ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Tight end James Casey comes from tragic beginnings. His adolescence was marred by the loss of his mother when their home burned down. At 16 years old, all that was left for him to carry on his life was his sister, a backpack and the clothes on his back.
Despite this cataclysmic loss, Casey went on to become a star dual-sport athlete, exceling in high school football and baseball, and for a time, it seemed that baseball would be his path to professional noteriety.
Casey was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the seventh round of the 2003 MLB Draft. He pursued his baseball career for another three years, before retiring and returning to school, this time Rice University, to get an education and play football.
He went on to graduate Rice University with a triple-major and was selected by Gary Kubiak and the Houston Texans in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. In his four-year career with the Texans, he racked up 96 receptions for 752 yards and four touchdowns.
Casey initially cracked the roster because of a relentless work ethic and a willingness to contribute in a variety of ways, whether it was as a fullback, tight end or on special teams. These attributes endeared him to Kubiak and then Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who is now in Denver.
Casey left the Texans following the 2012 season, signing a three-year, $14.6M deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Alas, his time in Philly was marred somewhat by injury and he was unable to make much of an impact on the offense.
The Eagles released him in February. After a whirlwind free agency tour, he ended up returning to the familiarity of the coaching staff who drafted him, signing a one-year, $1.25M deal with the Denver Broncos in April.
Today, the entire Broncos roster convened at Dove Valley to participate in Phase Two of their offseason training program. Casey met with the assembled media afterwards and talked about what drew him to sign with the Broncos.
“It’s been great because any time you come somewhere and you’ve already been with the coaching staff, it helps out because you know a little bit of the plays,” he said. “It’s been two years since I’ve been the system, so I still need to get acclimated back to everything. If anybody asks any questions about certain things that we did in Houston, I’ll be able to help out as much as I can with the younger fullbacks and tight ends.”
Although Casey has experience in Kubiak’s offensive system, he’s still a new face in the Broncos locker room. And he has to compete with Owen Daniels (his former Houston teammate), Virgil Green, and even the young, less-proven guys on the roster, like Joe Don Duncan and Dominique Jones.
“At this point, you’re always coming in trying to compete and trying to earn respect from everybody,” Casey said. “When you’re new, no one knows who you are. A lot of the guys haven’t seen you play, so you’ve got to try and earn your respect again.”
Casey’s time in Philadelphia was cut short. He only played out two of the three years on his contract. However, he doesn’t see his time there as a failure. He felt like he did everything Chip Kelly asked of him, and perhaps even more.
“I thought I had two successful years there,” he reflected. “I felt I did everything they asked of me and contributed and played really well with everything that they asked me to do. I just believe that I kind of got caught in a situation where [Head Coach] Chip [Kelly] signed me as a free agent and then he drafted a tight end at the very top of the second round right after that. In the NFL, there are only so many spots available, so you have to try and make yourself valuable wherever you can. I contributed on special teams, played everything on special teams, and came in here and there offensively.”
Special teams might be the most unglamorous of the three phases of professional football, but it is just as vital as offense or defense. Executing on special teams can be the key to winning or losing a game. As a veteran, Casey understands the importance of the third phase and how it can set a player apart from the competition.
“Special teams-wise, it’s one of those things where I think if you’re a veteran guy and you’ve been around, you’ve seen it, you make it important to you and you work hard at it,” he said. “Sometimes in the NFL you get to be veteran status and it’s not important to them because everybody wants to be a starter on offense. That’s definitely what I want to be as well but you’ve also got to try and find ways to make teams and contribute. I take a lot of pride in special teams. I had a very good year last year on special teams. The Eagles finished No. 1 in the league in special teams.”
The Broncos lost their third round pick, tight end Jeff Heuerman, to a torn ACL over the weekend. As a fellow tight end, Casey feels for the rookie and has reached out to support him through this extremely disappointing time in his young career. Casey understands loss—how to overcome it and use it as fuel to find the positive.
“With Heuerman going down, I felt really, really terrible hearing that over the break that we had this last weekend,” Casey said. “I’ve spoken with him. He’s a great guy. He’s going to bounce back from it. It’s one of those freak deals. You never want to see it happen, but he’s got a great mindset. I told him you can always try and find some kind of positive in anything. Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out. That’s kind of the type of guy that he is.”
Following his release in Philadelphia, there was a lot of interest in Casey around the league, but no one wanted to pony up the max contract for him. He ended up visiting with seven NFL teams, before ultimately choosing to sign with the Broncos—albeit at a lower price tag than he had hoped.
“I wasn’t in any hurry because I’ve been fortunate to play a little while now and I wanted to get into the best situation where if it wasn’t going to be for a bigger contract, which it ended up not being, that I wanted to try and get into the best situation to make a team, be successful, be around a lot of great guys and have a chance to win a lot of football games,” Casey said. “After everything happened, I met all of the teams, kept talking to teams and still had some interest, and I just felt like this was the best opportunity for me.”
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As Emmanuel Sanders once remarked, playing in Denver is “wide receiver heaven” and it’s no different for a tight end. The opportunity to play with a five-time league MVP Peyton Manning is a privilege—and one that can be career-defining. Casey talked about what makes Manning so successful.
“Coming in here and not knowing the guy, you see it,” Casey said. “I’ve played against him multiple times. You know everything about him. When you actually see it first hand, it’s been very impressive. He’s been around so long. He’s learning a little bit of a new system, too. Just how he is taking everything, how hard he works, how disciplined he is and how he studies, he holds everybody else accountable. Even as a guy running routes and stuff, you don’t necessarily listen to the coaches. You know Peyton is going to make sure you know what you’re doing and that you’re on top of things. It obvious to see why he has been so successful.”
The Broncos made a great call in signing Casey. He’s a multi-tool guy, capable of contributing in a variety of ways. The area he might impact the most, however, is at fullback. The Broncos lacked a true, experienced veteran at the position, until Casey came to town. Rest assured, he’s confident he can be the lead blocker for the Broncos stable of talented young running backs, led by Pro Bowler C.J. Anderson.
“The fullback is tough,” he said. “Early on in my career, I was more of a receiver coming out of college. I kind of had to work my way into working tight end and then I had to learn fullback. I was always learning stuff. Now I feel real confident.”
According to Casey, playing fullback requires a certain mindset—one that he has cultivated and honed over the course of his six-year career.
“A lot of it is just mentality, learning what things are about, how to be physical, how to finish plays and things like that,” he said. “I think I’m best suited for it now. I’m older in my career. The physical nature of the game as opposed to running around all over the place, when you’re young it’s awesome, but as you get a little bit older, you enjoy the blocking, doing your part and whatever you are responsible in the run game.”
Like special teams, blocking isn't the most glamorous part of football, but the art of executing it is a cornerstone of the game. Casey is willing to do whatever it takes to contribute to his team, no matter how. This lunch-pail attitude will serve the Broncos well.