Midweek Musings: What’s Up With Special Teams?

Good afternoon, Bronco fans! As we’ll recall, last Sunday night was a long night and I imagine most everyone was left drained after that game, and would have felt that way even if the Broncos had won. But that brings me to the biggest reason the Broncos lost: Special teams.

If you look at Pro Football Reference’s season summary for the Broncos thus far, in last Sunday’s game, the Denver special team had an expected points of -18.09, the worst it’s been this season. When you look at Football Outsiders DVOA, the Broncos rank 22nd in special teams this season. Now, it’s easy to throw Joe DeCamillis under the bus for that, but I think laying the blame on him is over-simplifying matters. The Broncos ranked 14th in special teams DVOA last year, so it’s not something that can be attributed to coaching alone.

The big issue with special teams is personnel and, while there are some obvious areas to point out, others are not as obvious. I wanted to look at those areas, starting with those that may be less obvious to most of you, given the areas we tend to focus on.

First, David Bruton Jr. is no longer with the Broncos. We all remember how important he has been to special teams in the past. I don’t think the Broncos had a chance to retain him, though, because he wanted a chance to start and that wasn’t going to happen when T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart were in front of him. He got that chance to start with Washington, for which he started four games before being placed on injured reserve after a severe concussion.

Now, Kayvon Webster has done well on special teams this year, but he’s missed a couple of games with injuries and that hasn’t helped. But it’s more than just the departure of Bruton and the absence of Webster for a couple of games that have affected special teams.

Todd Davis hasn’t taken as many special teams snaps as he did last year, now that he has moved into the starting lineup on defense. And while he’s gotten better as a defensive starter, when you have somebody who excels at special teams move into the starting lineup, that player takes fewer special teams snaps and you have to find others who can step up.

Take a look at some of the players who have had to take special teams snaps this year. You have players ranging from rookies (Justin Simmons, Will Parks) to those who didn’t take a regular-season snap last year (Dekoda Watson, Zaire Anderson, Kapri Bibbs, Jordan Taylor). These players are all new to special teams this year and they are having to replace more experienced players.

I think that lack of experience has contributed a lot to some of the coverage issues the Broncos have had. Naturally, you would expect the unit to trend upward, but that it regressed so much in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs is concerning.

It hasn’t helped that the Broncos have been unable to find a reliable return man. Jordan Norwood has had his moments but he’s inconsistent. His biggest issue is he’s sometimes too eager to go for a quick return and that has led to him misplaying the ball. That’s cost the Broncos either field position or possession of the ball.

Then we had Cody Latimer, who the Broncos have hoped could contribute as a return man, but he failed to impress. What’s troubling about Latimer is that it looks like there was a legitimate reason for him being inactive so many games as a rookie: He’s not a good fit for special teams. His future appears to be strictly as a receiver, but at this point, it doesn’t look like that will be with the Broncos. Kapri Bibbs has had his issues with the return game, too, though he at least has a shot to be with the team at least next year because he’s done a few good things in the run game.

The problem, though, is that there’s no easy answer to finding a return man. It’s easy to say you should go out and sign a veteran who specializes in the return game, but you have to consider how much you are willing to pay, particularly if that player contributes at another position and isn’t simply a reserve player. Many of the better return men can contribute as a No. 3 receiver, and in some cases, as a No. 2. Given that the Broncos are set with their top two receivers for the next season or two, that means they have to be careful not to overpay for a good return man who is going to be the No. 3 receiver at best.

One other issue is that Riley Dixon is still developing as a punter. I don’t blame the Broncos for going with the younger player, because they were going to move on from Britton Colquitt at some point, so better to have done it earlier this season when they saw that Dixon could handle the job. The fact that Dixon had a couple of good punts that were negated by penalties is frustrating, but at least we know that Dixon is showing he can handle the job well.

So what to do in the meantime? For this season, the Broncos will have to make do with the players they have. In the offseason, though, they should be prepared during the second and third waves of free agency to look for veterans who can help on special teams and in the return game. I say the second and third waves because the first wave is when there’s a greater tendency by some teams to throw money at the best available players and the Broncos shouldn’t overpay for anyone to play special teams.

I also think it makes sense for the Broncos to extend Kayvon Webster so they have a veteran who can lead the way on that unit. There’s no other pending free agent who plays special teams that I’d go out of my way to extend, but if any are still free agents in the third wave, it makes sense to bring a couple back.

But there will need to be plenty of work done during the offseason with the younger players who remain under contract with the Broncos and contribute to special teams. The Broncos need to find those players who can eventually provide the veteran leadership the unit will need, because the Broncos can’t simply rely on signing free agents.

I do hope that Sunday’s game served as a good reminder to everyone about the importance of special teams. It’s the unit most people don’t think much about until its struggles become obvious. Yet as we saw Sunday, performance on special teams can often be the difference between a win or a loss.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.