson - there’s reason to be hopeful (we’ll save “excited” for Week 4) that they will get a much better performance this year.

“I’m excited to see all those little water bugs running around the field to see how quick they are and who is most effective,” Shapiro said.

And as you might expect, “those little water bugs” are pretty happy to be competing for any kind of NFL job, not the least of them being special teams.

Carlos Henderson, wide receiver from Louisiana Tech known for his speed and versatility, noted in his post-draft presser that he considers special teams just as important as catching the ball.

“Special teams, for me, is just as important as running around and blocking for a running back that’s getting the ball,” he said. “Like I said, I’m here to help the team, whatever the team wants me to do. I’m a team-player, so I take special teams just as seriously as I take running around and catching the ball.”

Isaiah McKenzie, a fellow wide receiver, would like to ultimately be a “slot or jet-sweep guy” but he’s just as happy to return the ball too. At Georgia he had six return touchdowns in his career (five punt returns and one kickoff return). That stat alone signaled Elway and the Broncos that he could be a high impact returner.

“I can do a lot in the return game,” he said last weekend at the rookie minicamp. “If they want me to block, play gunner or run the ball, I'm going to do it. I'm doing everything possible on special teams to make the team better.”

And running back De’Angelo Henderson, the sixth-round pick known for his pass-catching ability who was coached by Olivo at Coastal Carolina in 2013, will do anything it takes to get on the playing field.

“I’m just focused on doing everything I can do to be the best player I can be and contribute as much as I can. If it’s running to go get the ball for somebody, that’s what I’m going to do,” the self-described “country boy” said. “I’m just excited to be here. Like I said, I’m from a small town, so just to be here is a blessing.”

Pairing the rookies’ willingness to contribute with the almost maniacal love for teaching special teams from new coach Brock Olivo, it’s easy to get excited (I mean, hopeful) about a much-improved third phase of the ball.

“We’re going to play fast, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to kill it,” Olivo said back in February at his introductory presser. He even had an acronym to go with it: Keep It Likeable and Learnable. “Our motto, and this is going to be on my office, cut it loose and have fun. That’s what we’re going to do.”

That’s very believable coming from a guy who actually volunteered to do special teams while at Mizzou just to help the team.

“I said, ‘You know what, I’ve been watching special teams on Saturdays and we don't have our 11 best guys on the field,’” Olivo recalled, adding that he went to his coach and asked to be put on special teams and coerced convinced a few teammates to do it with him.

“It’s a niche and I’ve sold it to my teammates and I’ve sold it to my players like this - how cool is it when everyone else is stunning special teams and putting it on the back burner? How cool are you if you’re different and you make it a priority? How cool is that?”

Pretty cool, coach.

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Poll

Which rookie do you think could most likely be the impact player on special teams?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    Carlos Henderson
    (70 votes)
  • 1%
    Brendan Langley
    (6 votes)
  • 32%
    Isaiah McKenzie
    (100 votes)
  • 2%
    De’Angelo Henderson
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Not a rookie, but I think Kalif Raymond can do it!
    (11 votes)
  • 36%
    I don’t care, just someone please catch the ball and run!
    (111 votes)
306 votes total Vote Now