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10 Burning Questions for Camp: Who will handle returns?


No competition for a first-team spot on the 53-man roster appears to be more difficult to gauge than the scramble for punt- and kickoff-return duties.

Part of it is because while Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon saw improvement in some metrics of his unit, the production on kickoff and punt returns was not up to par. Denver ranked 27th in kickoff-return average (20.1 yards) and 32nd in punt-return average (4.4 yards). The Broncos were one of three teams -- along with Dallas and Pittsburgh -- that did not have a single punt or kickoff return longer than 35 yards.

Thus, he walks into training camp with a wide-open competition that is unlikely to have many of the same names as it did last year. Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton averaged 10.3 yards on three punt returns and running back Phillip Lindsay averaged 23.3 yards on seven kickoff returns, but both have more extensive offensive duties.

Thus, McMahon will take a long look at young reserve receivers such as cornerback-turned-wideout Brendan Langley, slot man River Cracraft, sixth-round pick Juwann Winfree and undrafted rookies Trinity Benson and Kelvin McKnight. Former 49ers receiver Aaron Burbridge could also be a factor, along with running backs Devontae Booker, Khalfani Muhammad and Devontae Jackson.

Do not expect any clarity for a while. This will not be 2017, when a first-team punt returner was named before the preseason opener.

"It's really going to solidify itself come about preseason game [No.] 3," McMahon said at the conclusion of minicamp.

The biggest reason? The collection of rookies in the mix has not dealt with the sort of hang times on kickoffs and punts that they will find in the NFL. They must adjust.

"College players don't catch 5.0[-second] hang times. Every single punt they see is brand new to them right now," McMahon said. "But we get into that second week of the preseason, that third week of the preseason, then some separation will come. But right now, there is none."

The first task for the returners, of course, is the field the football cleanly and avoid a field-flipping fumble. But if there is no potential for an explosive return, McMahon will keep looking.

"You have to catch the football, but I'm going to be honest with you: We need speed. We need guys that can hit a home run," he said. "You have to put fear into that group over there [the opposing coverage team], because if you don't put any fear into them, it makes it real, real hard to return now. It's very, very difficult.

"So we need that speed. We need that home run. And we need the guys that have that to catch the darn ball. [The] bottom line is they have to catch it every single rep."

That's why Langley could be an intriguing option. His regular-season returning stats are not notable; he has a 24.4-yard average on 10 career returns and one punt return for 6 yards.

But now that Langley is playing wide receiver, he is doing one thing more than he has in his pro career: catch the football. That can help him on special teams.

"I think there's no question, because I'm a personal believer that you catch a ball with your eyes," McMahon said. "If you just shut your eyes and catch anything, you can't. So it's one of those [things] where he's getting great eye work. Everybody says, 'Catch a ball with your hands!' Well, if your eyes are closed, you're not going to catch it.

"The more he catches footballs, the better it's going to be for all of us, and he's doing a good job out here right now."

Langley, like the others in the mix, desires the job. The reason is obvious: For nearly all of the players in the return mix, the most reliable path on the roster is to win a return job -- even though it will require emerging from a crowded field to do so.

"It's good competition, I'll tell you that," McMahon said.


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