ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Year after year, the Denver Broncos have wandered the special teams wilderness in search of a successful returner with little to show for their effort.
In fact, their hopes to flip the field in the third phase of the game have become a first-rate problem. Long-time NFL writer/columnist Rick Gosselin compiles special teams rankings, using 22 categories, that have long been a must-read for coaches and players throughout the league. He ranked the Broncos last for kickoff returns last season and 27th overall.
"We need to be better on special teams, much better," said Broncos general manager George Paton. "We know that."
Enter the smallest player on the Broncos roster, the 5-foot-8 7/8-inch, 181-pound Montrell Washington, a rookie poised for a potential big impact. At Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, Washington averaged 11.1 yards per punt return with one touchdown in 2021, but in 2019 averaged 21.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown.
The Broncos haven't returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same season since 2013 when the smallest-ever Broncos player, the 5-foot-5 Trindon Holliday, had an 81-yard punt return touchdown to go with a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Holliday, even as he battled ball security woes late in his tenure with the Broncos, was the last Broncos' returner who consistently made opposing teams add a worry line or two.
Paton selected Washington as one of three fifth-round picks for the Broncos in last month's draft. Washington was not among the more than 300 players invited to the scouting combine, but the Broncos saw potential for something they haven't had enough of.
"We feel like he can be a duel returner for us, he's explosive," Paton said. "He's explosive. He is. It was a major emphasis. I applaud [Broncos special teams coordinator] Dwayne Stukes for the work he and [assistant special teams coach] Mike Mallory put into it, their evaluations."
Stukes said it was Broncos wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni who first brought Washington to his attention in the weeks before the draft. And it was Washington's effort Nov. 13 against Florida that jumped off the game video.
In that game against the Gators, easily the most difficult opponent Samford -- an FCS school -- faced last season, Washington caught 10 passes for 124 yards to go with a touchdown, completed a pass for 16 yards and returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
"Coach Z said, 'I have a receiver that I like, he's a small slot receiver. Would you mind watching him as a returner?"' Stukes said. "I put the tape on, obviously. I know there's a lot of Florida graduates out there, so I apologize. But anytime you have a kid at Samford that has production verses a big program, it draws your attention, right? … And I said, 'This kid has talent.'”
Washington arrives with the most expectations as a returner since Isaiah McKenzie in the 2017 draft. McKenzie lasted just 12 games with the Broncos after seven fumbles overall.
Washington was a significant part of Paton's special teams theme as the draft moved through Days 2 and 3. Fellow fifth-round pick, safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, as well as cornerback Faion Hicks, a seventh-round pick, were selected with special teams duties at the top of their rookie to-do list.
All Washington wants is to be part of a solution with his natural return skills.
"I don't know, I can't really describe it, I would say it's just like backyard football," Washington said. "As kids, you throw the football in the air, and you catch it, and all your friends try to get you. That's kind of how punt return is for me when I'm back there. I feel like it's a game and I'm in the backyard. I just have to go score."