Can the career returner carve out a larger role in 2021?
Diontae Spencer has largely been a punt returner for the Denver Broncos in his professional career. Is 2021 the season where he becomes more of a factor in the offense?
Wide Receiver #11
Experience: 3 years
College: McNeese State
Diontae Spencer’s professional career has been an interesting one. After going undrafted in 2014, Spencer was signed and then released by the Rams that summer. Spencer then signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Spencer played for Toronto and the Ottawa Redblacks, earning a couple of CFL All-Star nods. He even set the CFL All-Purpose Yardage record while in Ottawa, racking up 496 total yards in a single game.
After his stint in the CFL, Spencer signed a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers but was waived later on that summer. The Denver Broncos then claimed Spencer off waivers, looking to invigorate a lackluster return game. Spencer tied for 7th in the NFL in yards per punt return and 3rd in yards per kickoff returns in 2019, earning another contract with the Broncos for 2020. Spencer’s return ability earned him a nod as a Pro Bowl alternate in 2019.
In 2020, Diontae Spencer came in competing with KJ Hamler for punt return duties. Spencer returned 16 punts for 253 yards and one touchdown while returning 15 kickoffs for 281 yards. Spencer was 4th in yards per punt return as well in 2020.
Diontae Spencer is a proven returner, something that has value in its own right. In 2020, the Broncos finished 4th in points expected from punt returns, something that Spencer no doubt influenced.
Spencer’s terrific athleticism is no doubt a boon to his ability as a returner, and it’s that explosiveness that helps Spencer create yardage on returns.
Diontae Spencer (@DSpencer4_) turning heads at McNeese Pro Day. 40 inch vertical, 10’3″ in the broad jump and 13 in the bench press.
— Seth Lewis (@SethLewisInc) April 7, 2014
Spencer was the first Bronco to return a punt for a touchdown since 2015, housing an 83-yard return last season against the Carolina Panthers in week 13. That effort earned him the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2020
Diontae Spencer has also been working extensively with WRs coach Zach Azzanni in the offseason. Azzanni has been developing WRs for decades now, and is a highly respected WRs coach. Spencer has been putting an extra focus on the finer points of playing the position this offseason.
For me, he’s helped me [with] the game slowing down tremendously. I was a guy that — I played wide receiver, but I didn’t really know all the nuances of being a wide receiver, especially being a speed guy — breaking points, getting in and out of breaks and all those different things, and executing the right way, setting up routes and just knowing when to speed things up or slow things down mentally. I feel like my game [has] been elevated [with] the growth of those things that he’s been teaching. That’s one thing that he’s helped me with tremendously. I feel like I’m more comfortable at wideout. My game will just keep elevating at that position.
It’s important to note that Teddy Bridgewater pointed out that Spencer worked out with him over the summer. That kind of chemistry could help keep Spencer around if Teddy B gets the starting nod.
Spencer’s an excellent returner, but that’s the extent to what we know on his abilities. He’s not been featured significantly in the offensive process. Over the last two seasons, Spencer has taken just 135 snaps on offense. Spencer has been targeted just 14 times for nine catches and 57 yards receiving. He has also rushed six times for 25 total yards.
Having versatility and offensive value is important when you are a fringe roster player. While Spencer’s role as a returner is important, he isn’t the only player there. Tyrie Cleveland has been used on kickoff returns as well, and played more offensive snaps as a rookie than Spencer has in his career. The team also brought in Seth Williams (6th-round draft pick), Amara Darboh, and De’Morney Pierson-El to compete for special teams snaps as well.
The Broncos carried seven wide receivers into last season. With Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, and Tim Patrick obvious locks, that leaves Tyrie Cleveland, Diontae Spencer, Seth Williams, Warren Jackson, Amara Darboh, De’Morney Pierson-El, Kendal Hinton, Branden Mack, and Trinity Benson competing for the last few spots. Cleveland and Williams have the luxury of draft capital-something that Spencer does not.
Diontae Spencer has been a bright spot on a struggling special teams unit for Denver as a returner. However, he has to prove to the team he can be an effective option on offense in camp. If not, Spencer could find himself on the outside looking in when it comes to a spot on the final 53.