The Denver Broncos special teams have been anything but special the last few years.
That certainly extends to the punt return game, where the orange and blue have been without a proper punt returner for a long time.
But, there’s a growing hope in Broncos Country that receiver Montrell Washington will be that crucial piece to the playoff puzzle in the Mile High City.
“Montrell has come out here, he’s done a great job as far as body position and as far as catching mechanics,” special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes said after practice on July 30. “Montrell is a hard worker. He’s humble but he’s confident. He’s confident in his ability and so am I. I’ve been pleasantly pleased with how Montrell has handled it.”
He’s also impressing head coach Nathaniel Hackett.
“First and foremost, from his character and as a person walking into the building—he’s awesome,” Hackett said on Wednesday. “Then his work ethic. The guy runs all day. When he catches a punt, he’s taking it to the house. I mean, he runs and runs. It’s great to see.”
Look, there’s no doubt about it, Washington is turning heads of his coaches as well as the adoring fans of Broncos Country out at Dove Valley. There have been roars from the crowd, but — and this is key — he’s basically being allowed to run free without worry of real contact for the most part.
So, buying into what Washington is doing now could be a bit of fool’s gold, as Stukes continued less than a week ago.
“Now playing in a stadium or playing in front of a crowd is a lot different than in training camp right here,” Stukes clarified. “But when he enters the stadium, he should be the first on the field to catch the punt off of a live foot when we go to preseason, when we go to the regular season. Then you have a better gage on what Montrell can do once we get to the preseason or when we get to a competitive period out here where we’re actually tackling or something like that. Right now, we’re just running down and tagging, so he should be as confident as he can be because nobody is going to hit him in this type of setting.”
Coming out of college, Washington was targeted — and reached for — by George Paton in the fifth round. Per Warren Sharp’s top 325 players, Washington wasn’t even included but the Broncos took him at No. 162 overall.
It seems clear, based on that third-party evaluation, that Paton zeroed in on the young man from Samford University because of his punt returning abilities.
Just in 2021, Washington had 32 kickoff returns, 742 yards, 23.2 average, one touchdown; 14 punt returns, 243 yards, 17.4 average, two touchdowns.
As a receiver, Washington was so-so until his senior season, where he enjoyed 60 receptions for 813 yards and 9 TDs. Still, at 5’10” and 170 pounds, he is another smallish receiver like KJ Hamler, which can be tough to adjust to the NFL game and the bigger hits.
With Tim Patrick going down in practice on Tuesday, and being lost for the season with an ACL injury, it’s possible Washington will be asked to step up and step in at wideout. Or, at least in the slot.
Hackett, who’s calling the plays for the Broncos this year and constructing the offense to be a meld of his style and Russell Wilson’s, is happy with how Washington is progressing as a receiver.
“He’s just a sponge right now. There is so much, and you want to throw as much as you can at him to see what he can do,” Hackett said of the rookie. “When you’re out at practice watching him out on the field making plays, that’s what is exciting for a coach. You do all that stuff in the meeting room—you talk about him, you give him so much, and then all of a sudden, he started making a couple plays down the field here and there and that’s what gets you excited. His work ethic and his smile has been great.”
Replacing Patrick and his 6’4” frame is basically impossible for Washington, but reeling in a few catches here and there will be an added plus for the Broncos. However, it’s clear Washington’s key role will be as the punt return man, and he’ll certainly be a player to keep both eyes on during the preseason and into the regular season.
Denver’s preseason kicks off on Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. MT when the Broncos host the Dallas Cowboys after some joint practices.