Veteran tight ends, special rookie will be key to Broncos offensive revival

As the Denver Broncos continue their offseason program with OTAs (organized team activities) they will do so looking to bring back an offensive spark that the team has lacked the previous two seasons.

One of the big reasons the Broncos have not experienced the same level of offensive success lately is the absence of a true No. 3 passing weapon. More specifically, the lack of production at the tight end position.

In 2016, no tight end had more than 300 yards receiving over the course of the season.

Looking forward to the 2017 season, the Broncos have four tight ends on the roster that will compete for playing time in an offense run by new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who will look to feature a playmaking tight end like he had in Antonio Gates with the Chargers.

Returning to the team after starting 11 games last season is seventh-year pro Virgil Green.

A former seventh-round pick, Green has spent his entire career with the Denver Broncos. Mostly playing the blocking/backup position alongside former tight ends Julius Thomas and Owen Daniels, Green took over the reins as the starting tight end last season for the first time in his career.

As did much of the offense, Green struggled to take the leap the Broncos were hoping he would, finishing the season with 237 receiving yards.

A number that fans should keep an eye on is $3.3 million, Green’s cap hit for the season. His dead cap number is just $500,000. If the Broncos are confident that one of their younger tight ends can match his blocking skills and also warrant more targets, the Broncos may choose to release Green and save that $2.8 million on their salary cap.

One of those young tight end options is third-year tight end Jeff Heuerman.

Heuerman was drafted by the Broncos in the third round in 2015 out of Ohio State. The Broncos had high hopes for Heuerman coming into the NFL, but he was lost for the 2015 season when he tore his ACL during the team’s non-contact offseason workouts.

With 2016 essentially serving as his rookie season, Heuerman registered only 141 yards and did not find the end zone. Heuerman again struggled to stay healthy, playing in only 12 games during 2016.

There is reason for optimism for the third-year tight end, who possesses all of the physical traits the Broncos are looking for in a starting tight end. If Heuerman can stay healthy, he can play the Antonio Gates-like role that McCoy seeks in his pass-happy offense.

Fans should also keep an eye on A.J. Derby, whom the Broncos received in the middle of the 2016 in a trade with the New England Patriots.

Derby, despite being acquired mid-season, saw significant playing time for the Broncos. He started three games, while seeing playing time in six games total.

Not as physically imposing as Green and Heuerman, Derby plays the position with great fundamentals and runs crisp routes. His consistent play would be a great asset to the Broncos’ passing game, even as a number two tight end.

While the Broncos have the above mentioned seasoned veterans on the roster, they also acquired a new tight end in the 2017 NFL Draft when they selected Michigan tight end Jake Butt with the first pick in the fifth round.

Butt has the fundamentals and “old-school” mentality to play the tight end position effectively, but struggled with injuries throughout his college career. Butt fell to the Broncos after tearing his second ACL during his time at Michigan.

If Butt can fully recover and stay healthy, he could be a special player for the Broncos for many years to come.

Though the numbers from 2016 look bleak, the Broncos enter the 2017 season with a much improved offense and a much more consistent offensive scheme. Look for the tight ends to be a big part of the “juice” head coach Vance Joseph is looking for as the Broncos fight to get back into the playoffs.

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