Woody Paige: Isaiah McKenzie could become more than just punt/kick returner

DENVER -- On their 90-player roster, the Broncos possess seven running backs, 10 wide receivers and four returners. But the team has just one running back, one slot receiver, one punt returner, and one kickoff returner.

Rookie Isaiah McKenzie isn’t yet that great, but he’s already that aggregate.

During the special teams segment of the Broncos’ OTA workout Monday, McKenzie fielded a punt successfully – which is a positive unto itself considering what we’ve seen from returners here – turned right, ran quickly in the direction of the sideline, then turned left and up field for what would have been a long return if play weren’t stopped.

McKenzie, the Broncos’ recent fifth-round pick (172 overall), is the leading candidate to become the Broncos’ punt/kick returner in 2017.

After the practice, Vance Joseph pointedly suggested that McKenzie could be even more. McKenzie will be utilized – at least during OTAs, the minicamp next week, training camp and in some exhibitions – at slot receiver and out of the backfield, too.

Joseph and the Broncos are impressed with McKenzie’s speed, skill, versatility, changeability and his fearless approach to football.

Especially for a 22-year-old rookie who is just 5-foot-7 and 173 pounds.

When asked if McKenzie could be this year’s version of Tyreek Hill, the do-all who was terrific in all those roles for the 2016 Chiefs, Joseph wasn’t foolhardy to commit to that comparison, but did indicate that McKenzie would be developed as a Dash/Slash and could provide some Flash.

McKenzie certainly should qualify as the Broncos’ fastest player for 40 yards. At the NFL Combine, McKenzie ran the 40-yard dash in 44.6 seconds, then, in his second attempt, 44.2. He wasn’t close to wide receiver John Ross’ combine record 4.22, but Isaiah did tie for fifth best time among wide receivers.

Carlos Henderson, the Broncos’ other multipurpose draft pick, ran a 4.46.  Henderson is expected to be the Broncos’ No. 1 slot receiver, stepping in for Jordan Norwood, who wasn’t even adequate as the starter in that position last season. Norwood also lost his job as punt returner and, in the off-season, lost his place with the Broncos. Norwood, who set a punt return record in Super Bowl 50, is a free agent.

Henderson did run on occasion at Louisiana Tech and returned kickoffs, but never returned punt, and primarily was an exceptional wide receiver.

The Broncos also drafted another Henderson, De’Angelo, who was a running back at Coastal Carolina. There’s been discussion that one of the Hendersons could be a returner of kicks or punts.

Brendan Langley, drafted in the third round (as was Carlos), played cornerback and was a highly-touted return man for Lamar University, and he had been looked at wide receiver before transferring from Georgia.

McKenzie, an Isaiah-of-all-trades for the Georgia Bulldogs the last three seasons, had 17 touchdowns as a runner, receiver and returner, and set the school record with six overall returns (five on punts) for touchdowns. In 2016, he carried 19 times out of the backfield for 134 yards (7.1-yard average) and caught a team-best 44 passes for 633 yards.

He’s a home-run hitter – scoring a touchdown last season once every seven times he touched the football. He declared for the draft after his junior season, surprising Bulldog backers in Athens, Ga. They were unaware that he had academic problems and might not have been able to play at the beginning of next season.

McKenzie’s diminutive size scared most scouts, who predicted he would be selected in the last two rounds or maybe would have to be an unsigned free agent. ESPN’s two draft experts, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, were more fascinated. Kiper had a third-round grade on McKenzie, and McShay felt he would be drafted in the fifth round (where the Broncos grabbed him).

McKenzie is not lacking in confidence – with a sort of Napoleonic attitude. But he likely wouldn’t make the Broncos’ regular-season roster as a receiver or as a runner, although he would have a serious change as a returner to succeed Kalif Raymond, who took over the punt return duties from Norwood last season. However, Raymond was inconsistent on returns, and uncertain in his decision-making, and is out now with ligament damage in his hand.

McKenzie obviously isn’t Christian McCaffrey, but he is Swiss Army Knife Lite, which bodes well for his opportunity to stick, especially when Coach Joseph offers high praise.

And he will not be called Spuds. (He was nicknamed "The Human Joystick" in college.)

Isaiah McKenzie is The Chameleon.

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