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'I've been encouraged': Why Broncos believe improved special teams play is on horizon

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Shortly after Sean Payton became the 20th head coach in franchise history, he shared an under-the-radar way the Broncos could begin to improve.

Speaking at the NFL Annual Meeting in March, Payton pointed to special teams as "one way to improve your team pretty quickly." 

With the hires of Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica, Assistant Head Coach Mike Westhoff and Assistant Special Teams Coach Chris Banjo, Payton put the pieces in place to help the Broncos improve a unit that ranked 32nd in kickoff return average and 28th in field-goal percentage in 2022.

"It has to be an important point of emphasis," Payton said in March. "If you believe in hidden yardage and you understand yards equal points — each play you're fighting for those yards. That's an area that we felt like we needed to improve dramatically."

As the Broncos conclude their offseason program and look ahead to training camp, Kotwica said he believes the Broncos have made progress toward that goal.

"I think it's evident on the film, and then it's evident with what we're doing out on the field and the emphasis we're putting on it," said Kotwica on Friday about the impact improved special teams can have on a team. "You can change field position. If you're talking about 100 yards, that's points. That's what we would like to do, and it's good to emphasize it throughout the full spectrum of the team and the organization. I've been encouraged by what I've seen so far."

Westhoff agreed with Kotwica's assessment, saying that Denver's special teams unit is "a pretty good group" of players.

"Of course we drafted a couple guys, [and] we signed two free agents that I love," Westhoff said. "We got a punter. We have some ingredients. It's [the job of] Ben and I and Chris to put it together. We're not far off. We're getting close."

Westhoff noted the Broncos would do a variety of things on special teams, and that the team would not be afraid to run fakes.

As the unit prepares for the season ahead, the group should benefit from having the perspective of three coaches whose experience runs the gamut.

"It's been a great dynamic," Kotwica said. "For background there, Mike and I worked together and had a lot of success together during our days in New York with the Jets. He's been doing it for such a long time, and he's been a great mentor and friend. You have Mike on that side of the spectrum, who has been doing it for 30-plus years. Then, you have Coach Banjo, who has been doing it for about three weeks. I'm somewhere in the middle, and that dynamic has been excellent. Everybody brings things that are different to the table. So far, so good. There is common language, and it's been good discussion as far as making our unit better."

With the team's coaches and an increased emphasis on the phase, perhaps it's no surprise that expectations are high for the unit.

Asked what good special teams looks like, Westhoff did not waver.

"They finish first in the league," Westhoff said. "That's it. That's what I care about. I don't want to have penalties. I don't want to make mistakes. I want to make big plays."

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