The Denver Broncos leaned heavily on a rookie to contribute on special teams in 2016. There’s a good chance they’ll lean on a few rookies in the same way this season.

In 2016, rookie punter Riley Dixon averaged 41.3 yards per punt – the highest net average by a rookie in the history of the NFL. That’s a very good thing, because he was a busy man last season. On average, Denver punted the ball away 5.6 times per game, the fourth-most in the league last season. Their 2.1 field goal attempts per game ranked 10th. In short, special teams played a big role in this team going 9-7. Were it not for the consistent right feet of Dixon and Brandon McManus, that record might have been different.

John Elway clearly recognized the importance special teams played last year (and over the past several years, really), and made a concerted effort in this year’s draft to target players who can contribute on special teams. With stalwarts Dixon and McManus there to boot the ball, Elway targeted players who will be asked to contribute in the return and coverage game.

Wide receivers Carlos Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie will not only compete for the No. 3 receiver position, they have legitimate shots to claim punt and kick return roles. The same will be true for running back De’Angelo Henderson. Defensively, cornerback Brendan Langley looks like the hand-picked replacement for Kayvon Webster as the gunner.

Denver’s punt return average in 2016 was middle of the road, ranking 15th in the league at 8.5 yards per return. Kickoff returns were slightly better at 22.9 yards per game and ranked No. 11. Still, Elway saw how dangerous speedy, versatile runners can be (thank you Atlanta and Kansas City), and went out and found players of that ilk in the draft.

On Wednesday, new special teams coordinator Brock Olivo met with the media and offered his insight on what he’s seen from the bunch so far.

He was effusive in his praise of Carlos Henderson as a returner.

“Love that guy. He’s got juice and he’s a linear speed guy, whereas [WR] Isaiah [McKenzie] is sort of a shifty guy, a C.O.D. (change of direction) guy. Carlos is your downhill, run behind your pads, run through smoke – as we say for kickoff returners. He’s got courage. That’s the type of kid we like as a kick returner. So, very, very excited about Carlos, as well. He runs angry with the ball in his hands, and we love that.”

Olivo also sees Carlos as a possible fit on the coverage unit.

“And he’s a kid who we think we can line up at gunner, too, on punt and probably outside and jam gunners. He’s got a lot of qualities. He’s got a high ceiling, to put it that way. We’re fired up about him.”

He’s equally fired up about McKenzie, saying, “Isaiah so far is as advertised. He’s had an auspicious start. He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s got great hands. He seems to be smart, has a good football acumen. So we’re fired up about him so far.”

Olivo isn’t ruling out a returning Bronco as a possible return man, however. With Jordan Norwood on to free agency, Kalif Raymond brings some limited NFL experience to the competition. He returned 11 kicks in four games last season for an average of 10.1 yards per kick.

“Kalif has a lot of talent,” Olivo said of the undrafted speedster from Holy Cross, “and in the few games he played in last year, we evaluated that and he’s a guy that’s right in the mix as far as returners.”

So, what is the new man in charge of the third phase looking for in determining his returners? Olivo went on at length to describe what he wants from both his punt and kick returners.

“A punt returner – Number one, catching punts, to begin with, is very difficult, in the NFL especially because you’ve got gunners flying down the field, you’ve got the PP (punt protection) and they’re all very fast, and they’re in your face. It can be a violent phase because there’s so much speed. But to catch a punt, number one, is difficult – to track it, to read it off the punter’s foot, you’ve got to know is it a right-footed punter or is it a left-footed punter, because the ball flies differently. So that’s one. And then coaching, or learning, from a player’s perspective, the technique: having independent feet, being able to beat the ball to the spot—and that’s before you’ve even caught it. And then you’ve got to worry about making these amazing athletes outside miss. So, a punt returner tends to be a little more -he has a little more shake to him, a little more lateral movement. And obviously if you can find the guy who has lateral movement and the home-run speed, you’ve struck gold there.

“A kick returner tends to be more of a linear-speed guy, like a Carlos Henderson, [WR] Cody Latimer-type guys who can stick their foot in the ground and get north and south really fast. They have courage to run through smoke, like I mentioned earlier. They tend to weigh a little bit more. He’s running against the coverage, whereas a lot of times the punt returners are running away from it. It’s just different angles between the two phases, but you like those guys to be able to run behind their pads and they tend to be a little bigger. There’s a lot of difference. Plus, it’s easier to catch a kickoff. It’s easier to track one and to beat a kickoff to the spot. There’s a lot of stuff. I could go on a lot with this stuff because I’m passionate – unapologetically passionate – about it.”

Olivo also counts himself lucky to have a head coach who is heavily invested in special teams. He thinks it will play a big role in the rookies’ speedy development.

“It’s awesome,” Olivo said of head coach Vance Joseph. “To have a head coach, who, number one, invests in special teams -I mean, he’s at all my meetings. He’s listening in and he knows what’s going on. I love that. And then he’s right there in practice, getting in the thick of things, and you can hear him. I mean, just his presence there is huge for us, especially to the young guys, the rookies. They say, ‘OK, the coach is here during special teams practice.’ This is saying something. It’s awesome. VJ gets it, and I’m very fortunate to be his special teams coordinator.”

Featured Image Credit: Ryan Greene, 5280 Sports Network