Other teams had 16 play­ers at po­si­tion who out­did Den­ver’s en­tire corps

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Kos­mider •

Vir­gil Green makes his way to the front of the line each morn­ing at Bron­cos head­quar­ters. He leads the bulk of the 90-man ros­ter from the locker room, his cleats clack­ing f irst across the park­ing lot un­til they dig into the well­man­i­cured grass on the prac­tice f ield.

He of­ten an­nounces his pres­ence by shout­ing words of en­cour­age­ment for the play­ers col­lected be­hind him.

“For the past three years, ev­ery time we go in there to do our ac­ti­va­tion, I al­ways want to be the first one out on the field,” Green said. “I want to take the field and show not only my team­mates, but my coaches, that I want to be here. I’m not mop­ing out here. I want to come out here and com­pete and earn the right to play on Sun­days. That’s all you can re­ally ask for out of a team­mate.”

Put sim­ply, the Bron­cos are ask­ing for more pro­duc­tion out of the tight end po­si­tion in 2017. Green led the team with 22 re­cep­tions for 237 yards last sea­son. The rest of the tight ends had a com­bined 31 catches. There were 16 tight ends in the NFL last sea­son who had more catches on their own than Den­ver’s 53 grabs at the po­si­tion.

The group had an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult time mak­ing its mark in the red zone. The Bron­cos had two touch­downs by tight ends in 2016, one by Green and another by John Phillips, who signed a one-year deal with the New Or­leans Saints in March.

That’s a far cry from just three sea­sons ago, in 2014, when the Bron­cos had a com­bined 15 touch­down re­cep­tions from their tight ends.

There were other harsh num­bers that tor­pe­doed Den­ver’s play­off hopes last sea­son. The Bron­cos scored touch­downs on 46.8 percent of their red zone drives, an ef­fi­ciency rate that ranked 26th in the NFL. They were last in the league in third-and-1 con­ver­sion rate at 44.4 percent. Though the of­fense’s fail­ings in those sce­nar­ios were wide­spread, the Bron­cos also know bet­ter pro­duc­tion out of their tight end spot could be a salve.

“Not only are we ea­ger to pro­duce in the passing game, we’re ea­ger to pro­duce in the run­ning game as well,” Green said. “That’s a huge thing for (of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor) Mike McCoy. He doesn’t want to just be a great passing team. He wants to be a great run team and play-ac­tion team. So to have guys on the edge who are will­ing to sac­ri­fice their bodies and be un­selfish is what we want in the tight end room.”

The Bron­cos’ ex­ten­sive work in the red zone through the first week of train­ing camp has put an in­creased spot­light

on the tight ends, and there have been a few re­veal­ing per­for­mances. Green opened Mon­day’s prac­tice with a div­ing catch in the cor­ner of the end zone on a pass from Pax­ton Lynch. It was the same way Green started the first prac­tice of train­ing camp last Thurs­day.

“He’s a our tone set­ter in the room and a tone set­ter on our of­fense,” tight end A.J. Derby, who joined the Bron­cos in a trade from New Eng­land mid­way through last sea­son, said of Green. “He’s al­ways in the trenches mak­ing plays for us, and when he sneaks out and makes a big catch, it’s awe­some.”

Derby, too, is ex­pected to be a play­maker. He had 16 re­cep­tions on 20 tar­gets in six games with Den­ver last sea­son, num­bers that were damp­ened by his ab­sence, be­cause of a con­cus­sion, in the fi­nal two games of the sea­son.

Last sea­son, Derby said, was a whirl­wind. He was in just his third sea­son as a full-time tight end af­ter switch­ing from quar­ter­back dur­ing his se­nior sea­son at Arkansas, and he was cram­ming over­time to learn a new play­book.

“Last year I was re­ally scram­bling ev­ery week to try to learn the new plays and ev­ery­thing like that,” Derby said. “But with be­ing able to learn it through train­ing camp and (or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties), it’s a lot more com­fort­able. Know­ing the guys re­ally helps.”

Derby last week dis­played the ben­e­fits of an off­sea­son work­out pro­gram, head­quar­tered in Den­ver, that fo­cused on im­prov­ing quick­ness and speed. In one-on-one red zone drills last week, where space is at a pre­mium, Derby ex­celled at carv­ing enough of it to open win­dows for his quar­ter­back.

“With our tight end group, he’s the guy that can win one-on-ones as far as matchups,” coach Vance Joseph said of Derby. “When you’re game-plan­ning and you want to get a guy on a cer­tain line­backer, he would be that guy for us.”

The wild card in the tight end group may be Jeff Heuer­man, the third-round pick in the 2015 draft who played, with up-and­down re­sults, for the first time last sea­son. He missed his rookie sea­son af­ter suf­fer­ing a torn an­te­rior cru­ci­ate liga­ment on the sec­ond day of rookie mini­camp.

“He’s a big body guy that has de­cep­tive speed, good hands and long arms,” Joseph said of the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuer­man. “If he comes on, that’s go­ing to help us.”

Bron­cos gen­eral man­ager John El­way set a high bar for Heuer­man on the eve of train­ing camp.

“We’re wait­ing for him to take that big step be­cause we drafted him third round a cou­ple of years ago, and ob­vi­ously he tore the ACL in mini­camp the first year,” El­way said. “We’re look­ing at this year as Jeff’s com­ing out year. Like I said, he had a good spring. Hope­fully he makes that big jump.”

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

From left, Bron­cos tight ends A.J. Derby, Vir­gil Green and Jeff Heuer­man in­tend to im­prove a po­si­tion that didn’t pro­duce well in 2016.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Bron­cos rookie tight end Jake Butt is re­cov­er­ing from an in­jury dur­ing his fi­nal game at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan but hopes to make an im­pact as a pro.

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