In the Broncos' preseason opener, second-year wide receiver Montrell Washington used his special-teams reps to demonstrate his growth from his rookie year.
Washington carved out a significant role in his first season, appearing in 15 games and returning 32 punts for 271 yards and 18 kickoffs for 340 yards, and he continued to show his strides in that area against Arizona, returning two punts for 29 yards. But his confidence and knowledge was also on display on a more mundane play, a punt that Washington let bounce into the end zone and included a key Washington block on a defender.
Washington explained why that under-the-radar play was so emblematic of the progress he's hoping to show in Year 2 in an interview with The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider.
"Last year, there were times where I'd see a ball in that situation and then just run off (the field) because I didn't really know [to block the gunner]," Washington said to The Athletic. "Coaches would say it, but I didn't feel comfortable doing it. I would just let the ball bounce and they would maybe get it on the 1-yard line, things like that. Now I know what to do. Field position is everything, especially being a returner. You have to know, 'Am I going to fair catch here?' If not it's, 'Let's bluff and hit the defender to make it a touchback.' It's all the small things like that."
That growth included learning from his fellow returners during his rookie season. Washington did not appear in the final two regular season games in 2022, but he used the time to learn from veterans on the roster and strengthen his fundamentals.
"I just took it as, 'All right, let's get better,'" Washington said. "The time I wasn't playing, I was just learning from it. I was watching different returners, learning what different guys back there were doing, watching [WR] Kendall [Hinton] when he was back there, how he was fielding it and how he would fair catch. … I wanted to implement it all into my game and then take it and run with it."
New Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica attested to Washington's growth and budding confidence over the course of the offseason.
"He's done an excellent job," Kotwica said. "I see a returner that's growing. He's catching the ball much easier. He's definitely got enough athletic ability to do it. We did almost a full punt and punt return [in a recent practice], and he ended up hitting a move on a guy. I think I see a player who's growing in his confidence at that position."
Washington is listed as a wide receiver and hopes to make an impact on offense, but he has made returning his priority. From frequent reps on the JUGS machine to running through different scenarios, Washington has put in the hard work to establish himself as an impact player on special teams and in the return game, in particular.
"It is about controlling what I can control and really just learning the game at my position, which is returner," Washington said. "Last year, that's what I was brought in to do. We have great receivers, and I'm not saying I can't be one, but I take the return job as something I want to do. Even if I can't do it here, I'm going to put it on film so that I can do it somewhere. So the offseason was working on the JUGS (machine) every day, catching with one hand, two hands, doing different field position drills, going through every possible situation I could return-wise so that when it comes time for the game, I know what to do and it's second nature."
Read more about Washington’s offseason here.