ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Soon after John Elway was hired as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision maker, he used some of owner Pat Bowlen's money to demonstrate the importance the team would place on special teams.
Elway signed kicker Matt Prater to a four-year, $13 million deal in 2012, then signed punter Britton Colquitt to a three-year, $11.667 million deal in 2013. Both salary cap charges are over $3 million for the upcoming season -- $3.812 million for Prater, $3.25 million for Colquitt -- giving the Broncos one of the biggest 1-2 contracts in the kicking game anywhere in the league.
The two also roll into training camp unchallenged. Head coach John Fox has called them "probably the best two guys together in the league."
It's all part of the last installment of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as players officially report for training camp Wednesday.
How many coming to camp: Three.
How many will the Broncos keep: In the strictest of terms the Broncos kept three specialists last year -- Prater, Colquitt and long snapper Aaron Brewer. But given that returner Trindon Holliday played just four snaps on offense last season to go with his 151 plays on special teams, Holliday could certainly -- and should -- be considered the fourth specialist on the roster.
And a returner who doesn't do anything else is valuable if he is a threat to score on any given return -- which Holliday was. But he also quickly becomes a luxury difficult to make work if the same returner can't consistently put the team in good field position with quality decision-making. When the Broncos went into this offseason they made the choice that Holliday's inconsistencies catching the ball finally outweighed the six touchdowns he scored in just under two years with the team -- four regular-season TDs and two in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season.
The Broncos could be faced with a similar roster decision this time around. In a perfect world, with so many roster needs that come up during a season due to injuries or other reasons, the Broncos would like to use a multi-tasker in the return game.
But to use a position player who has a role on offense or defense means one of them has to show he's ready for the return game, and the Broncos have to show their willingness to use him there. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is the most proven of the Broncos' position players in the return game, in addition to wide receiver Wes Welker. Sanders is going to have such a big role on offense there is little attraction to the injury risk that comes with also using him on kickoff and punt returns.
The same is true with Welker, who suffered two concussions last season.
In terms of potential specialists in the return game, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse will practice with the team's wide receivers -- he had a 99-catch season in '13 at Fresno State -- but his real ability to make the roster will rest in what he shows as returner in the preseason.
Break it down: While Holliday was a lightning-strike game changer at times, he didn't consistently give the Broncos the kind of field position they wanted.
Like any team, the Broncos would like more opportunities at a short field on offense. With all they did on offense last season to become the league's first 600-point team, the Broncos' average drive start was their own 28-yard line, or exactly the same as their opponents' average drive start against them. They also started 50 drives inside their own 20-yard line, or 12 more than their opponents did.
In the end, Prater gives the Broncos the ability to score from deep in the kicking game -- he has 20 career field goals of at least 50 yards including the league record 64-yarder this past season -- and Colquitt consistently flips the field when the Broncos need him to.
And that's exactly what the Broncos paid for.