For the average fan, special teams are an often-overlooked aspect in football. The unit gets critiqued over a long punt or kick returned for a score. At the same time, no one bats an eye when they force a fair catch, or keep a kick returner from getting past their own 25-yard line.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1681565-5-reasons-you-should-go-p... The Denver Broncos haven’t been immune to this kind of thinking. While they have had some personnel struggles when it comes to players handling kicks, this was a unit that had a quality year overall.
However, what gets remembered more is the Kansas City loss in Denver, where Chiefs Pro Bowl returned Tyreek Hill took a free kick back for a score and was a shoe string tackle away from taking a punt back as well. It was also the game where a national audience was privy to the collapse of Jordan Norwood and his shakiness handling the ball.
You can’t put that game in a vacuum but it didn’t do justice to the kind of year Denver's special teams had. From the emergence of a rookie punter to continued success of gunners like Kayvon Webster and Cody Latimer, there was far more good than bad for the Denver special teams unit. Like anything, the bad was simply more noticeable.
Most Valuable Player: Riley Dixon, Punter
It was a surprise to a few when the selection of Riley Dixon was made in the seventh round during this past year’s NFL Draft. With incumbent punter Britton Colquitt being revitalized during the playoff run, there was a presumption that the rookie was merely training camp competition for the veteran. But Dixon had other plans and out-punted Colquitt to take the job coming out of camp.
Dixon had an historical season as far as first-year punters go. For starters, Dixon averaged 41.3 net yards per punt for the year, the best for a rookie or first-year kicker in NFL history.
Despite playing at altitude for half of his games, Dixon was just as effective on the road with his 40.2 net average, which ranks him third all-time for a first-year starter. With the Denver offense giving him plenty of work this year, Dixon did little to disappoint and ranked on par with AFC West counterparts Marquette King and Dustin Colquitt in net average.
Not known for having a big leg coming out of Syracuse, Dixon disproved that shortcoming and consistently gave his coverage team ample time to cover punts, as seen by his average return yards allowed standing at a sparkling 6.78 per attempt.
Dixon also completed a crucial fourth down conversion this year, but because of Dixon's accurate punting this year, an underrated coverage unit fell under the radar.
Honorable Mentions: Kicker Brandon McManus, Gunner Kayvon Webster, Dekoda Watson
Biggest Disappointment: Jordan Norwood, Punt Returner
Jordan Norwood came in this season on the heels of a record breaking return in Super Bowl 50, signing a one-year deal to come back to Denver. Returning from a season-ending knee injury the year before, Norwood looked poised to build on that momentum and settle the punt returner spot.
Surprisingly, Norwood suffered from a notable lack of confidence. Making even a routine fair catch a nerve-wracking moment, the veteran wideout had a year-long struggle that plateaued in the loss to the Chiefs in November. Fumbling two punts that night and factoring into the Broncos falling behind early, Norwood would bow out quietly to undrafted rookie Kalif Raymond late in the year.
For the season, Norwood failed to make an impact and averaged only 8.2 yards per return, a number bested by Raymond with less than half of the attempts. With the rookie showing so much promise at that spot and other players capable of stepping in for him in the offense, Norwood’s future in Denver looks murky at best.
Honorable Mentions: Kapri Bibbs, Cody Latimer
Player on the Rise: Kalif Raymond, Returner
The Broncos haven’t had a true game-breaker in the return game since Trindon Holliday. While not on level with Holliday in terms of pure speed, Raymond may be just what the Broncos are looking for long-term at the position.
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With his late promotion in the year to take over for the aforementioned Norwood, Raymond looked the much better of the two in limited action. In just 11 returns, Raymond only took nine fair catches to Norwood’s 15 and bested his yards per attempt by 2 yards to the tune of 10.1. Having a long of 25 yards, Raymond looked like the type of player a struggling offense needs to shorten field.
As with all rookies, Raymond too often tried to break games open and took unnecessary chances in fielding punts inside of his five-yard line, a cardinal sin in the return game. His tiny frame will be a factor going forward and led to his own fumble in the loss to Kansas City Christmas day. Still, if Raymond can manage to smooth out some of his rough spots next year and improve his route running as a receiver, it’ll be hard nt to foresee him being a contributor in the return game next year.
Honorable Mention: Cody Latimer
There is nothing more exciting in football than to see a returner field a kick, then dart and weave his way for a score. Conversely, dull coverages and forced touchbacks don’t bring that same high but are a necessary, if unsexy part of the game.
The 2016 Denver Broncos may not be remembered as having a Devin Hester-like player, but save for one game, the special teams were a big reason the Broncos were able to hang around in games longer than they should have. A commitment to improving the offense next year will only make the Denver's special teams better for it.
Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.
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