Of all the skill positions, none is left more undecided going into training camp than tight end.
Jake Butt is attempting to recover from an ACL injury, and while he out-performed Jeff Heuerman last season, Heuerman’s new contract gives him the inside track for either the starting job or the backup job. Last year’s fifth-round pick at tight end Troy Fumagalli has been one of the top performers so far this offseason, and first-round rookie Noah Fant further complicates and crowds the room.
To help make sense of this situation, we turn to Mile High Sports‘ Broncos writers Zach Segars and Rich Kurtzman for their takes.
Third-year tight end Jake Butt could surprise us and return from his third ACL tear with little sign of a drop-off and emerge as the starter as the Broncos’ give rookie Noah Fant some time to develop. In the three games Butt played last season, he earned a much higher grade from Pro Football Focus than tight end Jeff Heuerman overall (67.1 to 55.6), as a receiver (68.3-56.7), and as a blocker (50.6-44.9).
Butt could also find himself off the roster before the final preseason game, due to the Broncos investing heavily elsewhere in the tight end position this offseason as they just gave Heuerman a new contract and drafted Fant in the first, and of course, Butt’s injury history doesn’t do him any favors.
That’s not to even mention Troy Fumagalli, Denver’s fifth-round pick from a season ago who spent his rookie year rehabbing from a sports hernia. Fumagalli stood out from the rest of the crowded tight end room during OTAs and will look to keep that momentum up headed into camp. Even Fangio said, “I think all the tight ends have done well and I think Troy has surpassed some of our expectations already.” Fangio followed up with, “We’ll see when the pads come on, but I think he’s doing well overall,” per The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala.
Fant will have an important battle of his own to win. The rookie will have to out-perform both Heuerman and Butt while also going through the hurdles of adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. The Broncos’ staff will want to get Fant onto the field as much as possible, but at the end of the day it comes down to winning games and the best 11 will be on the field, and asking Fant to beat out two competent starters in his rookie season is a tall order.
However, the centerpiece of this camp battle will be that Heuerman vs. Butt matchup. It would be a surprise if the Broncos entirely shelved their first-round pick by placing him third on the depth chart, though starting off as the No. 2 tight end would make sense for Fant’s rookie season. This means that the winner of the Heuerman-Butt battle will be getting starting snaps while the loser will either find himself buried on the depth chart or off the team entirely.
Zach’s breakdown of the Broncos’ current tight end situation, in terms of personnel, was well-done. There’s not much to add except to say it does seem likely that first-round pick Fant will not be the starter on Day 1. That’s why it was a huge gamble to use a first rounder on a tight end, a mistake that will likely come back to haunt John Elway.
But, let’s look at the tight end position from a more global perspective. The Broncos’ offense has been missing out on a consistent, play-making tight end since the days of Owen Daniels in 2015 and Julius Thomas in 2014.
While Denver’s gone through a ton of different quarterbacks, those youngsters and veterans alike would’ve been greatly helped by a go-to tight end; the Broncos desperately need one of these players to take the ball and run with it to the house this year.
The good news? Rich Scangarello’s offense is the same one which turned George Kittle into a tight end dynamo last year with 88 receptions, 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. There’s no promise “Scangs” can get that kind of production out of Butt or Heuerman (or Fant) in 2019, but it’s a positive sign everything will be done to make the tight end more productive in the Mile High City once again.