Another season, another disappointing season for the Denver Broncos offense, which finished 2017 ranked 18th in the NFL in total yards per game and a dismal 26th in scoring offense.
While the Broncos’ offensive unit as a whole struggled between the trio of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, the tight end position was once again a glaring weakness for the team. Heading into 2017, Virgil Green was named the official starter on the depth chart, but head coach Vance Joseph promised that Jeff Heuerman and A.J. Derby would also see extensive playing time in a semi-rotation between the three.
Between the three tight ends, A.J. Derby led the group with 224 receiving yards throughout the season. However, Derby was waived/released in late November, and the next most-productive tight end on the roster was Green, who finished with only 191 receiving yards.
At the dawn of the 2018 offseason, the Broncos have five tight ends: Green, Heuerman, Austin Traylor, Matt LaCosse and Jake Butt, who missed his entire season with injury. None of these options have proven to be the long-term answer at tight end, while Green is set to become an unrestricted free agent, which might lead to the Broncos looking elsewhere to address the position heading into 2018.
The 2018 free agent pool for tight ends appears to be a deep group, led by popular names such as Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Benjamin Watson and the oft-injured Tyler Eifert, among others. The Broncos will have plenty of options to choose from should they decide to strengthen the position group.
The wild card for the Broncos looking forward is Butt, the fifth-rounder in the 2017 draft. Butt entered the 2017 draft as one of the best pro-ready tight ends in the class, but slipped into the fifth round with concern over a torn ACL he suffered in his final college game. Butt’s knee never fully healed during the 2017 season; he finished the season on injured reserve without playing in a single regular-season game.
Butt’s ability to be an effective tight end has yet to be proven at the NFL level due to injury, which makes it difficult to evaluate how he will transition to the NFL game, or if he can evolve into an effective starter at tight end. Assuming that Butt is able to get healthy before the start of the 2018 season, he could still contribute, at minimum, as a backup. The hope is that Butt is ready to claim the starting role sooner rather than later, but due to his injury history and lack of playing time, that simply isn’t a reasonable option for the Broncos heading into 2018.
While much of the 2018 offseason will be primarily focused around the Broncos’ search for their next franchise quarterback, the surrounding offensive pieces could be key in the success of recruiting a top-free agent option such as Kirk Cousins, or the success of a rookie quarterback like Baker Mayfield.
After years of uncertainty and lack of production at the tight end position, this offseason is crucial for the Broncos to address the position to set their next quarterback up for success as the team looks to make a turnaround in 2018.