Free-agent fits: tight end targets for the Broncos

Nov 12, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos free safety Darian Stewart (26) leg tackles New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos’ 2017 season was disappointing to say the least. After winning the Super Bowl in 2015, their offense declined significantly. Last season, they averaged 18.1 points per game, which ranked 27th in the NFL. Additionally, they averaged 208.3 pass yards per game, which ranked 20th in the NFL. The Broncos must upgrade offensively in order to solidify themselves as a contender again, and after losing starter Virgil Green to the Chargers, the Broncos need more than the hope that Jake Butt recovers from ACL surgery. Tight ends have multiple responsibilities — protecting the quarterback, creating openings for running backs, and running routes to provide options for passers. Fortunately for the Broncos, there are many intriguing options available in free agency — here are four that would all improve Denver’s offense.

  1. Martellus Bennett

It’s shocking that Martellus Bennett is a free agent in the first place. A second-round draft pick in 2008, the 31-year-old Bennett’s value is down after an injury-plagued season, but his pass-catching and blocking skills remain top-shelf; polished over a 10-year career that include a Super Bowl championship with the Patriots in 2016 and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2014 with the Chicago Bears. Bennett has accumulated 433 receptions for 4,573 yards and 30 touchdowns with five different teams. At 6’6″, 275 pounds, he is significant aerial threat as well as an impressive blocking option on the offensive line. What more is there to say? Denver should aggressively pursue him — and as soon as possible.

2. Julius Thomas

Julius Thomas is no stranger to the Denver Broncos, after playing four seasons for them from 2011-2014. As a Bronco, he was a two-time Pro Bowl tight end and an elite receiving option. Since leaving Denver, his performance has dipped while playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. What better way to rejuvenate his career than a return to his former team? In his career, Thomas has 226 receptions for 2,406 yards and 36 touchdowns — recording 12 touchdowns for two straight seasons in 2013 and 2014. While his blocking skills are borderline nonexistent, Bronco fans would likely love to see Thomas return to the Mile High City.

3. Troy Niklas

Troy Niklas is an interesting option for the Denver Broncos. At 6’6″, 270 pounds, his size mirrors Bennett’s. Niklas attended the University of Notre Dame from 2011-13, and was moved to tight end as a sophomore. Playing behind Tyler Eifert, he caught five passes for 75 yards and one touchdown. As a junior, he hauled in 32 receptions for 498 yards with five touchdowns. Niklas’ production was hindered due to a hernia injury he suffered, but at age 25, he has plenty of seasons to shine in the near future. As a potentially undervalued passing and blocking threat, Niklas should be on the Broncos’ radar this offseason.

4. Levine Toilolo

A two-sport athlete from Stanford University, Levine Toilolo played basketball and football for the Cardinal. At 6’8″, 265 pounds, Toilolo was a monster on the football field and the basketball court. He chose to pursue football after finishing his college career with 50 receptions for 763 yards and 10 touchdowns, and was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2013, where he’s played his entire career. In four seasons, he’s caught 74 passes for 723 yards and eight touchdowns. The 26 year-old has many seasons left in the tank and was a durable and energetic option for the Falcons, especially during their Super Bowl run in 2016. The Broncos need to take a hard look at Toilolo, who could provide depth at a minimum and may have room to grow.

Overall, there are still many options available for the Broncos at tight end, and these four would all improve the position. Regardless of who they approach in free agency, look for the Broncos to add a veteran to the tight end ranks, maybe even sooner rather than later.

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