Broncos Training Camp Preview: Special Teams
The story of the Broncos’ special teams in recent years is told by its end-of-season rankings from various sources.
Football Outsiders special-teams DVOA:
- 2021: 30
- 2020: 24
- 2019: 24
- 2018: 31
- 2017: 30
- 2016: 24
Rick Gosselin’s rankings:
- 2021: 27
- 2020: 21
- 2019: 21
- 2018: 24
- 2017: 31
- 2016: 16
Pro Football Focus:
- 2021: 19
- 2020: 32
- 2019: 22
- 2018: 9
- 2017: 15
- 2016: 17
(There must be a virus in PFF’s computer. No way could the 2017 season under then-coordinator Brock Olivo have been a top-half-of-the-league performance.)
No matter how you slice it, Denver’s third phase has been lousy. Here’s how that translates to an average across the three metrics:
- 2021: 25.3
- 2020: 25.7
- 2019: 22.3
- 2018: 21.3
- 2017: 25.3
- 2016: 19.0
So, the Broncos slightly improved in 2021. But that was far from enough to save coordinator Tom McMahon’s job.
The last time the Broncos ranked in the top half of the NFL in all three metrics was in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2015. That year, Gosselin’s rankings had the Broncos 7th, while Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders had them 14th.
The coordinator then was Joe DeCamillis. The Broncos’ average cross-metric special-teams rank that year was 11.7.
The Broncos’ new coordinator, Dwayne Stukes, was DeCamillis’ right-hand man the last three seasons.
“’Joe D’ is a mentor to me,” Stukes said in February. “I have a lot of respect and love for Joe D. … He’s taught me a lot about football. He’s taught me about strategy, he’s taught me about analytics, he’s taught me about game management and things that as a first-time coordinator, I didn’t really consider or think about.
“Yeah, you think about it, but to actually have a guy who has 33 years of experience to lean on has been beneficial for my career. I can’t beat the experience I just had until we win here.”
Stukes and DeCamillis worked together in Jacksonville in 2019 and 2020. When the Jaguars dismissed their staff after a 1-15 season in 2020, they joined the Rams together.
In their three seasons, their special teams’ cross-metric rankings were 13.7 (2019), 17.7 (2020) and 13.3 (2021). World-beating? No. But for the Broncos, similar results would be a sight better than previous years.
Returners: Montrell Washington’s job to lose
Make no mistake: When you draft a return specialist as early as the fifth round, it’s with the intention of him being “the guy.” And while the Broncos will not blindly hand Washington the job, they hope he will seize the job and bring dynamism back to the return units.
So far, so good. But it’s early. He hasn’t seen full-speed, full-throttle work yet. The Broncos won’t have a good grasp on whether he can
Still, for what he has been able to do, the progress is palpable.
“I think he’s become more comfortable,” Stukes said of Washington during minicamp. “Any time you return in college, and you’ve done it extensively, and then you come to the NFL game, obviously, it’s a little different. In college, guys can get out freely and cover on a punt.
“But to me, it looks like he’s comfortable knowing he has guys that can actually block for him on the outside and the interior. I think it works [when] 11 guys work together for us to have success. I think he’s done a great job from Day 1 to now, improving with his catch mechanics, absolutely.”
But if Stukes is not ready, look for Kendall Hinton to get a long look on punt returns. The do-it-all player returned two punts for 24 yards last year. KJ Hamler could also get some chances once he is back to full speed, but given his injury history, Denver could be cautious with him.
Whoever lands the job can only do better. Denver was dead last in the league in kickoff-return average last year (16.2 yards) and 19th in punt-return average (8.2).
Coverage and protection: Leaders must emerge, but whom?
This is where it gets wide-open. Jonas Griffith had a solid season on special teams last year, but he could have his repetitions limited if he becomes an every-down linebacker. If Griffith starts, then a primary special-teams role could pass to fellow linebacker Alex Singleton, an offseason signee from Philadelphia.
Recent Day 3 drafted receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Seth Williams could be battling for a spot as a gunner. The versatile Hinton could also factor on multiple units if he does not handle returns.
What could separate players here is leadership. Leaders will develop on this unit. But Stukes did not want to specify any who were emerging in offseason work.
“If you try to get me name guys, and I exclude someone, then somebody looks at me with an angry face. We have a lot of guys that have mentored younger guys or have taken younger guys to the side and try to coach them up when myself or (assistant special-teams coach Mike Mallory) are busy doing some other things.
“We all know just by looking on the field who those guys are. They’re not necessarily vocal leaders all the time. They show it by action.”
Actions involve limiting the damage on returns.
Last year, the Broncos allowed a league-worst 39.4 yards per kickoff return. Tthe 14 returns against them were a league low, a function of playing nine games at 5,280 feet of elevation and McManus’ strong leg. But when kickoffs came back, the results were disastrous.
Specialists: Brandon McManus, Sam Martin, Jacob Bobenmoyer
The Broncos’ low rankings last year came despite:
Brandon McManus ranking sixth in the NFL in kickoff-touchback percentage among 38 kickers with at least 38 kickoffs (79.5 percent)
McManus was 10th among kickers (minimum 10 attempts) inside of 50 yards, hitting 21-of-22 attempts from 49 yards or fewer.
Sam Martin ranking fourth in net punting average and 11th in gross punting average
Of course, the issues in returns and coverage played a role in nullifying metrics like that.
Kicker has been perhaps the most stable position for the Broncos over the years. With the exception of a half-season from Connor Barth in 2014 and brief stints for fill-ins such as Taylor Russolino, Scott Bentley and Steven Hauschka, the Broncos have had just five primary kickers in the last 40 years: Rich Karlis, David Treadwell, Jason Elam, Matt Prater and now, McManus.
You know what you’re getting with McManus: a strong leg and reliability inside of 50 yards. Since 2018, McManus has a 95.3-percent success rate from 49 yards and closer. Coaches don’t have to worry about the quality of placekicking with McManus around, and that is a comforting feeling in a chaotic sport.
Unlike McManus, Martin has competition in the form of ex-Steelers punter Corliss Waitman. In the short term, Waitman helps the returners; he’s a left-footed punter, allowing Washington and his fellow returners to gain experience against balls that spin and turn differently.
“The lefty ball, obviously, spins a little bit different than right,” Stukes explained. “It takes a while to get used to catching those types of punts.
Waitman also split placekicking holding duties during OTAs and minicamp with Martin.
“What Corliss needs to focus on in the offseason is directional punting, which we’ve addressed,” Stukes said. “He’s working on getting the ball to the numbers, to outside the numbers, which we’re big on here.
“Sam has done a great job of that, as well. I’m happy with both of those guys. The competition is good for those guys.”
Bobenmoyer has been reliable in his two years on the job as long snapper. For the last decade, Denver has usually utilized first-contract snappers.
Washington has a chance to be a game-changer — if he and his 170-pound frame can handle the full-throttle punishment that looms. He will be one of the key players to watch this preseason; if he flourishes, he could have the most prominent role of any rookie on the team.
Waitman has a cannon, and appears to be following the path traversed by many punters and kickers: bounce around for a bit, improve and eventually find a home. If he can show that his work last year with the Steelers wasn’t a sample-size fluke, he has a chance to seize the job. Cap concerns could matter here; Martin has a dead-money charge of just under $500,000. That said, Martin’s status as a solid top-half-to-top-third punter gives him the decided edge.
Special teams is likely to determine the back end of the roster. Backups at cornerback, safety, edge rusher and wide receiver are competing for third-phase roles as much as their jobs on offense and defense.