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Broncos Position Breakdown: Special Teams

Posted May 6, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason evaluates the Broncos' special-teamers and what the team might do in that area in the 2014 NFL Draft.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Matt Prater has two years left on his contract; Britton Colquitt has three years remaining on his. Prater is coming off the best season of his career, which earned him a selection to the Pro Bowl roster; Colquitt's net average was down from 2012, but he dropped his touchback percentage to just 4.6 percent and was second-best in the league at forcing fair catches (38.5 percent).

Their long snapper, Aaron Brewer, is a bargain; he's still on his rookie deal and has quickly become one of the league's best. The issues on the Broncos' coverage teams that dogged the team toward the end of the season will likely be solved with better health; as Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Rodgers noted in January, the shuffling necessitated by a battered starting lineup filtered to his units.

"You know that going in every week, every year, that the personnel changes on offense or defense will affect us," Rodgers said then. "If an offensive or defensive starter gets hurt, then all of a sudden, (Andre) 'Bubba' Caldwell becomes a heavy offensive guy, and we're going to tailor his role down.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when the same guy is playing 80 snaps on defense, trying to play 30 snaps on special teams. But that's just part of the gig. We've tried to give different guys roles where they can be successful on all their job descriptions."

The only positive of the constant change was that Rodgers got a chance to evaluate younger players and gauge their potential for expanded special-teams roles. One such player was linebacker Brandon Marshall; his work on coverage units could have as great a role in determining his place on the roster as anything he does on defense.

But as the draft nears, the biggest question revolves around who will handle kickoff and punt returns. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is a possibility, but that isn't necessarily John Elway's first choice, given the planned role for Sanders on offense.

"We'll look at that," the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager said March 16. "A lot of times you don't want a guy that valuable back there returning, but right now he's the one that we have on our roster."

The decision to let Trindon Holliday removed the Broncos' primary returner of the last two years from the roster. Holliday's brief 25-game tenure as a Bronco was nothing if not memorable, and will be recalled for his explosive returns -- six for touchdowns -- and his unfortunate penchant for fumbling. Ideally, the Broncos would replace Holliday with a player just as potent, but without the ball-security issues.

There are possibilities throughout the draft. Prospects like Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert look like first-round picks because their return skills push them over the top. But others lurk throughout the draft.

Auburn's Chris Davis is a mid-round cornerback best known for his game-ending missed field goal return against Alabama last November. Among players with at least 10 punt returns last year, Davis ranked fourth with an 18.7-yard average on 17 returns. His kickoff-return experience is limited; that went to Tre' Mason, a running back who could be picked on the second day. Mason was 32nd among FBS returners with a 26.3-yard average on kickoffs.

Kent State's Dri Archer will also merit a long look from teams in need of a returner. The fastest player at this year's Combine (4.26 seconds) averaged 34.8 yards per kickoff return in 2012. Archer is listed as a running back, although his 5-foot-8, 173-pound frame dictates he will be used in space when he lines up on offense, and will likely be more of a wide receiver, assuming he can learn the position. But Archer's speed and quickness ensure that he will likely be on a team's game-day active roster for his return skills, even as he refines his game on offense.

Brelan Chancellor of North Texas could also fit the bill. Chancellor was one of just two players in FBS to rank in the top 30 in kickoff and punt return average last season (the other, Christion Jones, is still matriculating at Alabama). His 16.1-yard average on punt returns ranked sixth in FBS; his 27.6-yard average on kickoff returns was 19th. He scored each way last year and also has potential as a slot receiver. He's one of the most exciting players in this year's class, even if his likely draft spot -- somewhere in the 200's -- doesn't reflect that.

Fresno State's Isaiah Burse could also fit as a punt returner. The prolific slot receiver ranked 24th in FBS with a 12.5-yard punt-return average, and could find that role as his first path to a roster spot.

Prior to this weekend, Bowling Green safety Jerry "Boo Boo" Gates might have snuck into the seventh round on the basis of his return skills; he ranked third in FBS with a 30-6-yard average on kickoff returns. But he was arrested Sunday, was being held without bail and might have blown his shot.

Having Sanders to handle returns is nice, but don't expect the Broncos to get through the weekend without finding a returner of the future, whether it's via the draft or the college-free-agent ranks.

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