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Mile High Morning: How Diontae Spencer could solidify the Broncos' return specialist role

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The Lead

A year after the Broncos' punt- and kickoff-return units ranked last and 27th in the league in average return yardage, Denver found its answer in Diontae Spencer, a former Canadian Football League standout.

After the Broncos picked him up just before the season, Spencer earned Pro Bowl alternate honors as he helped Denver improve to No. 12 and No. 3 in the league in average punt and kickoff return yardage.

Spencer wasn't able to take one the distance, but he provided reliably positive returns with a big one here and there and limited his mistakes. He muffed one catch that he recovered and otherwise only fumbled once on special teams.

"He was on a whole different field, whole different rules, and the mistakes that he made were just instinctive," Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said on a Zoom conference on Thursday. "We had to take some of those and break them down and change them to habits. Now I think he's an NFL instinctive returner. That rectangle is much different than the CFL rectangle." 

A major reason Spencer adjusted and found success was his devotion to the craft, McMahon said. Through film study, Spencer learned opposing punters' and kickers' tendencies and used that knowledge to predict which direction the ball would be sent so he could get in position before the snap.  

"Number one, I think he can win pre-snap now," McMahon said. "Where he's headed, to me the sky's the limit. He can run. He's got courage. He's a rare small guy that can return kickoffs up the middle. We have a lot of schemes that we asked him last year to return up the middle, and he hit it up the middle. I think the biggest thing he's got to do now, he's got to work on breaking those tackles. If he can break through and run through — he's gotten stronger here in the offseason — so we look forward to seeing what he can do."

The Broncos have provided some competition with the addition of the speedy KJ Hamler, but Head Coach Vic Fangio said during the draft, "It will take a lot for us to not still have Spence to do that."

Below the Fold

The Denver Post's Mark Kiszla took a closer look at the factors that could decide how successful Drew Lock's first season as the Broncos' full-time starter is. "It's the subtle difference between placing a pass on the right or left shoulder away from pressure, as well as allowing a receiver the chance to effortlessly burst into space, rather than fight merely to make the catch," Kiszla wrote.

In his new series counting down Colorado's football legends, The Post's Ryan O'Halloran looked back on the outstanding football career of Floyd Little, including several great testimonials from some of the great players of that era. "Before Elway and Davis, before Gradishar and Wright, before Atwater and Bailey, there was Little," O'Halloran wrote.

After the COVID-19 outbreak hit, many fans, analysts and even NFL players and coaches wondered how effective virtual meetings could be in place of the usual in-person offseason workout program. The results — at least so far — have mostly been positive. "Change can come glacially in the NFL, and it may be difficult for coaches and others in the football business to consider virtual meetings instead of bringing all of the players into the building in April and May," ESPN's Jeff Legwold wrote. "Ultimately, the proof of how this offseason worked will be in how the games look once they get played."

The Unclassifieds

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