For a fifth-round draft pick, wide receiver/punt returner Isaiah McKenzie has quickly become a high profile Bronco. However, his rise in awareness has occurred for all of the wrong reasons, as he dropped a lot of punts in 2017. McKenzie has been up and down this preseason, returning one punt for a touchdown in Week One, and fumbling in a critical spot in Week Two. After such an up and down start to the season, the Broncos must be wondering what to do with the second-year man out of Georgia.
What Should The Broncos Do With Isaiah McKenzie?
Those who paid attention to McKenzie at the combine in 2017 could see a future like this coming true for the young wide receiver. Lance Zierlein did, as he summarized Isaiah McKenzie as someone whose “explosive return ability could land him work right away.” But, who’s hand size, hand-eye coordination, and concentration on deep throws left a lot to be desired. Zierlein predicted he would drop a lot of balls but could explode, assuming he makes the unguaranteed catch.
The Broncos were willing to take the risk and continued to give McKenzie chances throughout the season, usually against recommendations from the fans. It could be argued that McKenzie single-handedly lost multiple games for the Broncos in 2017 due to his muffed punts. That being said, when he did catch the ball, he was able to make highlight-reel returns.
While McKenzie seemingly dropped every punt in 2017, he has yet to drop a punt during this middle-aged preseason. As mentioned above, McKenzie also returned a punt for a toucdhown in Week One against the Vikings. After Week One and most of Week Two, McKenzie was starting to earn back some trust in the return game. However, as soon as he started to earn back some trust, the floor fell out.
What Goes Up…
The first 59 minutes of the second preseason game went reasonably well for McKenzie, catching multiple punts and kicks. He also earned double digit returns on every opportunity with the exception of a fair catch. However, with the game on the line, McKenzie threw away all of his apparent improvement.
The Broncos were in a two-minute drive, down 23-24 and looking for a game-clinching field goal. Quarterback Paxton Lynch had already driven the Broncos to the Bears 39-yard line. The Broncos were on the edge of field goal range, and needed just a little more to set up kicker Brandon McManus for a more comfortable attempt.
The Broncos called a quick screen for McKenzie, trying to counter an expected blitz. McKenzie caught the ball and tried to run upfield. He made it only a few steps before getting the ball punched out by a third or fourth-string Bears defender. The fumble was immediately recovered by Chicago, and that was essentially the end of the game.
While not a muffed punt or a dropped kick, the fumble showed that McKenzie still has issues controlling the ball.
Where Does McKenzie fit?
Last year, McKenzie was the starting kick returner. This year, the Broncos have stated that wide receiver Jordan Taylor is the first string while McKenzie serves as the backup. However, since Taylor is currently injured, McKenzie has taken over first string duties. After last week’s mishap, his future on the team is a head scratcher.
The Broncos admitted as much when, after forcing a Chicago punt with 14 seconds to go. They placed River Cracraft, a receiver on the edge of making the team, out to return. Granted, McKenzie had already alternated duties with other players throughout the game but with 14 seconds to go, wouldn’t the Broncos want the man who scored a touchdown the previous week back there? The Broncos opened room for speculation in choosing to go with Cracraft at the end. While there could be other reasons to explain going with Cracraft, one does have to wonder about McKenzie.
He also earned double digit returns on every opportunity with the exception of a fair catch. However, with the game on the line, McKenzie threw away all of his apparent improvement.
Is He Worth The Risk?
At the combine, McKenzie was prophesied to be a player with high upside and low downside.
McKenzie’s likelihood to make the team is not 100 percent. That being said, if he were to make the team (as is the most likely outcome in spite of his fumble), he should be used in a very specific way. A way that maximizes what he is good at (returning punts) and minimizes what he is bad at (avoiding turnovers).
McKenzie should be used sparingly as a kick returner, only when the Broncos are in desperate need of a spark. Specifically, a spot where the Broncos are down multiple scores at the end of the third quarter or the beginning of the fourth. McKenzie could get a great return which could help to swing momentum. On the other hand, if he were to muff a punt, it wouldn’t matter much because the game was probably already lost.
McKenzie can do some damage as a member of the Broncos, but he needs to be used wisely.