ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s doubtful that wide receiver Kalif Raymond will ever face a challenge in a game quite like the one he had in practice throughout the 2016 season.
Day after day, he worked on the scout team, often as a slot receiver. That meant staring across the line of scrimmage at All-Pro Chris Harris Jr., a three-time Pro Bowler who helped redefine the role of slot cornerback; since 2011 Harris used it to propel himself into a unique dual role playing on the inside in the sub packages and outside in the base defense.
Harris set the standard for the task. And at each practice, Raymond had to figure out how to get open against him.
“That’s the best corner in the league right now,” Raymond said. “As smart as he is, he knows where you’re going before you’re going, so you really have to sell it with him.”
It took a while for Raymond to fully adjust.
“I think my flaws that I had as a slot receiver, he definitely exposed them early in the year,” Raymond said. “I think because of that, my game is definitely more all-around, and I definitely learned how to get off press [coverage] and set up my routes in particular ways.
“Going against Chris — that helped more than anything.”
It only helped because he learned from it — both via his own experience and from the observations of Wide Receivers Coach Tyke Tolbert.
“He taught me how to sell my routes more, how to keep my eyes forward, keep my eyes on the DB and not show where you’re going,” Raymond said. “I think that’s what makes Coach Tyke such a great coach: He understands the little stuff that gets you open, and that’s what we work on. He understands throwing the elbow, not drifting on your routes, make sure you come in flat.”
Raymond had few chances to show what he has learned, but more could be coming, especially if the Broncos emphasize three-wide receiver sets in the 2017 season, which could give him an opening to seize more playing time.
No matter what transpires on offense, Raymond showed he had a future on returns. He rebounded from a muff and a lost fumble in Week 16 at Kansas City to post a 25-yard punt return in Week 17 that was the Broncos’ longest since Super Bowl 50. It put his rough game firmly in the past.
“If you linger too much on that — especially if you have any hiccups — I think that can be detrimental to you,” Raymond said. “I kind of just looked at it as, ‘Look, I know what I can do. This is a platform to kind of go through it again.’ I had Kansas City in the rear-view mirror.”
It was a performance from which he could build confidence — but it wouldn’t have happened if he had not maintained that confidence despite his night against the Chiefs.
“More than anything, I think this last game especially, I felt confident. I felt comfortable. I wasn’t thinking about too much, about the situation. I was just going to go out there, be an athlete and play football.
“More than anything, I played within myself. I was able to go out there and make moves — decisively and comfortably, without having too much on my mind. Even though I have only four games of experience, I think that was critical.”
Now comes the offseason — which Raymond plans to treat as an opportunity. After all, it’s a chance to focus year-round on football, which was impossible for him as an undergraduate at Holy Cross.
“In college, I was in school all four years,” Raymond said. “You’re telling me you’re going to give me an entire offseason with no school just to worry about football? I can’t wait.”
And in turn, the Broncos can’t wait to find out more about what they have in Raymond when he gets the chance to apply what he learned in his daily trials by Harris’ fire.