A look at possible special teams contributors for the Broncos

In light of the moves today (particularly the Bibbs over Hillman move), I thought I’d take a stab at projecting who the Broncos special teams contributors might be this year.  I’ve never coached or played organized 11-11 football, so I’m probably not the most qualified to look into this niche topic.  But I’m armed with special teams snap counts from Pro Football Reference and going to give it a shot.

Projecting the Broncos game day active roster

Every week, teams are required to declare 7 of their 53 man roster ineligible for that weeks game.  This is to help prevent one team from having a disadvantage if their team is banged up.  I thought I’d take a stab at who might be inactive each week (assuming everyone is healthy) and which of the active players might play on STs.

Inactives ST contributors Non-ST contributors
Austin Davis Kapri Bibbs Trevor Siemian
Jordan Taylor Bennie Fowler Paxton Lynch
Connor McGovern Cody Latimer CJ Anderson
Billy Winn Jordan Norwood Devontae Booker
Dekoda Watson Virgil Green DT
Lorenzo Doss John Phillips Sanders
Jeff Heuerman Okung
Michael Schofield Donald Stephenson
Darrion Weems Max Garcia
James Frentz Matt Paradis
Darius Kilgo Ty Sambrailo
Kyle Peko Sly Williams
Jared Crick Derek Wolfe
Adam Gotsis Von Miller
Shaq Barrett Demarcus Ware
Todd Davis Shane Ray
Zaire Anderson Brandon Marshall
Corey Nelson TJ Ward
Justin Simmons Darian Stewart
Will Parks Chriss Harris Jr
Kayvon Webster Aquib Talib
Andy Janovich
Casey Kreiter
Riley Dixon
Brandon McManus

A few notes:

  • I didn’t spend much time thinking about which lineman would or wouldn’t play special teams.  The positions they usually play on FG formations doesn’t take much, and there is relatively low chance of injury.  Pot Roast used to do this despite being a star of the team, and Malik Jackson did it some last year.
  • I assume Devontae Booker won’t play much special teams as the #2 RB.  Did anyone watch the preseason closely enough to confirm or deny this?
  • I was unsure if the Broncos will roll with 3 TEs on gamedays.  Part of that might depend on special teams (read on)
  • I went with 8 active O-lineman. 7 just seemed to risky, especially if they continue to run the occasional tackle eligible plays with 6 lineman on the field.
  • Brandon Marshall played a limited amount of Special Teams last year, and I would assume they’ll want to limit that now with the role he fills and the large contract he received.
  • Most of the other defensive starters I listed as “Non-ST Contributors” did play a few ST snaps here and there, but I imagine they want to limit that.

Looking at “athletic” Special Teamers

Like I said, there’s usually plenty of guys on the active roster to fill the role of lineman.  I wanted to look more in depth at the athletic guys who could play in the kickoff and punt formations.  This analysis is a bit simplified, but I don’t know enough (or have the time) to go more in depth and look who might fill out every spot on the 6 ST formations.

On kickoff coverage you need 10 “athletic” guys.  Kickoff returns probably requires 9-10″athletic” guys, plus 1-2 returners, although you may be more able to use a guy who is a little bigger and slower but an able blocker (possibly Gotsis).  Punt return and punt coverage are probably similar, but probably go with a few more of the “bigger athletic” guys.

Here’s a breakdown of who I think might fill these roles.

I left off returner Jordan Norwood, and Long Snapper Casey Krieter.  I had originally thought Krieter might be able to help on kickoff coverage, but looking back at Brewers snap counts for the last two years, he was on the field the same number of times as Colquitt, meaning he never played in formations other than Punt or FG/XP.  I am guessing coaches don’t want to subject the player to additional injury risk.

Defenders TE/FBs WRs/RBs
Shaq Barrett Virgil Green Kapri Bibbs
Zarie Anderson Jeff Heuerman Bennie Fowler
Todd Davis John Phillips Cody Latimer
Corey Nelson Andy Janovich
Justin Simmons
Will Parks
Kayvon Webster
Inactives Inactives
Dekoda Watson Jordan Taylor
Lorenzo Doss

I’ve listed a total of 14 active guys here, plus 3 in-actives.  However, I have concerns about the 4 guys listed in red.

  • Todd Davis: It would be nice if Davis wasn’t needed to be a strong special teams contributor, to reduce a starting defenders injury risk, and allow him to focus his time and energy on his defensive duties.
  • Cody Latimer: Not sure if he will emerge as enough of a WR threat to warrant a reduced role on special teams.  Additionally, Latimer seems fairly small for some of the coverage roles.
  • Jeff Heuerman: Seems to be made of glass, and is a bit slower to play on some coverage units (ran a 4.8 40 in college)
  • John Phillips: Is on the older side at 29, but I was surprised to see he played 317 ST snaps last year for SD, which was highest on their team.  His ability to play ST may make it a lot easier for the Broncos to keep 3 TEs active on game days.

A few thoughts on some other guys:

  • Virgil Green was a big ST contributor last year.  I expect that to be the same, but if he has the breakout year on the offensive side some expect, they may want to dial back his ST duties.  I suppose this could also be the case with Heuerman if he has a breakout year
  • Shaq Barrett was second on the team last year in ST snaps. I expect that to continue despite the fact that he may play a bigger role on Defense to try and keep Ware fresh
  • I expect Andy Janovich to be a ST ace.  I could see him playing the crucial punt protector position with Bruton gone.
  • I’m not sure who will backup Norwood for returner duties? Bibbs? Sanders? Cody Latimer? Some combination?

Conclusions, and how I feel about Hillman now

After going through this analysis, I’m not sure how to feel about whether the move to keep Bibbs over Hillman was a necessity from a STs perspective.  With Bibbs, the Broncos have about 14 active and “athletic” guys to play special teams, give or take a few, along with a few more inactive guys waiting in the wings.  Starting defenders could always fill in, in a pinch.

On the one hand, this seems like enough, and you have several inactive guys waiting in the wings.  On the other hand, you want to be able to keep your options open.  There are 4 different formations (Punt Coverage, Punt Return, Kickoff Coverage, Kickoff return) that all require numerous “athletic guys” of different abilities.  Additionally you want to have options so you can roll with the punches as injuries occur. If Bennie Fowler goes down, hopefully you don’t have to concern yourself with do I activate Jordan Taylor to fill his role on offense, or Lorenzo Doss who may be better suited to fill his ST duties.  Finally, special teams are important, and just because a guy I listed here could play STs, that doesn’t mean he should.  As I said before, good to have options, and be able to put out quality units rather than having your hand forced with whatever’s leftover on the roster.

I’m still upset Hillman didn’t make this team, as I had always liked the guy and thought he took an unjustified amount of criticism and ridicule from fans.  I thought he could have played very well this year as the RB3 in a change of pace role.  I also thought he provided great insurance in case Bibbs or Booker (who each have 0 NFL carries) struggle, become injured, or develop a fumbling problem like young RBs sometimes do.  This analysis has lessened my stance somewhat, but not enough for me to fully change my opinion.

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Lifelong Broncos fan and current Engineer living and working in Denver.