Just before free-agent tight end Virgil Green could hit the open market, the Denver Broncos re-signed him to a three-year deal worth $2.8 million per year, according to Troy Renck of The Denver Post. Then once the market opened, they quickly moved to secure tight end Owen Daniels to a three-year deal, according to Peter King of The MMQB. The Broncos confirmed both signings Tuesday.
With Renck reporting that tight end Julius Thomas will take the Jacksonville Jaguars’ money, the Broncos are shifting to a new philosophy at tight end. Whereas Thomas was a weapon in the red zone and could draw the attention of safeties away from wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Green is a blocking tight end and Daniels a receiver well-versed in new head coach Gary Kubiak’s scheme.
The Broncos aren’t trying to replace Thomas in the passing game. Everyone is expecting the Broncos to skew more toward the run in 2015, as that has been Kubiak’s specialty for his entire career.
It’s still possible with some development from Green and quarterback Peyton Manning throwing the ball they can replace much of what they got from Thomas in the passing game. The Broncos seem to be happy with Green’s development and think he contribute more in the passing game than he did last season.
If they can get more out of Green in the passing game, particularly in the red zone, that’s a bonus. The plan is obviously for Green to help the Broncos run the ball to take the pressure off Manning. Daniels becomes a safety net for Manning if the offensive line breaks down or Demaryius Thomas and Sanders aren’t getting open without Julius occupying the safety.
The Broncos know they’ll get heavy usage from Green in the running game, but Daniels will be the one used primarily in the passing game. He’s well-versed in Kubiak’s scheme having played his whole career in it, which should help him stay involved despite the presence of Demaryius Thomas, Sanders and Cody Latimer on the roster.
A lot would obviously depend on Latimer’s development, the Broncos’ second-round pick last year. At worst, Daniels gives the Broncos flexibility to rotate Green out in passing situations and to help replace wide receiver Wes Welker’s production in the offense.
The Broncos will ask a lot more from the tight end position in some areas and a lot less in others. Stretching the field, scoring touchdowns and making big plays aren’t going to be what they expect from Green and Daniels. They might get a little bit of that, but primarily they are going to be the engine that makes the offense work between the 20s.
The nice thing for the Broncos is they don’t have to project too much. In free agency, the key is only paying for future performance, and the Broncos didn’t have to overspend on one player who may not be able to stay on the field. That makes the Broncos much less likely to regret these signings, as they may have if they signed Julius Thomas to a lucrative extension hoping he could build on his performances in a run-centric offense.
|Tight Ends as Run-Blockers Comparison 2014|
|Players||Snaps||PFF Run-Block Grade|
|Pro Football Focus|
Last season, Green was the fourth-best run-blocking tight end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. This was despite the fact that he played fewer snaps than many of the other good run-blocking tight ends in the league.
Garrett Graham was Kubiak’s second tight end in Houston, and he played about 300 more snaps on average from 2012-2013 than Green played last year. If Green can perform as he did in limited snaps over a full season in Kubiak’s system, he has a legitimate shot to become one the best run-blocking tight ends in the league.
On the other hand, Daniels played full-time last year after Baltimore’s top tight end, Dennis Pitta, went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3. Of course, even before that, he was heavily involved in the offense.
Daniels had 11 targets in the first two weeks and two of his five touchdowns. In Week 1, Daniels played just 36.2 percent of the snaps in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but that increased to 75.7 percent in Week 2 as the Ravens turned to the run to beat up on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Daniels’ 72 targets in 2014 turned into 524 receiving yards, which is just 16 targets and 264 yards shy of Thomas’ 2013 healthy season. It’s very reasonable to project Green will get more than 16 targets and 264 yards in 2015 to make up the difference.
As far as touchdowns go, the Broncos will have to make those in the running game with Green and Daniels clearing the way. Last season, Kubiak’s offense in Baltimore scored 37.2 percent of their touchdowns on the ground. Contrast that with the Broncos’ 27.2 percent on the ground, even though they only had one fewer touchdown overall.
|2014 vs. 2015 Offense Comparision|
|Entity||Rec. TD||Rush TD||Pass TD %||Rush TD %|
|Kubiak Adjusted Broncos||34||21||61.8%||38.2%|
If the Broncos were to score the same amount of touchdowns in 2015 as they did in 2014, but with Kubiak’s run-heavy approach, about six touchdowns would move from the passing game to the running game. That means the Broncos only need to make up six of Julius Thomas’ 12 receiving touchdowns, and Daniels scored five and Green scored one last year.
The Broncos may be changing their philosophy at tight end, but that doesn’t mean they are giving up production. It explains why the team never even made an offer to Julius Thomas, as Mike Klis of The Denver Post reported.
If things go as planned, there’s a good chance the Broncos never regret letting Julius Thomas go. You also never know how Green might develop in the passing game with more one-on-one attention from Manning in 2015.