2021 Debrief: Just how bad was the Broncos special teams unit?

Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus (8) attempts a field goal against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High.
Jan 3, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus (8) attempts a field goal against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Just how bad was Denver’s special teams unit? In short; very.

The Denver Broncos’ special teams unit has been one of the worst in the NFL over the past three seasons. According to Rick Gosselin’s rankings, they finished as the 27th ranked core for the 2021 season.

With the firing of former head coach Vic Fangio, so went his special teams’ coordinator, Tom McMahon. However, since the Las Vegas Raiders decided to hire him as their new STC, McMahon will continue to be a friendly face for Denver.

Former Los Angeles Rams assistant special teams coach Dwayne Stukes was recently named his replacement.  

Here’s a deep dive into the underwhelming Broncos special teams unit and see what their role with the team looks like moving forward in this edition of our 2021 Broncos Debrief.

Brandon McManus – Kicker

As the last remaining member of the Broncos 2016 Super Bowl team, McManus continues to be a steady and reliable source for Denver.  

Denver averaged only 3.1 red zone trips per game, managing to score a touchdown only 54.72% of the time, turning to McManus on almost half those trips.

He finished the season 26/31 on field goals, including a career-best 61-yarder. Four of his misses came from beyond 50 yards, while the other was blocked. He was 33/34 on extra points. 

It’s no secret that McManus has had his issues with both Fangio and McMahon, not just from the outbursts on the field but even from his posts on social media.

A kicker’s production is somewhat at the mercy of the team’s offensive production. McManus has proven to be dependable when given the opportunity. If the Broncos can find the answer to their quarterback problem, and thus improve their offensive output, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t be among the top kickers next season.

Sam Martin – Punter

A punter’s job rarely lands them any praise but can set them up for blame. However, because the Broncos’ offense struggled so much this season, Martin was able to get a lot of quality work in and managed to avoid disaster the entire season. 

He had the ninth-most punts in the NFL with 67. Denver was fourth-best in net punting average at 42.8 yards. 

Going into the 2022 season, Martin is entering the final year of his contract. Denver could save $2.25 million if he’s released while only being hit with $483,334 in dead cap. It’s yet to be seen if George Paton believes his output with that contract is worth keeping over a cheaper option.  

Jacob Bobenmoyer – Long Snapper

Even the biggest Broncos fans might have no idea who their long snapper was all season.  

Bobenmoyer showed up, did his job, and never let the team down. He even garnered four combined tackles on the season.

There’s not one moment anyone can point to criticize him for this season. When it comes to that position, Bobenmoyer did it perfectly, and Broncos Country should expect that play to carry over into 2022.

Diontae Spencer – KR/PR

It said a lot about the state of the Broncos’ special teams unit that Spencer remained their leading returner, despite diminishing returns.

He totaled 26 punt returns for 206 yards and 17 kickoff returns for 291 yards, in 2021, and only averaged 7.9 yards per return (y/r) on punts and 17.1 y/r on kickoffs. Last season he finished with 15.8 and 18.7 y/r, respectively.

It was an unfortunate production drop for Spencer, who was previously named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 14 of the 2020 season for an 83-yard return touchdown.

Spencer enters the 2022 offseason as a restricted free agent. With the team wanting an explosive element on special teams, and with only four of Spencer’s 17 kick returns going for at least 20 yards, it’s hard to see a scenario in which they bring him back.

PJ Locke – S

Locke led the Broncos in special teams snaps with 320, and made five tackles on special teams on the season (also tied for the team lead).  

Similar to Spencer, this is one of those cases where being the “best” doesn’t translate into much success. In fact, five total tackles didn’t even land him among the top 100 special teamers in the league.

The lack of a dominant force in their special teams coverage shouldn’t come as news to those in Broncos Country.

Despite this, Locke — who was previously undrafted and had to fight his way off of the practice squad — has carved out a nice niche for himself on special teams and on the practice squad. 

Like Spencer, he enters 2022 as a free agent. Between the two, it seems much more likely that Locke would be the one to get re-signed. As a relatively cheap option with some seasoned experience, he’s one to keep an eye on this offseason. 

Synopsis

The good news is there shouldn’t be any worry than next season’s special teams will be worse. It’s virtually impossible.

In Fangio’s three seasons as a head coach, the Broncos allowed five touchdown returns off kickoffs and punts, leading the league in that period. 

Last season they finished dead last in kickoff return, kickoff coverage, and opponent punting, with the only real highlight being that they had the second-most blocked kicks with three.

Their new special teams coordinator, Stukes, comes from an organization that allowed the fewest punt-return yards (60) to opponents and averaged 11.3 punt yards which helped play a part in the Rams Super Bowl run. There are reasons for Broncos Country to feel hopeful about their special teams’ future.  

2021 Overall Position Group Grade: D-

SHARE