2017 Broncos Training Camp Preview: Tight Ends

In the fourth of Thin Air’s series on previewing 2017’s training camp for the Broncos is a look at tight ends.

There is a lack of proven talent at this position from top to bottom. It would be quite helpful for the Broncos’ offense if at least one of the seven tight ends on the 90-player roster is able to shed some of that lack of proof. The glimmer of hope is that almost every tight end on the roster has mitigating factors that may be holding them down from cashing in on their potential.

Virgil Green

Since signing a three year extension in 2015, Green has not had much production in tangible statistics.  One mitigating factor that has been floated is that due to the precipitous drop in the performance of the offensive line, Green has been needed more as a blocking tight end.  On the other hand, he has only played 34.5% and 45.7% of the snaps during his extension. Whatever the case, Green has plenty of room for improvement in his upcoming contract year, and he’ll still be in his 20s when it expires.

There’s some talk as to whether Green might become a cap casualty if he doesn’t clearly set himself above other tight ends, all of which are on non-vested veteran contracts. While cutting Green would save $2.8 million in cap space, his cap number is only 12th in size on the team.  The Broncos would also lose out on possible compensatory pick credit for him in 2019 if he signs as a UFA elsewhere in 2018. If Green doesn’t make the team, it’ll likely be simply because multiple other tight ends beat him out on the field.

Jeff Heuerman

Heuerman may seem like a disappointment so far as a 3rd round pick. But remember that he lost all of his rookie season to an ACL tear on the Broncos’ first spring camp. Thus, his second season, an underwhelming one, functioned as more of a rookie season in all on-field aspects.  There was another recent Broncos tight end whose first two seasons were an injury-provoked wasteland, and he turned out OK in Years 3 and 4.  It is no guarantee, of course, that Heuerman will have that kind of meteoric rise. But this is a pivotal training camp for Heuerman to take the next step that one would expect in his third year in the league.  Whether or not he does so should be one of the leading tales to watch in camp.

AJ Derby

Derby arrived on the Broncos midseason in 2016 after being traded from the New England Patriots. Thus, Derby has his own mitigating factors with low production in trying to learn a new playbook on the fly. This year, he’ll have an entire offseason to take in a new playbook, so he’ll have a fairer chance to make the difference that he’d likely want to. Again, no guarantees here, but he was once drafted by Bill Belichick, who knows talent better than perhaps anyone else in the NFL. There should be a reasonable sense of eagerness to see if Derby can take that next step forward.

Jake Butt

Coming off an ACL tear in the Orange Bowl, Butt may not be able to fully participate in training camp.  Since the Broncos have the option, he’ll almost certainly start camp on the Active/NFI list. Ideally, it would be a short stay, but there should be preparation among the fans that it could turn into a Reserve/NFI stay for at least the first six weeks of the season.  The longer that Butt sits out, the more tempering of expectations that should come his way.  Certainly it’s reasonable to hope that Butt can contribute in 2017, but it’s also important not to rush his recovery and place any risk on long term future.

Henry Krieger-Coble, Steven Scheu, Austin Traylor

Four tight ends would appear to the absolute maximum to be retained on the active roster, so all of these players would have to beat out an incumbent active roster tight end, or benefit from a possible Reserve/NFI designation on Butt.  Is there practice squad room for any of them?  All of them spent some time on it in 2016, with Krieger-Coble being a presence on it the entire season until he was activated after the Broncos were eliminated from the playoffs.  Any of them could do it again in 2017, but as usual they’ll have to demonstrate some point of unique contribution in order to do so.