ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For the past two years, one of the biggest questions facing the Denver Broncos was whether Trindon Holliday was going to return a kick to the end zone or turn it over.
The Broncos got tired of watching him fumble, and so in the offseason, they parted ways with the fleet-footed former LSU star who was equal parts electric and enigmatic, with six TD returns and nine fumbles during his time in Denver.
While a hamstring injury has sidelined Holliday with his new team, the New York Giants, the Broncos wrapped up training camp still looking for his replacement on kick and punt returns.
It’s the only real mystery on the AFC champs’ reloaded roster.
Their fallback plan is Wes Welker on punts and Emmanuel Sanders on kickoffs, although neither option is preferable given Welker’s concussion history and Sanders’ role as a starter with big plans in Peyton Manning’s offense.
“If a guy can emerge as a dominant return specialist, he’s going to have a pretty good opportunity to be on a roster,” special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said.
“And if nobody emerges who’s special, if Devin Hester doesn’t emerge out of that group, then it’s probably going to be the guy who does the best job in a combination, whether it’s corner and punt return or wide receiver and punt return.”
It’s not like last summer when Holliday made the roster strictly as a specialist. This time, the punt and kick returners will almost certainly have to make the team in another capacity.
And that man may not even be on the Broncos’ 90-man roster right now.
“If it’s kind of a tie one way or the other at punt returner, it’s going to be who’s emerged as a wide receiver. If it’s a kind of a tie as a wide receiver, it’s going to be who’s emerged as a punt returner as it relates to not only the wide receiver position but the corner position and well as the 3,000 guys that are on NFL rosters right now,” Rodgers said.
“I know our personnel department’s always looking for different guys whether it’s in the building or outside the building.”
The Broncos were excited about Isaiah Burse, an undrafted free agent burner from Fresno State. He’s getting a long look, but he’s bobbled way too many balls without defenses even coming down on him.
Somewhat surprisingly, veteran wide receiver Jordan Norwood, who didn’t play a down last season, has emerged as the steadiest punt returner so far.
Bubba Caldwell and Omar Bolden will get the chance to win the kick returner jobs during the rest of the preseason, beginning with Sunday’s game at San Francisco.
Others giving it a shot are rookies Bradley Roby and Cody Latimer, whom are both learning on the job, and running back Ronnie Hillman.
Burse had a 31-yard kickoff return against Seattle in the preseason opener, but also a minus-3 yard return just before halftime on a kickoff that traveled only to the Denver 14.
Norwood had a 20-yard punt return against the Seahawks.
“Certainly there’s more pressure on players and teams when you’re out in front of the masses with 70,000 fans and national TV and all those things,” Rodgers said.
“I’ll say this, there’s more guys that can do it in practice than can do it in a game. All that’s a part of the evaluation. To say it weighs more, probably a little bit more, but I don’t think you can discount what happens in practice.”
Latimer asked Rodgers for a shot in the offseason, but at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he’s a big, inviting target much like Demaryius Thomas was when former coach Josh McDaniels tried to turn the big receiver into a returner with near-disastrous results.
Rodgers has to find not only the starting returners, but their backups so he doesn’t get caught short-handed on game day.
“Having two vet guys in Emmanuel and Wes who have done it in games can answer some of those things,” Rodgers said. “So, we’re just looking for that next guy to emerge and maybe take that load off of them on a consistent basis.”