The Denver Broncos are going to run the ball early and often in 2016. Last year, they didn’t truly run the Gary Kubiak system but instead utilized a hybrid offense that tried to fit what former quarterback Peyton Manning did best. This year, the true Kubiak system will be in place, and it’s an offense most Broncos fans should know well.
With this system, the tight end position is one that plays a big role in the offense.
Right now, the Broncos have a few question marks at this important position. They have a veteran who is an underrated receiver, a second-year player who is basically a rookie after missing the 2015 season and a couple of other options to fill the void at tight end. During training camp, we’ll get a clear picture of how this position is going to take shape for the Broncos in 2016.
Here is the full position breakdown and depth chart analysis of the tight ends on the Broncos roster.
Starter: Virgil Green
In 2011, the Broncos drafted a couple of tight ends who had great upside as receivers. In the fourth round, they selected former Portland State basketball star Julius Thomas, and they drafted Virgil Green out of Nevada in the seventh round. While Thomas has flourished as a receiving threat in the NFL, Green has yet to truly show off his immense receiving skills in the pros.
While in college, Green was a favorite target of his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Green was a work in progress as a blocker in college, but as a receiver, he could find the soft spot in a zone and pick up plenty of yards after the catch. He has big, soft hands that help him snare passes with ease.
As a pro, Green worked hard to become the best blocking tight end on the roster. Now he’s such a good blocker that Green is rarely used as a receiver. His 12 catches in 2015 was a career-high total for the veteran tight end.
When minicamp started this year, I asked Kubiak what Green needed to do in order to be used more as a receiver. The veteran coach revealed that Green was recovering from surgery on his finger, a procedure nobody covering the team yet knew about.
“We’ve got to get Virgil’s hand well first," Kubiak said. "He’s going to miss probably a good portion of OTAs with his finger surgery.”
To answer the original question, Kubiak continued: “I think it’s just opportunity, really. Virgil is a worker, and he’s got a lot of confidence in what he’s doing. He knows what we’re doing now. I think he’ll be very competitive to be on the field a great deal.”
All signs indicate that Green should be ready to go by the start of training camp. We’ll get a depth chart soon after camp starts, and it won’t be a surprise to see Green’s name at the top of that list. However, in order to stay there, Green will have to show well as a receiver to keep a young player from leapfrogging him at the position.
"Move" Tight End: Jeff Heuerman
In the third round of the 2015 NFL draft, the Broncos added Jeff Heuerman out of Ohio State. There may have been a large role for him as a rookie, but Heuerman tore his ACL during rookie minicamp and missed the entire 2015 season. In college, nagging foot injuries bothered him, and that injury bug followed him quickly to the NFL.
Heuerman was not used much as a receiver for the Buckeyes in 2014. In fact, you have to go back to 2013 to find film where Heuerman looks like a threat as a receiver. He’s a fluid player who can get by linebackers with his speed at the second level. Heuerman is too big for safeties to handle, and he makes a big target when going over the middle of the field.
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison likes what Heuerman has shown so far this offseason.
“He looks pretty comfortable out there as far as knowing where to line and what to do," Dennison said. "It’s one thing to hear it, and the other thing is to practice it—any reps on the field doing anything. That’s a crucial part of learning—going through and doing it.
"We’ll get him a chance. We like our group at tight end. We’ll see what happens.”
The tight end is a featured target in the Kubiak offense, and Heuerman may prove to be the most dangerous weapon at this spot. His ability to attack a seam vertically could make him an attractive target when it’s time to strike deep. Heuerman’s fluid athletic ability could also help him get open on routes that go opposite play side.
It’s a league of finding mismatches, and Heuerman is a player defenses could find difficult to match up with. He may not begin the season as the starter, but if he impresses in training camp—and stays healthy—it will be difficult for the Broncos to keep him on the bench.
