Who's the Odd Man Out at Tight End for the Denver Broncos?

With the selection of Jake Butt, what will Denver do with its logjam at tight end?

One of the major reasons the Denver Broncos struggled offensively in 2016 was the absence of production from the tight end position.

Virgil Green, in his sixth season, made some minor contributions on offense beyond his signature Hulk-like run blocking, but once he was sidelined during the middle of the season, the void at the spot become more and more apparent.

This triggered Denver to trade a fifth-round pick to the New England Patriots for tight end A.J. Derby, a former Arkansas quarterback-turned-receiver. Unlike the incumbent options like Green, Jeff Heuerman, and John Phillips (who the Broncos eventually jettisoned mid-season), Derby's role focused on the more explosive aspects of the position, often moving out into the flex and the slot as opposed to the left of right side of the offensive line.

The Derby trade eventually revealed itself to be a worthwhile transaction, as the second-year tight end became a short and intermediate crutch for Trevor Siemian to the tune of 16 receptions for 160 yards over a five-game stretch before Derby's concussion issues ended his season early.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1681565-5-reasons-you-should-go-p... Without Derby, second-year tight end Jeff Heuerman was able to pick up some of the slack at tight end, quieting the "bust" label that was eagerly assigned to him by collecting seven receptions for 93 yards in the final three games of the season. Despite disappearing at times during the season, Heuerman established himself as a downfield threat, averaging 15.7 yards per reception, which was the highest average of Denver's wide receivers and tight ends.

Although the last touchdown of the season was a play-action lob to Denver's primary tight end, Green, there was no questioning that the position needed some juice come the offseason. In total, the tight ends still on Denver's roster at season's end combined for just 48 receptions, 551 yards, and just one touchdown.

While free agency was spent addressing both sides of the trenches, John Elway and company made offensive firepower a priority in the draft. On the to-draft list was a running back, wide receiver, and tight end.

Heads turned and hearts pounded as the consensus top-tight end in the draft, Alabama's O.J. Howard, mysteriously dropped into the middle of the first round. If he could just make it a few more spots to twenty, it looked as though the Broncos might find their answer at the position in the well-rounded and dominant Howard.

Alas, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned their card in, and with the 19th pick, removed Howard from the board. The pipe dream was no more.

But the Broncos were watching another player whose fall lasted far longer than anyone would have expected during the college football season. Michigan's twice All-American Jake Butt, whose pair of ACL injuries dropped him from a potential first-rounder into a late-round flyer, was still patiently waiting to hear his name called with the first pick of the fifth round. The Broncos made him wait no longer, and the tight end of the future was in the building soon after.

A torn ACL once spelled doom to a player's career, but in the modern NFL, recovery time has shortened so significantly that a December injury (in Butt's case) won't necessarily sideline him for more than a few regular season games, if at all.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1779583-broncos-on-the-brink-jord... Of course, there's endless variability in this situation. Denver's training staff might decide Butt would benefit from a conservative recovery process and place him on the PUP list to begin the year. There's also a chance he's ready to roll in Week One.

Assuming he's on the field in the first half of the 2017 season, the Broncos have a decision to make at tight end in order to clear the log jam.

First of all, why is it necessary to get rid of one of the tight ends at all if they're under contract? A committee approach might be useful when the position is filled by a few established players, as was the case in 2012 when the Broncos made use of both Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, two players whose ceiling was already apparent by the time they joined the team.

Five years later, Denver still has a cluster at the position, but rather than experienced vets, they're young players with something to prove and need an allotment of significant playing time in order to reach their potential. Butt, Heuerman, Derby, and even Henry Krieger-Coble require training-camp reps and regular-season snaps to sort themselves out. The only player that can be evaluated with any certainty at this point in his career is Green, who will enter his seventh season with the Broncos in 2017. 

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Therein lies the conundrum for the Broncos. They know from season-to-season what they're likely to get out of Green, which is a hard-nosed blocker who can add a few catches in the process, but they obviously desire more from their starter, as evidenced by the investment tied in with the other three behind him.

At peak performance, Jake Butt can deliver anything anyone could ask from a starting tight end. He's a willing and capable blocker, an explosive receiver, and a reliable target in the red zone. But given his uncertainty to play at the beginning of the year, is it worth it to release Green or deal him before the regular season, a move that would save them $2.8 million?

If they're comfortable riding with Heuerman and Derby to begin the year, or if they expect a speedy recovery out of Butt, the answer might be yes. Rumors swirled in the past couple months regarding a potential Green trade, but of course nothing came to fruition.

The status of Jake Butt is probably one of the only hang-ups when it comes to letting go of Green. They'll have a better idea of where he's at in camp, and since waiting until after the June 1 deadline to cut Green wouldn't cost them anything in terms of dead cap space, they should wait until they have a more rigid timetable of when the rookie can step onto the field for the first time.

Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

Follow Mile High Huddle on Twitter @MileHighHuddle and on Facebook.

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