Broncos seek more happy returns on special teams

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is a fact of special teams life at altitude.

An NFL team that plays its home games a mile above sea level needs a tip-the-field, scare-the-other-guys punt returner. The Denver Broncos have not had that for much of the past two seasons, at least since Trindon Holliday got a case of the bobbles in 2013, and they want one.

As the team rolls through its second week of organized team activities, the search is on and may stretch into training camp.

"We've got to find what our guys do best," Broncos special teams coach Joe DeCamillis said. "And we'll do that as we go forward, but I think in this stadium I know you have to be a really good punt return team. I know that. We're not probably going to get a lot of kickoff returns as you get in other places. We've got to be a great punt return team because a lot of times when teams come in, they're going to outkick their coverage."

In 2014, those opportunities were largely lost in the punt return game. The numbers by season's end were evidence of plenty of lost yardage.

In games in which the Broncos had at least one punt return (not including touchbacks, fair catches or punts out of bounds), they had fewer than 10 yards worth of returns six times, including their playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Overall, they finished tied for 20th in the NFL at 7.2 yards per punt return.

And the Broncos were one of four teams in the league that didn't have a punt return longer than 22 yards for the season (joining Indianapolis, Chicago and Houston).

"We're going to have opportunities," DeCamillis said. "We've got to make the most of those opportunities."

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said the "ideal situation" for roster construction is an impact returner can provide depth and potential impact at another position on offense or defense.

Cornerback/safety Omar Bolden staked a significant claim to the kickoff return job to close out last season; he had three of the four kickoff returns the Broncos had of at least 40 yards in 2014. He also had the team's two longest kickoff returns of the season -- 77 and 76 yards -- coming in the Broncos' last two games of the regular season.

But Bolden wasn't "the guy" on kickoffs until Week 12. He is also one of a number of Broncos working as the punt returner during the OTA practices.

Bolden's last punt return in a game was against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2013 preseason -- it went for 3 yards.

"I'm just trying to help this team in any way possible," Bolden said. "If time calls for it for me to return some punts, I want to be ready, so, I'm just trying to practice and get better at doing that as well.”

DeCamillis is also looking at wide receiver Jordan Norwood, who was a good bet to make the roster in last year's training camp because of his return ability before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Wide receivers Isaiah Burse, Kyle Williams and Solomon Patton are getting looks as well.

Patton, whom the Broncos claimed off waivers this offseason, averaged 11.2 yards per punt return for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season and also returned kickoffs for the team.

Bolden enters training camp as the top kickoff return candidate. "I'm going to go on and say that is my job, I want it and I want it bad, I want to lead the league in kick return yards," he said last week.

He also fits the profile of contributing at another position. Bolden played 49 snaps on defense last season and has consistently worked at two positions -- cornerback and safety -- in practices.

If he could contribute as a punt returner as well, he represents a saved roster spot. But if one of the other players is to win the job, that player will have to show enough in the offense to make a case.

Burse did enough in last year's training camp to initially earn the punt return job, but he averaged 7.3 yards per return and didn't always looked comfortable fielding the ball. By season's end, the Broncos were using Emmanuel Sanders.

Sanders is also an option and will often catch punts in practice and pregame drills, but he's a front-line receiver the Broncos would rather not use as a returner. In the end, Burse played 18 snaps on offense, so he was largely a specialist.

The Broncos also carried three kickers last season because Connor Barth did not kick off and the team replaced Brandon McManus with Barth to kick field goals, so McManus was used only on kickoffs. Overall, they are looking to reduce the number of specialists they carry on the final 53-player roster.

Added DeCamillis: "That's something competition-wise right now that we're going through. That's what these OTAs are for, that's what training camp will be for. And then we're going to try to do certain things, conceptually, that help the guys, whatever they can do best. If we've got a guy that's a speed guy, we need to get him outside more, we're going to do that. If we've got a guy that's more of a middle-of-the-field, take-one-cut-and-go, we're going to do that too. We've got to find what our guys do best."