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Broncos made waiver claim with return job in mind

5/14/2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The draft is in the rear-view mirror and the Denver Broncos' work in free agency is largely finished. Still, the team made a waiver claim this week to address a rather significant opening on the depth chart at punt returner.

The Broncos grabbed receiver Solomon Patton among a collection of roster moves that put them at their 90-player limit. Patton, who measured in at 5-foot-8 3/4-inches and 179 pounds before the 2014 draft, is an undersized player when it comes to offense.

But he has potential -- and 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash -- as a rotational player as a slot receiver. For the Broncos' purposes, his potential as a returner will be what makes him a player to keep an eye on this offseason. Patton had a short stint on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad last season, but he started and finished the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Patton signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted rookie last year. He averaged 11.2 yards on 10 punt returns to go with 23.1 yards on 18 kickoff returns in six games with the team. He had been waived in October by the Buccaneers and re-signed in December. He had 19 yards on his one rushing attempt.

But overall if the Broncos had one glaring roster hole when they exited the early rush of free agency and the draft, it was at punt returner. They need one who can do a little more than fair-catch the ball and simply put it down to start the next drive.

They need to win the hidden-yard game more often, flip the field with a well-timed return to get themselves out of trouble. The Broncos would also prefer not to use a starter like wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for the job, but they also don't want a specialist. They'd like a player who can at least contribute some on offense or defense to do it.

This is how executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it: "I think the ideal situation is a guy that can be a core special-teams guy and can also play offensively or defensively as well as being a returner. That is the ideal situation. To just have a roster spot that is eaten up by a returner is a little bit tough, even though we've done that the last couple of years. We'd rather have it the other way."

But the Broncos would rather have some impact as well. They see safety/cornerback Omar Bolden has a viable option as a kickoff returner, and Patton will now get a look as well.

The Broncos have lacked any changing pop at punt returner since they moved on from the explosive yet bobble-prone Trindon Holliday before the 2014 season. For example, in games the Broncos had at least one punt return (non-touchback, fair catch or punt out of bounds), they had fewer than 10 yards six times, including the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

They finished tied for 20th in the NFL at 7.2 yards per punt return and were one of just four teams in the league that didn't have a punt return longer than 22 yards for the season (Indianapolis, Chicago and Houston were the others).

Patton played in 43 games at the University of Florida, with eight starts. As a senior in 2013, he set a school record at 29.2 yards per kickoff return and led the Gators in receiving yards as well (556).

Scouts questioned his durability before last year's draft. He did miss practice time with a foot injury last year and missed part of his junior season at Florida with a fractured arm. But Patton will have an opportunity to carve out a roster spot with the Broncos if he can show he would be able to at least contribute on offense for a smattering of snaps, because he might already be the most accomplished punt returner on the roster.