The Broncos haven’t had a padded practice yet this spring, which is a disappointment to rookie Carlos Henderson. Denver’s third-round draft pick wants that “welcome to the NFL” hit. He wants to run over somebody.
Most wide receivers avoid contact, preferring to use speed and elusiveness to excel. Henderson plays more like a running back. As the NFL evolves, those positions blend together. In an era with Tyreek Hill, Ty Montgomery and now Christian McCaffrey, players who excel at catching and running the ball have shifted from a luxury to a valued commodity.
Henderson stood against a wall adjacent to reporters waiting to question him last week about what he can add to the Broncos’ pedestrian offense. He’s reserved, a bit tense and reluctant to trust. Denver is still a foreign land to Henderson, but he’s certain he belongs here.
“I don’t have anything to prove, really,” he said with a New Orleans drawl minutes before being enclosed by the group. “I’m confident in my game. I’m just out here trying to make a name for myself.”
Henderson told his older brothers, Wade and Charles, that he would be here, even if it was just a pipe dream at age 8. Growing up in New Orleans East, it was better to chase hope than resign yourself to the streets.
Pushed by the motivation of escaping Charles’ shadow, Carlos chose to let the rough edges of his upbringing fuel his intensity on the field.
“Most guys from here, and he’s definitely one of them, the community made them tough,” said Jabbar Juluke, who successfully recruited Henderson to Louisiana Tech when he was the running backs coach there. “The city of New Orleans itself, you’re just trying to get out of there. His neighborhood is rough. His dad kept him on the playgrounds, kept him into sports, and away from the foolishness. But it can suck you in at any time. That’s why I was so hard on him, so he wouldn’t blow this opportunity to change his life. He can play in the NFL for 10 years.”
Wade Henderson has to gather himself to tell the story more than a decade later. He’s a fire captain, having spent 15 years with the New Orleans Fire Department, but none of the horrors he experienced on the job can match the burden he felt one night late in December 2006.
Big Charles, as the younger kids called their father, suffered a heart attack and died. Wade and his mother, Nadine, got the news at the hospital. It was Wade’s duty to go home and tell soon-to-be 14-year-old Charles, 12-year-old Carlos and their 11-year-old sister, Nicole.
“From that point on, I was on autopilot. That was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. We were going through a lot of hurt and confusion, but we bonded together,” said Wade, now 36. “(Big Charles) was always the leader of his pack. He was a man’s man. He coached Carlos and Charles in park ball growing up. His dream was to see them make it to where Carlos is now. Even though he’s not with us, it’s incredible to see his dream finally brought to fruition.”
The kids easily could have gone the wrong way after that blow. Statistics say growing up without a father negatively impacts a person’s life.
Instead, Carlos, Charles (who played safety and wide receiver at Utah and Nicholls State) and Nadine (an All-America sprinter at Ole Miss) received collegiate athletic scholarships. And Carlos can provide for his family with his recently signed NFL contract.
“That’s why I work as hard as I do today,” Carlos said. “That’s why I’m as physically and mentally tough as I am today. It keeps me motivated to keep pushing through all tough obstacles. I feel like I can accomplish anything after that.”
Wade added: “After his dad passed, he really stepped up to the plate in performing everything his dad taught him.”
Henderson’s on-field production skyrocketed, but his off-the-field mannerisms needed work. He was never a bad kid, according to those who know him well, but he did occasionally make mistakes of youth.
“Carlos was very immature when he first got to college,” said Juluke, who coached against him in high school before coaching him at Louisiana Tech. “He didn’t understand how redshirting would benefit him and let it show. He’s grown leaps and bounds from three years ago.”
Frank Daggs, one of his high school coaches at McDonogh 35 in New Orleans, described Henderson as “Mr. Funny Guy, always joking around.”
The immature phase dissipated after Juluke had star running back Kenneth Dixon become Henderson’s mentor. Dixon, arguably Tech’s most prolific player, and now in the NFL with the Ravens, showed Henderson the way. He also set a high bar.
Juluke predicts success for Henderson in Denver because he will be competing to get out of the shadows of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
“Carlos ain’t too far behind”
If it was up to the 5-foot-11, 199-pound Henderson, he might be competing with C.J. Anderson for running back reps this summer. Until three years ago, Henderson was certain his path to the NFL would be as a versatile rusher and a returner. He was half right.
Put on his Louisiana Tech tape and it’s hard to not use “video game” as a description. He’s a yards-after-catch nightmare for defenders, forcing an NCAA-leading 48 missed tackles last year, according to Pro Football Focus, 22 more than anyone else.
The scary part? Henderson is just learning how to be a wide receiver, a position he didn’t play until his redshirt freshman year. He still unleashes a devious smile when you mention his running back past, but now he likes playing wide receiver.
“He’s a running back by nature. The guys who I compare Carlos to in the NFL are Percy Harvin, Golden Tate and Ty Montgomery,” said Juluke, who coached Leonard Fournette as LSU’s running backs coach in 2016 before moving to Texas Tech this year. “Leonard is a freak, but Carlos ain’t too far behind.”
Denver wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert had Henderson ranked as his fifth-best receiver in the draft with a second-round grade, not factoring in his return ability. Henderson was the 10th wideout selected, in the middle of the third round.
Henderson’s rookie contribution will largely depend on how quickly he picks up the playbook. Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said Henderson and fifth-round pick Isaiah McKenzie have impressed on the field, but like most rookies are “swimming” in regard to picking up the scheme.
While Henderson gets acclimated to the offense, he can be expected to make an immediate impact as a kick returner. He scored three touchdowns in that role at Louisiana Tech.
“Love that guy. He’s got juice and he’s a linear speed guy,” said Broncos special-teams coordinator Brock Olivo. “Carlos is your downhill, run behind your pads, run through smoke as we say, for kickoff returners. He’s got courage. That’s the type of kid we like as a kick returner. Very, very excited about Carlos. He runs angry with the ball in his hands, and we love that.”
Denver’s coaching staff is learning what the folks in New Orleans have known about Henderson for a long time: He has some dog in him.
“He has that New Orleans edge that you’re not going to beat him,” Daggs said. “So he’ll tell the cornerback that if you stay right here, I’m going to beat your (butt) all night as a receiver and blocker.”
Henderson is looking forward to training camp. That’s when the pads come on.