With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 10, today marks the fourth installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Tight ends | Friday: Offensive line. | Rest of the series
In Peyton Manning’s three seasons as the team’s quarterback, the Broncos' tight ends have averaged 87.3 catches, 903.3 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns per season as a group. Those numbers are relevant on two levels, the first being that the position has always been a key part of any offense in which newly-named coach Gary Kubiak has had play-calling duties.
The second is the top three players on the depth chart, including Julius Thomas, are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. So, the prospect of turnover is very real with the potential for several new faces, to go with a dash of uncertainty, in a new offense at a position of high interest.
The Alpha: There isn’t one, at least not under contract for the 2015 season, and that’s the prelude to a positional makeover. Thomas, because of his production, could have been. But injuries derailed three of his four seasons with the Broncos, including this past season – he caught just three passes in the six regular-season games combined following the ankle injury he suffered Nov. 16 in St. Louis. He had six catches in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but his first reception in the game went for 32 yards and his next five gained 21 yards combined.
Salary cap: At the moment Dominique Jones is the lone player at the position under contract for the 2015 season – he is scheduled to count $660,000 against the cap. That would be just 1.08 percent of the cap space for players on offense currently under contract for the coming season. So, in short, the Broncos have some work to do at tight end and will have to carve out a fairly significant slice of their available cap room to do it.
Pending free agents: Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green, who played 61.3 percent, 24.5 percent and 34.9 percent, respectively, of the team’s snaps on offense this past season, are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. Tamme was signed in 2012 after four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Thomas and Green were both part of the first draft class of John Elway’s tenure as executive vice president of football operations in 2011. Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was a fourth-rounder and Green was the first of two seventh-round picks that year.
Who could stay: It’s a new offense and there will be plenty of run-blocking in the equation. So Green will get a look from the team to see if a deal that works out for both sides can be worked out. Green was the team’s best blocker/receiver combination this past season, with a far bigger emphasis on the blocking part, and started several games down the stretch because of it. Tamme, too, is the kind of receiver Gary Kubiak has liked at the position through the years, but he took a pay cut to return in 2014 and his return, from the Broncos’ perspective, would likely have to come with something less than the $3.125 million cap figure he carried in 2013 and the $2.2 million cap figure he had last season.
Who could go: Certainly a player with back-to-back seasons of 12 touchdown receptions, as Thomas has had, is going to draw some interest in the open market. As a result, Thomas will be somebody’s priority target. With the Broncos set to use the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to go with needs on the offensive line, it will be tough for the Broncos to make Julius Thomas the kind of offer he will likely draw elsewhere – similar to the Eric Decker scenario last offseason Thomas’ representatives, as you would expect, have made it clear to the Broncos he wants to be among the league’s highest-paid players at the position. The flashes of performance are there – he was leading the league in touchdown catches this past season even several weeks after he suffered an ankle injury Nov. 16 in St. Louis, but he also hasn't started more than 14 games in any season because of ankle troubles.
What they like/want: They’ll be on the hunt for a player or two who can comfortably work as a receiver, both out wide or working out of a three-point stance on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. A Broncos tight end also must be a willing, functional blocker in the run game as well. They need two to three more candidates to fill the jobs.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 5, with one player at the position on the current depth chart in Jones. He played just four snaps on offense this past season.