Last season, five different Broncos took a shot at filling the role. River Cracraft, DaeSean Hamilton, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Phillip Lindsay and Isaiah McKenzie all had an opportunity, with no one having much success.
The year before was equally as messy, with six different returners getting a chance at the gig. Bennie Fowler, Brendan Langley, McKenzie, Emmanuel Sanders, Hunter Sharp and Jordan Taylor all tried and failed to impress.
So it’s no surprise that Denver is trying to find a go-to guy to return punts in 2019; it’s been a recurring headache that the team would love to see go away. And they’ve given virtually everyone a chance.
“If they punt nine times, we’re going to have nine different punt returners, I guarantee it (laughing),” special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said prior to the team’s preseason opener against the Falcons. “I guarantee it; I’ll put a different guy out every time.”
But thus far in training camp and the preseason, no one has stepped up and taken the job. Heck, none of the candidates have even taken an early lead.
In two games, four different Broncos have fielded punts. Cracraft, Langley, Kelvin McKnight and Nick Williams have all had their chance. No one has made a splash, with McKnight’s paltry 5.3 yards per return being the leader in the clubhouse. And Langley committed the ultimate sin, putting the ball on the ground in the Hall of Fame Game.
On Tuesday, while a ground that also included Devontae Jackson, Khalfani Muhammad and others fielded punts on the field in front of him, Vic Fangio was asked about the punt returner job. He was definitive when describing if that choice was coming soon.
“Not close,” the head coach said about the decision.
Thus, the post-practice work for a half dozen players or so. In addition, look for plenty of players to continue to get work during the remaining three preseason games.
What is Fangio looking for from a returner? At this point, his expectations are pretty low.
“The first job of a punt returner, by far, is the ability to catch the ball because most punts go between 40 and 45 yards in the air, 48 yards; if you drop it, that’s a big turnover in field position, so that’s job one,” the head coach said. “Job two, we’d like to have a guy that can do something with the ball back there.”
In a perfect world, that’d be someone who can average more than 10.0 yards per return, essentially giving the offense a free first down. But for right now, that’s a lofty goal for the Broncos. Simply finding someone who can consistently catch the ball remains the priority.
Every day in practice, punt returners are putting the ball on the ground. On Tuesday, it was Nick Williams who was muffing a kick. If that trend doesn’t change soon, the Broncos might have to look outside the building for someone who can perform a pretty basic, football 101 job.