When Broncos head coach Vance Joseph announced earlier this week that one of his rookie wide receivers had earned a starting spot, it wasn’t as a wide receiver, and it wasn’t to the higher of the two draft picks.
Isaiah McKenzie took control of the punt return duties during camp.
“I trust him to be our guy Week 1 against the Chargers. He’s the punt returner. That’s why he was drafted. He’s the first guy out,” Joseph said.
He’ll be the first guy out on punt return, but McKenzie, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia, wasn’t even the first wide receiver / returner Denver selected in the 2017 draft.
That honor went to third-round pick Carlos Henderson out of Louisiana Tech.
At 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, Henderson has more of a kick returner’s build, while the 5-foot-7, 173-pound McKenzie is tailor-made for punt returns. Both are competing for reps at wide receiver, though, where there is a deep pool of talented players both young and old.
However, Henderson doesn’t see any kind of rivalry budding between himself and he draft mate, McKenzie.
“Nah, me and Isaiah [McKenzie] are good friends. Like brothers,” Henderson told Eric Goodman and Les Shaprio of Mile High Sports AM 1340 | FM 104.7. “We push each other hard every day to become better, because one day we’re gonna’ be playing with each other. So, I push him, he pushes me to better players, understand our playbooks and just do whatever we can to help this team win. So we both push each other at the highest point to be the best we can be.”
McKenzie will be getting the first-team reps at punt return on Thursday night in the preseason opener (and the foreseeable future), while Henderson will be battling an established veteran in Cody Latimer on kickoff returns. The reps at wide receiver, are still to be determined, says Henderson.
“I’m going to get some kicks at returner. I was told by the special teams coach, I know. I’ll play receiver some. I don’t know how many reps I’m going to get, when [they’re] going to put me in, but I’m going to start trying to get some reps at both of those spots,” Henderson said.
The rookie isn’t getting to far ahead of himself, worrying about his place on the depth chart.
“I don’t know yet [if I’m the No. 3 receiver]. That’s up to the coaches,” he told Goodman and Shapiro. “I don’t make those calls. I don’t make those decisions. I’m just here to do the best stuff I can do to help get in a good position to help the team win. Those things, and those decisions, will be up to the coach.”
Despite being drafted for his speed, Henderson didn’t bust right out of the gates like McKenzie did during training camp. He attributes that to adjusting to the altitude in the Mile High City.
“I could have done things a little better [coming into camp], to be in better shape because of the altitude and other things out here,” he said.
He’s come on stronger of late, however, looking and feeling better as training camp has progressed. With each passing week, Henderson says he’s feeling better about his conditioning.
“I didn’t expect the altitude to be that bad, but I’m getting used to it,” the New Orleans native said. “I’m getting in better football shape. Running hard every day. So I’m getting better and better as the weeks go on.”
Now, Henderson is fully focused on his first NFL game.
“It feels good to finally do something you dreamed about – playing in the stadium in front of all them people. I’m just ready to go out there and perform to my best ability to help the team get the first win of the season. I’m just excited. I’m just ready to go.”
Listen to the full interview with Carlos Henderson, including how he’s been absorbing the playbook, in the podcast below.
Catch Afternoon Drive with Goodman and Shapiro every weekday from 4p-6p on Mile High Sports AM 1340 | FM 104.7 or stream live any time for the best local coverage of Colorado sports from Denver’s biggest sports talk lineup.