A big part of the offense under coordinator Adam Gase is the talented group of tight ends. The Broncos have an array of talent at the position, and Gase is creative enough to use it fully and effectively.
Heading into the 2014 season, we should see the Broncos continue to move the ball early and often through the air. As good as this group was last year, it could be even better this year.
We saw the birth of a star in 2013. Julius Thomas was considered a surprise fourth-round pick by some in the 2011 NFL draft. He was a basketball star at Portland State but only had one year of experience playing college football. Thomas was a standout player during the week of practice for the 2011 Shrine Game, but he was off the radar for most NFL fans—but not the Broncos scouting department.
During the 2011 offseason, the NFL was going through a labor dispute. Thomas was unable to go through rookie minicamp or offseason training activities because of the lockout. Missing these chances to develop his raw game didn’t really hold him back when training camp started.
Thomas immediately stood out on the practice field, and he was running with the first-team offense after only four days of camp as a rookie. This was a sign of things to come, but then Thomas injured his ankle.
He hurt his ankle early in his rookie season of 2011 and played in only four games, catching one pass for five yards. The ankle injury was not healing enough, so Thomas decided to have surgery in the offseason of 2012, and this forced him to miss all but four games of his second season.
Thomas immediately burst onto the scene in Week 1 of the 2013 season against the Baltimore Ravens. In a game where Peyton Manning threw a whopping seven touchdown passes, Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. His ability was no secret anymore, and Thomas went on to prove just how valuable of an asset he is in 2013.
He missed two games due to a minor knee injury in 2013, but Thomas still finished the season with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Entering this season, Thomas is set to best those numbers in the final year of his rookie contract.
Thomas is one of the best move tight ends in the game today, and his ability to create mismatches is something the Broncos exploit early and often. He can run routes underneath, using his speed to get away from linebackers tasked with covering him. Thomas can also run routes down the deep middle seam using his size to keep safeties away from incoming passes.
The Broncos lost wide receiver Eric Decker in free agency this offseason. Losing a valuable red-zone target like Decker could propel the Broncos into using Thomas more when the team is near paydirt.
Earlier this offseason, I asked offensive coordinator Adam Gase if we’d only seen the tip of the iceberg with Thomas. His answer was quite revealing.
“I think he’s just going to keep getting better. He works so hard. He’s a really smart player and person. So he understands what defenses are trying to do, and I’m really excited to see what he can do this year.”
He hasn’t played a full season during his pro career, but if Thomas stays healthy for all 16 regular-season games then he should be able to best the numbers he posted last year.
Coming out of Nevada in 2011, Virgil Green was mostly known as a move tight end who struggled with blocking. Green was a favorite target of Colin Kaepernick in college because he could get open on underneath routes and make plays in space. However, Green rated very poorly as he did not show the ability to even be an average blocker.
As a seventh-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Green had to work hard to prove himself as a pro. He was buried on the depth chart early on in his career, so Green had to work on developing a better all-around game. This included standing out on special teams and improving his blocking technique.
Today, Green is a fantastic blocker who can hold strong at the point of attack. In addition to this improved part of his game, Green is still a good receiver as well. Green could also get a carry when lined up at a running back from time to time.
This versatile skill set keeps him on the field during running downs and passing downs. It also makes him an invaluable player on the roster.
In 2014, we should see Green continue to start as the team’s primary blocking tight end. He may not produce much as a receiver or runner, but he could always surprise with a target or carry in certain packages.
There is a player on the Broncos roster who has the longest-established chemistry with Manning. Jacob Tamme was catching passes from Manning when he was a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts in 2008. Even though Manning is entering his third year with the Broncos, his chemistry with Tamme still stands out above the other weapons in the offense.
Like Green, Tamme has developed his overall game. Coming out of Kentucky, Tamme was known as a move tight end with good run-after-the-catch ability. During his time with the Colts he learned from Manning-favorite Dallas Clark, and Tamme proved to be a key piece of the Indy passing game.
With the emergence of Julius Thomas, Tamme had to learn how to play (and be comfortable with) a backup role. This means he had to learn how to stand out on special teams. As good of a pass-catcher as he is, Tamme is almost as good as a special teams player.
Manning talked about that chemistry earlier this year when explaining that he sometimes calls plays from his Colts days. “I still call an old play that we just don’t have in this offense. The Indianapolis Colts run it, [TE] Jacob Tamme knows the play but nobody else does (laughing).”
The connection with Manning, his ability as a move tight end and the fact that he’s a “plus” player on special teams means Tamme’s roster spot is quite safe—even with a $3.5 million cap number in 2014.
Tamme is unlikely to contribute much if everyone above him on the depth chart stays healthy. However, if a player like Julius Thomas, Wes Welker or Emmanuel Sanders gets banged up, then Tamme will be able to come through as a consistent target for the offense.
The Broncos are going to have some tough decisions to make when filling out the 53-man roster. One of those decisions will revolve around Dreessen.
The veteran tight end has a nearly $3.2 million cap number in 2014. Of that total, approximately $667,000 is “dead” money. That means the Broncos could cut Dreessen and gain about $2.5 million in salary cap space. This could be something the team pursues if they need to add another player during training camp.
