Saturday, February 22, 2014
Broncos roster breakdown: Special teams
By Jeff Legwold
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine now underway and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the ninth, and final, installment of a series looking at where the Denver Broncos stand at each position group on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.
Over the past two years, Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway has shown his commitment to fill special teams when it comes to how the Broncos' roster has been assembled.
The Broncos are sitting pretty with a consistent kicker in Matt Prater, who still has a couple more years left on his contract with Denver.
Kicker Matt Prater signed a four-year, $13 million deal before the 2012 season while punter Britton Colquitt signed a three-year, $11.677 million deal last summer. That’s plenty of investment in the third phase.
Prater had his best careeer season in 2013 as he led the league in touchbacks on kickoffs -- an NFL single-season record of 81 -- and was 25-of-26 on field goal attempts in the Broncos' 13-3 finish. With his 75-of-75 performance on extra points, he also set a Broncos’ single-season scoring record with 150 points.
As the Broncos went about the business of setting several scoring and passing marks this past season, Colquitt wasn’t all that busy. His 65 punts were 30 fewer than Jacksonville Bryan Anger’s league-leading 95 punts.
Colquitt’s 44.2 gross yards per punt were 24th in the league.
The Alpha: Overall, special teams captain David Bruton sets the tempo of things, just as linebacker Wesley Woodyard did when he filled the role earlier in his career. But Prater’s success rate -- 82.9 percent overall as Broncos’ kicker, 94 percent from 50 yards or more -- makes him the centerpiece of the units right now.
Salary cap: Prater checks in at $3.813 million for 2014, the ninth-highest cap figure on the team right now, while Colquitt has a $3.25 million cap figure, currently 11th-highest on the team for '14. Long snapper Aaron Brewer, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012, is at $571,334.
Pending free agents: Prater and Colquitt are locked up long term while Brewer has one more year remaining on his contract. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who was the leading tackler on special teams this season, has another year on his deal as well, while Bruton has two more years on his deal. Broncos returner Trindon Holliday, who had plenty of peaks and valleys this past season with two touchdown returns in the first month to go with some troubles hanging on to the ball down the stretch, is an exclusive rights free agent. He can only negotiate with the Broncos if the team waives him.
Who could stay: The kickers and Brewer are in place, which puts the Broncos in a good situation there.
Who could go: The changes could come across the coverage units that were affected by all of the team’s injuries this past season -- "backups were starters and the double backups were out there (on special teams)," as head coach John Fox put it.
The Broncos will always look at some returners as well in the draft.
What they like/want: When they missed five tackles on Percy Harvin’s 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half of the Super Bowl loss, it showed the Broncos have the need for more speed, sideline to sideline, in the kicking game.
After a dominant year on special teams in 2012, they struggled at times this past season, having surrendered a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 94-yard kickoff return, a 51-yard punt return, to go with the first blocked punt of Colquitt's career in the season's second half.
The Chargers also recovered an on-side kick in the Broncos' divisional round win in January to go with Harvin's touchdown in the title game. So, these groups need attention and the Broncos need more athleticism.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 2
When all is said and done, the Broncos will need some multi-taskers among their draft class -- players who project to play somewhere on the offensive and defensive depth charts who will also fill some of the speed void.
The best draft-built teams feature young legs on special teams and the Broncos likely leaned a little too hard on their veteran players this time around.