Over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Broncos had Julius Thomas, one of the best tight ends in the league. During those two years, Thomas started only 24 games, but he still managed to record 108 receptions for 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Since Thomas’ departure via free agency at the end of the 2014 season, Denver has been searching for a replacement with little success. The Broncos’ best tight end during that span has been a 33-year-old Owen Daniels. Also in the running would be A.J. Derby and Virgil Green; certainly not a strong position group for the Broncos.
But, that may finally be turning around with the addition of Jake Butt, as well as Jeff Heuerman, who’s looking more promising.
So far this season, Butt has racked up six receptions for 77 yards, while Heuerman has three catches for 25 yards.
The upside with Heuerman is clear. He’s obviously faster and arguably more athletic than Butt, but he’s also struggled with staying on the field. In 2016, he tore his ACL in rookie minicamp, sidelining him for the season. The next season he would miss even more games due to an ankle injury. Over the past two seasons, Heuerman has recorded just 18 catches for 283 yards. However, this year he’s looked better and flashed several times in the preseason. With the ball in his hands, he’s dangerous, the problem is getting it there.
Which isn’t the case with Butt. His name may be the first thing that catches your eye, but his play will keep it on him. Butt missed his rookie year to a torn ACL, like Heuerman, but hasn’t suffered any other major injuries. In Week 2, Butt was tied for second on the team in targets but was tied for the lead in receptions with four. Butt isn’t as fast as Heuerman, but what he lacks in vertical playmaking ability is made up for most everywhere else.
Butt is a better route runner and blocker, plus, he’s stronger and has more reliable hands.
However, Butt’s athleticism never wows you when you watch him like Heuerman’s can, but I’d argue it doesn’t have to.
Heuerman is like a convertible to Butt’s pickup truck. A convertible is really exciting and fun, but will spend most of the time in the garage under a cover. The pickup truck is out there all year, steady, reliable, consistent. The Broncos just need a guy who can run to the sticks, turn around, catch the ball, take the hit, then line up to do it again, and Butt looks like that guy.
And if Heuerman can stay healthy, the combo of tight ends gives Denver more playmaking ability from that position group than they’ve had in a long, long time.
The future is bright for the Broncos at tight end, which should help new quarterback Case Keenum when Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are covered.