ESPN Senior Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the last nine seasons, the Denver Broncos can put the role of the tight end in their offense into two categories:
The seasons of Healthy Peyton Manning.
And All The Other Seasons.
The Broncos want to change that. Enter Jake Butt.
“We like the potential there, we like what he can bring to the offense,” president of football operations/general manager John Elway said earlier this offseason.
In Manning’s three healthy seasons with the Broncos, the team’s offense bordered on historically ridiculous, including 2013’s run as the first 600-point offense in league history. In those seasons, a tight end caught at least 43 passes and the Broncos got 7, 14 and 15 touchdowns at the position.
In the other six years, including 2017, they haven’t gotten more than five touchdowns from the position in any of those seasons, and in 2010, no tight end caught a touchdown. And their struggles last season might be best summed up by the fact A.J. Derby led all of the Broncos tight ends with 19 receptions and the team waived him in November.
The result last season was the team’s top two wide receivers — Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders — were usually surrounded in coverage because opposing defensive coordinators just weren’t that concerned about any other players in the passing game.
“We know we need to make defenses play us fair,” said Broncos coach Vance Joseph. “To do that, we have to force them to honor other receivers, away from [Thomas] and Emmanuel. Our tight ends are part of that.”
Again, enter Jake Butt.
“We understand — [Thomas] and [Sanders], they’ve been doing it a while now,’’ Butt said. “They’re two really good top-notch receivers. They’re going to be getting a lot of attention on the outside. They’re going to be drawing some double-teams. So it’s our responsibility as tight ends and slots to win in these one-on-one matchups on the inside. Whatever that means … just to take a little bit of pressure off those guys on the outside.’’
The Broncos drafted Butt in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He then spent his rookie season on injured reserve due to a torn ACL suffered in his final game at Michigan. The only reason a player like the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder, who was one of the most proficient route runners at the position on the draft board, was available in the fifth round was the injury.
Whether Butt, or even Jeff Heuerman, a third-round pick in the 2015 draft, can change that remains to be seen. But that’s certainly the Broncos’ bet, because they didn’t dive into free agency at the position and used just one of their 10 draft picks this past April on the position. They used it to take Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli, who has not taken part in the offseason workouts as he recovers from sports hernia surgery.
The Broncos allowed Butt to practice briefly last season, just before the deadline to move a player from the non-football injury list to the roster, but elected to move him to injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
The Broncos like what they’ve seen to this point in the offseason work but have tempered their public expectations for Butt in the slightly retooled offense.
“He looks healthy, finally,” Joseph said. “ … Right now, he’s totally healthy … We haven’t played a game yet, so I don’t know what Jake is going to be, but he’s very engaged, he’s worked hard, and he’s here every day.”
For his part, Butt has maintained the swagger of a starter. In his final two seasons with the Wolverines he was a first-team All-American, catching 97 passes in 2015 and 2016.
“You have to have that kind of confidence, and I think we all do in the tight end room,” Butt said. “You’ve got to have a confidence to play in this league. That’s my goal … That you can be on that No. 1 spot.”