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Broncos training camp burning question: Who will handle returns?

The new rules regarding kickoffs -- specifically the one requiring players on the coverage team other than the kicker to begin from a standing start rather than having a five-yard run-up -- are designed to try and make kickoff returns safer. 

They also have another effect: They could make kickoffs look more like punts, which could change the type of returner teams use. Lateral quickness and agility will become at least as important -- if not more important -- than straight-line speed.

“I think that the little man is back in," Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said last month. "When I say 'the little man,' I mean the smaller returners are now going to be able to get back there because it is more like a punt return. 

"You can take your best returner, you don’t need the big back that’s going to take the big shots coming through a wedge."

That could give Isaiah McKenzie, the Broncos' punt returner for most of the 2017 season, a chance to work as both the kickoff and punt returner.

"I’m excited to see what Isaiah can do," McMahon said. 

But before McKenzie can do anything, he must focus on securing the football. Last year on punt returns, he fumbled once every 4.7 opportunities, with six fumbles on 28 punts fielded (21 returns and seven fair catches). 

While McKenzie has put in extra work catching the football and has received advice from Broncos Ring of Famer Rick Upchurch, the hundreds of practice repetitions are well and good. But if McKenzie has the same problems at game time as he did last year, his first-team special-teams role will be in jeopardy again.

The key, as McKenzie sees it, is decision-making.

 "Just making good decisions, because I have the ability. I can catch the ball," he said in June. "I'm fast, I'm quick, I can make people miss, and I can score touchdowns. So just come in here and being consistent. Coming in here and making great decisions." 

Cornerback Brendan Langley, running backs Dave Williams, De'Angelo Henderson, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman and wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and River Cracraft were just some of the Broncos who had a crack at returns at some point during OTAs or minicamp. Newly signed wide receiver Mark Chapman had some return experience at Central Michigan and could also get a look. 

"If you watch us after practice, we have seven punt returners back there that are rookies," McMahon said in May. "I don’t know who that guy is. I learned my lesson a long time ago with trying to think this is going to be the guy and not the guy. A year ago, [Colts WR] Chester Rogers popped out for us in Indy. Nobody thought he could do it. 

"We’ve got great talent here. We’re going to have a great returner, whoever it is. And they’ll develop.”

Lindsay earned plaudits from teammates for the speed and quickness he showed on offense during OTAs, but earning a return role could provide his clearest path to the roster.

"I definitely want to be able to showcase my versatility everywhere," Lindsay said in May. "Whether it’s special teams, at running back or a receiver, I’m just going to showcase everything.”

And if none of the Broncos on the active roster step forward to seize the return roles, they have Jordan Taylor waiting in the wings. Taylor will start training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list following two offseason hip surgeries.

The options are varied, but Job No. 1 is simple -- to catch the football and protect it.

"Number one, you can’t return it until you what? You catch it," McMahon said during OTAs. 

"Now, you’ve got to have some studs," McMahon added a moment later. "You have to feed the stud. In order to feed it, he’s got to catch it. We have to have guys that make plays for us. We want to be a half-court offense. We owe it to our offense to get them a first down before they come out."

But at minimum, the Broncos' returner must protect the football so he does not cost the offense a chance to get a first down of their own. That is the first task, and it will be crucial in determining who wins the return jobs.

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