Broncos need to be more special in the return game

John Elway has some work to do to improve the Broncos' special teams next season. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- "Special" may not be the word to describe the Denver Broncos’ kicking game in 2016, which included adventures in everything from field goals to punts to the coverage on returners.

In fact, "extreme" may be more accurate because the special teams ranged really good to really strange, like when cornerback Aqib Talib shoved his teammate, punt returner Jordan Norwood, following a muffed punt.

At its best, there was the "leaper," which was when Justin Simmons blocked an extra point in New Orleans, and the Broncos returned it for two points and the win in the closing seconds. At the other end, there were the repeated bobbles in the return game as Norwood tied for the team lead in lost fumbles with three.

Or as the now departed special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis put it: “We did things that were really good, and we did some things we wished would have gone another way. That’s always the challenge.’’

DeCamillis has moved on to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and newly-hired Broncos coach Vance Joseph has interviewed several candidates to coach special teams. However, he hasn’t made a decision on who that next hire will be. But in the free-agency era, those units usually see the most turnover, and the Broncos will be no exception.

This is the eighth in our position-by-position series about what kind of roster Joseph has on his arrival.

Today: Special teams

The Alpha: Cornerback Kayvon Webster proved to be a front-line special-teams-player-in-waiting during the playoff run in 2015. He was elected special teams captain in 2016, and that was a sign of Webster’s standing among his teammates on those units. But it was also a signal that the Broncos were in a time of transition, given that long-time special teams captain David Bruton Jr. had not re-signed last offseason. Bruton had an important presence in the Broncos’ locker room and was the longest-tenured Broncos player in 2015. His departure put a lot on Webster’s plate. Webster battled injury for most of this past season -- he finished the season on injured reserve -- and never quite found the groove he had to close out '15. His own future is a question mark, as he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent with a new special teams coach on the way.

Salary cap: Punter Riley Dixon, who will count $560,000 against the salary cap in the second year of his rookie contract, is the only special-teams player who is under contract for next season.

Pending free agents: In addition to Webster, the other name that immediately sticks out on the list is kicker Brandon McManus. McManus, who was 29-of-34 in field-goal attempts this past season with three made kicks of more than 50 yards, is a restricted free agent. He could receive offers from other teams, and the Broncos would have a chance to match. He showed he has the late-game chops after going 10-for-10 in the postseason run to the Super Bowl in 2015. Long-snapper Casey Kreiter, who finished the year on injured reserve, is an exclusive rights free agent. The Broncos are expected to tender him an offer, and if they follow through with that, Kreiter would not be able to negotiate with another team. Also, the Broncos’ leader in special-teams tackles -- linebacker Dekoda Watson -- is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

What will John Elway do? In his previous six seasons as the Broncos' top decision-maker, Elway has not used a draft pick on a player who was essentially a return specialist. It’s not how he's wanted to allocate resources in the past, but times change, and the Broncos could have as many 10 picks in 2017 if they get their expected haul of four compensatory picks. That would include two selections that might be in the third round to go along with a fourth-rounder if the league follows projections. There is also the matter of the Broncos’ inability to make much happen in the return game this past season. Norwood lost three fumbles on the season and muffed several more punts. Also the Broncos’ longest punt return of the season by a player with enough attempts to be among the league rankings for the season was 17 yards -- by Norwood in Week 3. Every other team in the league had a punt return longer than that in 2016. Granted, for two teams -- Tennessee and Cleveland -- the longest punt return was 18 yards, but the fact remains the Broncos repeatedly suffered with their field position because they couldn't advance the ball in the return game.