Dreessen is an incredibly valuable player when healthy. He began his career as a long snapper, coming out of Colorado State as a sixth-round pick by the New York Jets in the 2005 NFL draft. He bounced from the Jets to the Houston Texans and began to flourish as a blocking tight end and occasional red-zone target.
He came back to Colorado when the Broncos added him as a free agent in 2012. Dreessen continued to show well as a fine all-purpose tight end, catching a career-high 41 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns in his first year with the Broncos. A knee injury slowed down the veteran after that.
In 2013, Dreessen was coming back from knee surgery when it was discovered he needed another knee surgery to clean up problems in the joint. This kept him inactive on game day for most of the season, and Dreessen only recorded seven catches for 47 yards and one touchdown in 2013.
His status with the team is up in the air right now.
Dreessen has not been able to participate in any of the offseason training activities or minicamp as he continues to deal with his knee injury. As the old saying goes, “You can’t make the club in the tub.” If Dreessen can’t get healthy in time to show what he’s got in camp, then the team could choose to go in a different direction.
The Broncos may carry four tight ends again this year, but they could also choose to carry more wide receivers if a player like Isaiah Burse is too good to leave on the practice squad. The emergence of a guy like Burse could be backup for Dreessen even though they play different positions.
In today’s NFL, tight ends often play like supersized wide receivers. The Broncos signed Gerell Robinson from their practice squad after the Super Bowl earlier this year. When he was signed in February, the Broncos quietly gave him the distinction of being a tight end—a difference from what he was listed as on the practice squad during the 2013 season.
Robinson was a wide receiver coming out of Arizona State in 2012. He was a favorite target of Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler in college, and the team decided to keep the duo together by adding Robinson as an undrafted free agent after selecting Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
He failed to make the 53-man roster as a rookie, and the Arizona Cardinals signed Robinson away before the Broncos could sign him to the practice squad. He bounced on and off the Cardinals practice squad in 2012 until the Broncos signed him to a future contract in early 2013.
Robinson worked as a wide receiver last year but again found himself on the practice squad instead of the active roster. This year, the team decided to use Robinson in a different way.
He was the only tight end at rookie minicamp earlier this year, and Robinson received daily one-on-one guidance from tight ends coach Clancy Barone. Most of the time at practice, Robinson was seen working on his blocking ability out of a three-point stance.
While he may be somewhat lumbering as a wide receiver and struggle to gain separation off the line, Robinson looks much better as a tight end. He’s too fast for linebackers to cover, and he’s too big for safeties to cover.
The move payed off for Robinson as he was a standout player during offseason training activities for the Broncos. He looked good running routes close to the line of scrimmage, but Robinson also showed the ability to run routes down the deep middle seam.
Robinson is a nice sleeper at the tight end position. So long as he proves himself as a blocker, Robinson could make the final roster this year at his new designation.
The Broncos have a couple of veteran tight ends on the depth chart who are fighting to make the final roster. Cameron Morrah is a long shot to make the team, but he will have a chance to prove himself in training camp.
Originally a seventh-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2009 NFL draft, Morrah bounced around the league to three other teams since then. He’s spent time on the practice squad with the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. Earlier this year, the Broncos signed Morrah to a future contract to see if he could make the team.
He’s a move tight end and not much of a blocker. He has the speed to run routes down the seam, and Morrah has the length to be a good target in the red zone.
Morrah lacks physicality to his game, and that hurts him as a blocker and on contested passes. Unless he shows a better all-around game, the chances of Morrah winning a roster spot are thin.
In addition to Morrah, the Broncos also have a versatile veteran tight end in Jameson Konz. The former linebacker has bounced around the league during his time in the pros.
Konz was a seventh-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2010 NFL draft. When injuries hit the Seahawks defensive line, Konz was moved to the defensive side of the ball. He’s a tough football player, and that helps him no matter if he’s playing offense or defense.
He is fearless when running routes over the middle, and Konz does not shy away from contact. He can win at the point of the catch and will rip away contested passes with ease.
Konz has a quick initial burst, and this helps him get into his routes quickly. Knee and hip injuries suffered during his college and pro career have not robbed him of his natural athleticism.
Like Morrah, Konz is unlikely to make the final roster. We’ll see if he can finally stay healthy and impress enough to make the team.
Who Makes the Final Roster?
The Broncos have a ton of quality talent at many positions on both sides of the ball. The team’s group of tight ends is arguably the deepest and most talented bunch.
Julius Thomas should continue to dominate on the field, and he could cement himself as a premiere weapon in today’s game. The Broncos would be wise to lock up Thomas with a new contract as soon as possible, especially if he puts up better numbers than he did last year.
Green is in the final year of his contract too, and he’s incredibly valuable as a blocker and all-purpose tight end. Tamme’s ability to fill in for multiple players makes him irreplaceable as a reserve player. We’ll see if Dreessen or Robinson makes the final roster in training camp.
The role of the tight end has changed because of the pass-happy nature of the league. The Broncos have a fine mix of traditional tight ends who can block and new-age tight ends who can line up like wide receivers. This blend will help them continue to have the most dangerous passing game in the league.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.