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Thursday, July 17, 2014
Countdown to camp: Tight ends

By Jeff Legwold

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos look at tight end Julius Thomas they see a player with phenomenal potential, a guy with plenty of upside remaining on his developmental curve who is at an extremely important place in his football career.

The roster says Thomas is entering his fourth NFL season, but in reality his first two seasons were largely cratered by an ankle injury he suffered on his first NFL catch. That essentially made his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season of 2013, when he pretty much became a matchup-nightmare-in-waiting for those trying to cover him, his real rookie season.

So, do the football math and there are plenty of folks inside the Broncos’ complex who believe Thomas should show the expected big jump a player usually has from his rookie season into Year 2 as he moves into this, his fourth season. And that would give an already high-powered offense a little more juice.

It also means the Broncos, who will likely have to use the franchise player tag on either Demaryius Thomas or Julius Thomas following the upcoming season, will need to get their checkbook ready. Because Jimmy Graham’s $40 million deal with the New Orleans Saints was not only good news for Graham, but for Julius Thomas as well because while Thomas isn't yet to Graham's place in the league, he's at least entered the short list right behind the New Orleans tight end's name.

So, as training camp approaches it’s all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Julius Thomas
After recording 12 touchdowns in 2013, Julius Thomas is nearing elite status among NFL tight ends.
Today: Tight ends.

How many coming to camp: 7

How many will the Broncos keep: The Broncos kept four at the position as they exited the preseason in 2013 and would have kept four coming out of the preseason in 2012 as well, but Virgil Green opened the season serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. The Broncos carried four tight ends for much of that '12 season after Green returned.

The team kept three in 2011, but sported a far different offense at that point and carried a fullback on the roster.

The Broncos may eventually feel like they need an extra player at another position and that could dictate what happens here, as could any salary-cap ramifications of a new deal for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- the two sides are talking about a long-term pact. The Broncos currently carry two players at the position – Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen – with salary-cap figures of at least $3 million.

And Dreessen is coming off his second consecutive offseason when he required knee surgery. The versatile, hard-nosed Dreessen was held out of the team’s offseason work and remains a question mark headed into camp.

Ideally, the Broncos would likely still hope to have four on the roster for special-teams work as well as to fulfill their needs on offense, but Dreessen’s health impacts the decision.

Break it down: The Broncos ran their offense out of the three-wide set most of the time last season. But down the stretch they did line up in a two-tight end set 36 times (penalty snaps included) against the Titans on Dec. 8, 17 times against the Chargers on Dec. 12, 51 times against the Texans on Dec. 22 and 53 times against the Raiders in the regular-season finale.

However, some of that may have been to better protect quarterback Peyton Manning, who was sporting an ankle brace at that point. Once the postseason began, the Broncos were almost exclusively a three-wide offense – zero snaps of two tight ends against the Chargers in the divisional round and just 10 snaps with at least two tight ends against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

Even with the additions of Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer at receiver, the Broncos figure to want a quality two-tight set at their disposal once again, especially against some of the more physical defensive fronts from the NFC West teams, in particular, that are on this year’s schedule.

It is also a formation that continues to be the one they can go to when they need to settle down a bit or hit the reset after a mistake. The Broncos are efficient in it and Thomas and Tamme give them the kind of athletes to make it look, and act, like a three-wide set, but with bigger players along the line of scrimmage and in the pattern.