The Denver Broncos special teams unit will probably generate the most competition in this training camp. It is through this unit that many players make their entrance into the NFL. Players exhibiting the flexibility to play a position and contribute on special teams are a good bet to make the 53-man roster.
There are only two positions taken at this time. They are place kicker, Matt Prater and the punter, Britton Colquitt. Trindon Holliday, last year’s kick return specialist, had a shaky season that was marred by ball security issues, and is now playing for the New York Giants.
In Matt Prater the Broncos have one of the very best field goal kickers in the game. In Denver’s high altitude he kicks 50 plus yard field goals with regularity. Last year he set an all-time NFL record with a 64-yard effort and was voted to the Pro Bowl. With Prater signed through the 2016 season and considered by many to be the best kicker in the league, it was surprising when the team signed Mitch Ewald, a rookie out of Indiana. While extremely talented, Ewald is not projected to make the team and is seen as nothing more than providing Prater with some competition. Should Prater get hurt, however, Denver will have a solid backup.
Colquitt is also signed through the 2016 season and is unchallenged. He is one of the better punters in the league. With Colquitt and Prater the Broncos have a solid kicking game that should perform very well this season.
Special teams will, however, have a markedly different look in 2014. Trindon Holliday’s departure has created a free-for-all competition for the kickoff return and punt return duties. It is here that many young rookies earn their keep and make the team. Special teams normally feature the faces of those unknown players who play a supporting role to the bigger stars.
Some of the early favorites for kick return duties include Isaiah Burse, Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Caldwell and Ronnie Hillman. Burse is the early favorite because he handled kick return duties at Fresno State. Sanders has returned kicks while playing with the Steelers, but as a projected starter at wide receiver the team may choose to go another route. Caldwell and Wes Welker returned a few kicks last season when Holliday began to struggle. Ronnie Hillman, the out-of-favor running back, has explosive speed and agility. His failure to hold onto the ball has severely curtailed his ability to make this team as a running back. Special teams may be his last opportunity.
Aaron Brewer was signed two years ago as a long snapper and has performed flawlessly. His specialty is highly desired in the NFL and long snappers often reap the rewards of minimal competition and playing longevity.
With 90-plus players in camp, only 53 will make the final roster. Special teams have become the means for many fringe players to make the cut. With the exception of kickers and kick return specialists, it offers an unsung notoriety that often fails to raise eyebrows. Yet special teams is one of the three phases of football that could make the difference between a winning and losing season.
The 2014 version of the Denver Broncos special teams unit hopes to be much improved. With the exception of the kicker, it played below expectations last season and, with new influx of personnel, hopes to dramatically upgrade its performance this year.
Commentary By Hans Benes