Veteran Depth: Garrett Graham
Earlier this year in free agency, the Broncos added veteran tight end Garrett Graham to the mix. Formerly a fourth-round draft pick of the Houston Texans in the 2010 NFL draft, Graham has spent a few years with Kubiak and knows the offense like the back of his hand.
Graham is doing a little bit of everything during the team’s recent mandatory minicamp.
“I’ve been learning both [blocking and receiving] right now and getting back into the groove of doing both of them," Graham said. "I think it’s good to know both, be able to do both and be able to do all three when we go three tight ends. Whatever I’m asked to do, I’m going to try and do that.”
He may not have the devastating blocking ability of Green or the upside as a receiver like Heuerman, but Graham is a seasoned pro who can be counted on as a reliable player on the field as a blocker or pass-catcher.
Potential Sleepers: Henry Krieger-Coble, Manasseh Garner
The Broncos have a long history of finding talented players—and sometimes stars in the league—from the ranks of the undrafted. After the 2016 NFL draft, the Broncos came to terms with 21 college free agents.
One of the players to watch closely out of that group is Iowa tight end Henry Krieger-Coble.
Krieger-Coble patiently waited for the starting job with the Hawkeyes and flourished when given the chance in 2015. He finished second on the team with 35 receptions, 405 yards and one touchdown.
He’s known as a worker who can excel as a blocker or receiver. Krieger-Coble plays fast and can be dangerous when unchecked off the line of scrimmage. With only one year as a starter, Krieger-Coble shows tremendous savvy as a route-runner. He’ll get open by being physical or being savvy with his technique when setting up routes.
Kubiak has noticed the undrafted rookie this offseason.
“He’s an undersized guy, but he knows what he’s doing," Kubiak said. "He played in an offense similar [to ours]. I think you’re seeing him stepping out and doing some good things.”
Kubiak continued: “The big thing for him is going to be getting bigger and stronger—I don’t know how much ground you can make up between now and training camp—but that’s going to be the key for him in his career.”
In addition to Krieger-Coble, the Broncos also have second-year pro Manasseh Garner on the roster. Garner is a versatile player who can line up in multiple positions, including tight end, fullback and H-back. A wide receiver at Pitt, Garner began his college career as a defensive end with Wisconsin. He has bounced around to a few teams after coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015.
The Broncos have question marks at the tight end position right now. Could Krieger-Coble be the answer the team is looking for? He will get a chance to compete this year, but Krieger-Coble should be thought of as a developmental prospect with the upside to be a future starter one day. It will be interesting to see what kind of impression he can make in training camp later this year.
The Broncos are going to be a balanced offense in 2016, but it will seem like they’re run-heavy when compared to the rest of this pass-happy league. When they go through the air, expect the tight end to play as more than just a blocker.
Green has to be considered the starter at this early juncture even though offseason surgery has limited him at OTAs. His blocking ability is second to none on the roster, but he needs to show off his speed and playmaking ability as a receiver in order to earn a larger role when the team goes to pass the ball.
Heuerman is a player the Broncos have a lot of hope for. If he’s able to stay healthy, the super-sized wide receiver can be a threat and a playmaker for this offense. He’s improved as a blocker compared to what he showed on film at Ohio State, but Heuerman is not likely to be an all-purpose player. His best assets come to the surface when watching him catch the ball, and the Broncos should oblige him multiple times in 2016.
Graham is there for veteran depth, and he may only be a starting option if injuries strike ahead of him on the depth chart. Krieger-Coble has potential, but the undrafted rookie may take some time before he’s ready to contribute. He’s no lock for the 53-man roster, but if he impresses, then perhaps we could see a spot for him on the Broncos' practice squad.
In addition to the players already on the roster, expect the Broncos to scour the waiver wire for talent at the position. They’ll be monitoring to see if other teams release tight ends with potential. The Broncos could also consider bringing back veteran Owen Daniels if they needed to.
Expect the rushing attack to be the centerpiece of the Broncos offense. However, in a Kubiak system, the tight end can play a key role as well. The battle for the starting job will be one of the most interesting competitions coming up in training camp.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted.