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Tight end A.J. Derby #83 of the Denver Broncos celebrates a first down in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 27, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Camp Countdown: Will Broncos TE A.J. Derby break out in 2017?

Tight end A.J. Derby #83 of the Denver Broncos celebrates a first down in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 27, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The countdown to training camp is on during the month of July. The Denver Broncos will take the field for the first day of training camp on July 27, but before then we need to examine the team’s prospects for the upcoming season.

Looking at this team realistically, the talent is there to make another — potentially deep — postseason run in 2017.

The new coaching staff is in a much better position than other new regimes taking over in the NFL.

Head coach Vance Joseph takes over a team that could be the best in the AFC West. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy gets to craft an offense around two of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

It’s not a stretch to consider the Broncos a playoff team once again.

In order to do that, there must be players who emerge that we’re not expecting. This roster is full of talent, but there’s a collection of players who might do more than what’s expected.

Will tight end A.J. Derby be one of their breakout players in 2017? Let’s take a look:

The trade

The New England Patriots traded Derby to Denver in late October. Derby, a converted quarterback from Arkansas, is still learning the position but has the athleticism to be a weapon in the pros.

For just a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Broncos were able to add a talented player to their lineup. It’s a risk well worth taking given the low price tag and the upside Derby has as a player.

While the Pats moved on from him, the Broncos are really counting on Derby to reach his potential in 2017.

The skill set

Derby has natural athleticism and as a converted quarterback knows how to do the little things to become a better target. He’ll square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage on curl routes and present the biggest target for his quarterback and knows defensive coverages to easily find the soft spots in a zone in which to sit down.

He can line up all over the field and create mismatches no matter where. Derby is not a great blocker, but he can be lined up inside like a traditional tight end then quickly jolt into his route down the field. The Broncos could put Derby in the slot or even out wide if they wanted to, and he can get open against press or off coverage.

Derby has strong hands and does a good job of ripping contested catches away from defenders. He only had one drop in his final season with the Razorbacks in 2014.

The opportunity

The Broncos don’t really have a set starter at the tight end position. This presents a huge opportunity for Derby in 2017.

Virgil Green could officially be the starter, but his role with the Broncos is largely just as a blocker. For years, it seemed like Green could do more as a receiver, but that just hasn’t come to fruition.

The team did select tight end Jake Butt in the 2017 NFL draft, but a knee injury suffered in Michigan’s bowl game may keep the talented rookie out of action for this entire season. When healthy, Butt is a fine prospect, but it usually takes a tight end two or three years to get acclimated to the pros.

Jeff Heuerman was supposed to be a better player than he’s turned out to be. Injuries (knee, hamstring) have held him back during his time with the Broncos. He’s healthy now but currently behind Green and Derby on the depth chart.

Derby is arguably the best receiving weapon at the position the Broncos currently have.

Summary

The McCoy offense could really use a third receiving weapon. That’s where Derby comes in.

Yes, the team could use a collection of players behind wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but it would be best if someone like Derby could win that role.

Defenses are going to have their hands full with Thomas and Sanders, so having a third receiving asset to take advantage when they’re stretched thin will greatly help in this pass-happy system.

Derby should get plenty of chances to win that spot for the Broncos this year.