ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 9, today marks the eighth, and final, installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Special teams.
It seems fitting in a season when the Broncos’ special teams units always seemed to be in a state of flux that a guy who had been waived five times previously in his career and spent a season out of football before he signed with the Broncos in 2013 made Super Bowl history.
Yes, Jordan Norwood’s 61-yard punt return in the Broncos' 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 was the longest punt return in the history of the Super Bowl. And the play, in many ways, symbolized how the Broncos found a way to make a play, or two or three, when they needed it most in a year of change on special teams.
“That was one of those times where I just made up my mind, I was going to catch it and see what I could do,’’ Norwood said. “ ... Those are the kind of plays you dream about, playing in a Super Bowl.''
But, overall on special teams, Norwood was one of many punt returners the team tried, punter Britton Colquitt was asked to punt directionally more than he had (with sometimes mixed results) and kicker Brandon McManus changed his stride. That was the Broncos' year on special teams in a nutshell and they’ll head into the 2016 season having already brought competition in for Colquitt and still in search of returners.
The Alpha: The job is open given the team’s special teams captain of the last three season -- safety David Bruton Jr. -- is an unrestricted free agent. Kayvon Webster showed himself to be a big-moment playmaker down the stretch as well as into the postseason and moved to the forefront on special teams. But if Bruton exits in free agency, it’s a big presence for the Broncos to try to replace him.
Salary cap: In the final year of his deal, Colquitt has a $4 million salary cap charge for 2016. Long snapper Aaron Brewer, who signed a four-year deal just before the 2015 season, will count $985,000 against the salary cap.
Pending free agents: McManus is an exclusive rights free agent, so he will be retained. Bruton’s impending free agency could have a significant impact on how the Broncos approach things across the board on special teams, given that he has been so involved in all of the personnel groupings. Norwood is also a free agent and was used steadily more on offense down the stretch and into the playoffs as Omar Bolden, who had the longest punt return and longest kickoff return of the season, is also an unrestricted free agent. Bolden also had the team’s only touchdown in the return game.
Who could stay: The Broncos would like to retain Bruton, but he is looking for more than simply being an impact player on special teams and would like to see more time on defense. McManus will certainly be retained after going 30-of-35 in field-goal attempts in the regular season, a total that included the power profile of 5-of-7 on attempts between 50 and 59 yards. McManus was 10-of-10 in the postseason on field-goal attempts.
Who could go: Colquitt, with that $4 million cap figure, will likely get some scrutiny from team officials. Not only did the Broncos ask him to take a pay cut before the 2015 season -- a hefty $1.4 million that took him from $3 million base salary to a $1.6 million base salary, but among their early signings in the offseason was punter Will Johnson. Johnson was with the Houston Texans during training camp last season. The message about competition was already made clear.
What they like/want: If the Broncos lose either, or both, Bruton and Bolden in free agency, they will be on the hunt for more speed on the special teams units. Bruton’s versatility would be difficult to replace.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 4, especially if they cannot find the salary-cap room and the potential playing time on defense that would entice Bruton to return. Also, if the team moves on from Colquitt the Broncos would need to have a replacement in place. Colquitt did perform well in the postseason, but his cap figure and early-season inconsistencies could lead to a move there.