Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason will evaluate each position group. He will take a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and address how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. This week: linebackers.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: Sure, you can take a kicker in the first round, like the Raiders did in 2000 when they selected Sebastian Janikowski, who remains their kicker today. But recent drafts have shown that you can find elite kickers and punters outside of the draft entirely.
Neither of Denver's kicking specialists were drafted, and kicker Matt Prater bounced around the league in his first two years, kicking for the Lions and Dolphins in preseason stints and the Falcons briefly in the 2007 regular season before signing with Denver late that year. Punter Britton Colquitt was originally picked up by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent.
Return specialists are trickier, because to justify selecting one near the top of the draft, they have to excel at something else. Had Arizona's Patrick Peterson been only a returner coming out of LSU for the 2011 draft, he wouldn't have been the fifth overall pick and likely would have been fortunate to go in the first two rounds.
Specialists like Trindon Holliday, whose offensive or defensive contribution will likely be highly specialized and limited, are increasingly rare. Holliday, though, is a unique case: a world-class sprinter who doesn't have the size to hold up for every-down play, but could provide an explosive boost to an offense for a snap or two a game, if the Broncos so desire.
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY:They haven't drafted a kicking specialist since 2005, when they used a seventh-round pick on punter/kickoff specialist Paul Ernster, whose up-and-down Denver career spanned three seasons. It finally ended after he was brought back for a Week 16 game at San Diego in 2007 to replace the cut Todd Sauerbrun; he shanked one punt, had another sail out of bounds after going just 17 yards and was subsequently cut.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: If they add a kicking specialist through the undrafted market, it will likely be to provide relief and a few repetitions off for Prater and Colquitt. They will likely add at least one player who will get a look on returns via the draft or the undrafted free agent class, but that will be a secondary part of his job to his primary offense or defense position. Long snapper is set with Aaron Brewer returning.
KICKERS AND PUNTERS OF NOTE IN THE DRAFT CLASS:
K Dustin Hopkins, Florida State: He'll need to be a little more accurate than the 83 percent success ratio on field goals he had last year, but his leg is arguably the strongest in the draft, and he should be among the league's touchback leaders on kickoffs immediately.
K Caleb Sturgis, Florida: Another cannon-legged product from the Sunshine State, Sturgis became more accurate as his years at Florida progressed and is particularly proficient from long range, but might need a bit of work on raising the trajectory of his kicks, as he suffered three blocks in 2012.
K/P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: An all-Big 12 selection as both kicker and punter, he's equally proficient at both skills, and has the potential to save his new team a roster spot (assuming its backup quarterback can be the holder). Sharp never averaged less than 45.1 yards per punt during his four seasons at OSU and hit 50 of 59 field-goal attempts the last two years -- including 11 of 18 from outside 40 yards.
P Jeff Locke, UCLA: He was steady and consistent at UCLA, although his gross average of 43.3 yards as a senior was the lowest of his career. Locke's ability to handle kickoffs will set him apart from most punters, and he gets excellent hang time.
P Brad Wing, LSU: He grew up playing Australian rules football before migrating to the United States in high school and taking up punting, and ended up averaging 44.6 yards per punt the last two seasons. His relative lack of experience in American football leaves some upside.
P Taylor Accardi, Colorado School of Mines: His gaudy 46.1-yard career punting average is hard to ignore, but pales with his 2012 average of 51.1 yards, which broke a Division II record. He only dropped 15 of 49 punts inside the 20-yard-line last year, so he could use some refinement in terms of precise punt placement, but his leg strength is impossible to ignore, even though half of his college games were played at 5,675 feet above sea level.
Other kickers of note: Brett Baer, Louisiana-Lafayette; Zach Brown, Portland State; Anthony Cantele, Kansas State; Ross Krautman, Syracuse; Brett Maher, Nebraska; Brandon McManus, Temple; Matt Weller, Ohio.
Other punters of note: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech; Alex Dunnachie, Hawai'i; Josh Hubner, Arizona State; Scott Kovanda, Ball State.