The Denver Broncos have a history of finding that diamond in the rough when it comes to undrafted free agents. They have had one make the final roster in each of the past ten years and they are not just guys who barely make it, and contribute only on special teams. They often turn into major contributors and in some cases, Pro Bowl type players.
Two seasons ago, an unknown out of Kansas University showed up at Dove Valley and the Broncos couldn’t keep him off the field. That was cornerback, Chris Harris who is now considered one of the top corners in the game. Last year, running back CJ Anderson won a roster spot and eventually beat out Ronnie Hillman for playing time behind Knowshon Moreno and fellow rookie Montee Ball.
With that track record, the question becomes who will be the unknown to find his way onto the roster in 2014? It will be tougher for anyone to make that leap this year just due to the fact that the Broncos are a very deep and talented football team. There just aren’t that many spots open but there is one, and an undrafted free agent might be the only one in the competition.
Meet Isaiah Burse, a wide receiver out of Fresno State. Burse caught over 100 passes in his last season as a Bulldog and while that raises eyebrows, that’s not the reason he has a great chance to be playing on opening night versus the Indianapolis Colts. Burse is also an outstanding punt returner; some believed he was the best in the draft. He is very sure handed which was an issue last season but he also does something with the football after catching it.
By the end of last season and into the playoffs, the only goal for the Broncos punt returner was to fair catch the ball and hand it over to Peyton Manning. While it’s never a bad idea to hand the football to Manning and the offense, the Broncos need to get more out of their return game and Burse can be that guy.
It’s not always about a big return that results in a touchdown either; if Burse fields a punt at the 20 and returns it to the 35, then the offense is starting in better field position. Those are the hidden yards that the Broncos gave away too often last season.
In addition to his talent, Burse has another advantage that others in his undrafted free agent class do not have. He has virtually no competition for that role; sure the Broncos could throw Wes Welker back there to simply fair catch but do they really want to do that? Welker had two concussions last season and the Broncos have no desire to expose him to more hits on special teams.
Trindon Holiday was allowed to leave because, while he was explosive at times, his ball security was often non-existent. The only other player to field punts in 2013 was Eric Decker who has taken his talents and reality show to the New York Jets.
The Broncos targeted Burse as a priority free agent and there are some rumors that they were ready to use a mid to late round pick on him if they felt like he would not make it to the end of the draft. That’s how highly they thought of him and how much they wanted to address the position of punt returner.
Burse still has to perform and prove he can handle the responsibilities at the professional level but if the early results are any indication, then it would be foolish to bet against him. He has turned heads in offseason workouts and had an impressive first day of mini-camp on Wednesday.
History tells us that at least one unknown will make the Broncos final roster and become a major contributor, my money is on Burse.