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Why Emmanuel Sanders will return punts

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Seven different players tried their hands at punt returning during the preseason for the Broncos, but as the regular season begins, not one of them is atop the depth chart at the position.

Instead, it's Emmanuel Sanders. Blink-and-you'll-miss-him wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Pro Bowler Emmanuel Sanders. One-hundred-and-one-catch-man Emmanuel Sanders.

Players with that sort of pedigree don't usually end up as the full-time punt returner. They make cameo appearances in high-leverage situations, such as when the punt is expected to drop inside the 10-yard-line; the Broncos have a long legacy of this, with Rod Smith, Wes Welker and Eric Decker all fielding punts at times over the years.

But none of them were the primary punt returner, as Sanders is now slated to be.

"Why not? It's an opportunity for me to get the ball in my hands. It's an opportunity to make plays, to make more plays," he said. "So I'm excited about it."

The last time Sanders was a full-time punt returner, Sanders had a horse on his helmet. Of course, it was the red mustang of SMU, and not the white-and-orange-maned horse that the Broncos' helmet has brandished since 1997.

Sanders averaged 13.75 yards on 20 punt returns in 2009, his senior year with the Mustangs. In five NFL seasons -- including four with the Steelers -- his chances were sparse; he returned 17 punts for 186 yards, but has just one return for 11 yards the last two seasons.

Despite that, he jumped at the opportunity -- which wasn't entirely his idea, but not entirely the team's, either.

"I think it was a little bit of both of us," Sanders said. "I want to be back there. I feel like I can do really good back there, so I'm looking forward to it."

He's often worked on the JUGS machine catching punts at practices, but that's a bit different than waiting the football with anywhere from five to 10 coverage men bearing down on him.

"Well, right now, on my punt returns, it's just catch the ball," Sanders said. "But I know myself: the more and more comfortable I get with it, I'm going to be trying to score. If I'm going to be doing it, I want to be the best.

"I just have to get that feel back," he added later, "and it takes place out there on the practice field."

Sanders dismissed the idea that working as the punt returner would open himself up to a greater risk of injury.

"No. I think every play that you're out there, obviously, you're putting yourself at risk," he said. "Punt returns, it's dangerous, but at the same time, you've just got to be very cautious, and don't make stupid mistakes. Don't try to catch everything.

"You've got guys running down that are trying to knock your head off, so you've got to play it smart, and that's what I'm going to do."

But Head Coach Gary Kubiak would not put Sanders out there unless there was the potential for some spectacular, explosive punt returns that the Broncos have lacked since Trindon Holliday left in free agency after the 2013 season.

To Kubiak, the risk-reward ratio is right.

"You look [at] touches. That's the most important thing," Kubiak said. "When you have a dynamic player like that, if there's any other way to get him a touch on the field and he's not a guy that, to me, needs a lot of work doing it, [you do it]. He's very natural doing it."

And while Sanders will look for the breakaway return, his goal is reasonable.

"My mindset as a punt returner is just to try to get a first down. Anything after that is all positive," he said. "But I just try to get a first down -- that means 10 yards -- and whatever happens after that, happens."

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