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"I can't wait to show Broncos Country": Isaiah McKenzie is on a mission

Henry Chisholm Avatar
August 9, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s easy to forget about Isaiah McKenzie’s strong start to his rookie season.

McKenzie was a training camp darling, showing off shiftiness and sparking cautious whispers that he could be a potential answer to Tyreek Hill. In the first preseason game of 2017, the sixth-round pick caught a 47-yard, fourth-quarter bomb from Kyle Sloter to tie the game at 17. Through three regular season games, McKenzie averaged 14 yards per return over six tries, a number that would have ranked second in the NFL, had he been able to hold the pace.

“The first four weeks, he was tremendous,” Vance Joseph said last week.

But things fell apart from there. After Week 3, McKenzie touched the ball 26 more times; three kick returns, four receptions, four punts fair caught, and 15 punts returned. Of those 26 touches, the ball slipped out of McKenzie’s hands six times.

“I’ve had my moment and put it behind me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s better to mess up early so later on in your career you can do well and excel at your position. That’s what I’m planning on doing from now on.”

So far in camp, the 5-foot-7 receiver hasn’t stolen the show—in fact, he hasn’t stood out at all. His best skill is his ability to make plays in the open field, but the Broncos have been unable to get the ball into his hands with room to work.

McKenzie’s name did sit atop the list of punt returners when the Broncos released their first depth chart of the season on Tuesday, but the 23-year-old is no lock to make the roster. With stiff competition for the last two wide receiver spots on the roster, holding onto his punt returning job may be his only path to a spot on the Broncos’ 53-man roster. With an upgraded stable of punt return candidates in 2018, that won’t be easy.

“Everybody is competing, every job is open and is up for grabs,” McKenzie said on Tuesday. “Each and every day, everybody comes and works and competes to make the roster, get a job and excel at their job.”

McKenzie’s margin for error is slim. River Cracraft, Phillip Lindsay and DaeSean Hamilton are listed behind him on the depth chart, and Vance Joseph said after Tuesday’s practice that Jordan Taylor would have been the starter if he wasn’t on the PUP list.

“I think we have a long way to go with all of them,” new special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said of his returners. “It’s going to be a process, but by the end of training camp, somebody is going to emerge. These guys are working their [butts] off. They’re working hard.”

As expected, McMahon has emphasized the importance of holding onto the football. During mini-camp he made returners watch the ball the entire way into their hands and read the logo out loud before they looked upfield. He’s also asked wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni to work with his returners on their catching ability.

“Zach’s juice is rare,” McMahon said. “He’s got great coaching juice [from what] he demands from these guys in terms of their catches. He coaches their eyes. You don’t catch a ball with your hands; you catch with your eyes.”

Last year, McKenzie had a fairly easy path to the starting punt return job. His speed and agility were light-years ahead of any of the Broncos’ other options at the position, giving him an inside track to the starting job. All he had to do is hold onto the football.

But that isn’t true this year. Lindsay—the starting kick returner on the first draft of the depth chart—has flashed the same type of explosion that makes McKenzie a dangerous returner. McKenzie doesn’t have to just catch the ball consistently to be the Broncos’ best option, he also has to prove he is more valuable than Lindsay with the ball in his hands. But McKenzie is already leaving a good impression on his coach.

“I’ll be upfront with you: since I’ve met Isaiah, he’s been in a great place,” McMahon said. “Since the day he and I ever met, he has been in a great place. He’s been a great pro. I love what he’s doing working his tail off. He’s quiet, and he just goes out and tries to produce.”

With few live punt-return reps available in training camp practices, the competition for the job will largely unfold during the preseason games. In the battle for the backup quarterback job, Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly each get at least a dozen reps per day, but the punt return candidates will barely get that many through the whole competition. It’s a high-pressure test, but McKenzie is ready to get started.

“I can’t wait until Saturday to show Broncos Country and everybody else that I can do the job and that I’m going to be a great punt returner,” he said.


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