The Broncos kicked off their training camp at UC Health Training Center on Thursday and we already have some interesting developments to examine. Going through one full day of practice revealed some strengths of this Denver team, but it also revealed some weaknesses that need to be addressed.
One of the strengths of the Broncos actually comes at the tight end position. It has not been a strength for years, but with the additions they’ve made to the roster during the past couple of seasons, the tight end room is now jam-packed with talent.
Because of the talent on display day one of training camp, it could mean an injured player like Jake Butt might be on the outside looking in when it comes to making the team.
Is Butt on the roster bubble? Let’s take a look.
Talented but Injury Prone
There is no denying Butt’s talent as a tight end. I have said many times that he would’ve been a first-round player, like O.J. Howard and Evan Engram were that year, had it not been for the knee injury he suffered in Michigan’s bowl game. The Broncos got a potential steal when they landed Butt in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Because of the knee injury from college, Butt had to miss all of his rookie season. He worked diligently to come back and had an opportunity to start for the Broncos at the beginning of the 2018 season. Butt started three games, and he flashed his talent with eight catches for 85 yards.
However, those games were the only ones he was able to play in as he injured his knee and was put on season-ending injured reserve.
This was the opposite knee that he hurt in college and it was also the third knee injury of Butt’s football career dating back to high school. Nobody should question Butt’s talent, but it’s clear that staying healthy is his biggest problem.
Troy Fumagalli Dominates
The star of the first day of training camp, for me, was Troy Fumagalli. He worked with the first-team offense and certainly took advantage of his opportunity. Fumagalli is a smooth athlete, but the best thing about his game are his vacuum-like hands.
During minicamp and OTAs, I don’t think I saw Fumagalli drop a catchable pass. There was one pass in minicamp that he dropped, but it was put way behind him and wasn’t a good pass from rookie quarterback Drew Lock. Fumagalli has incredible concentration as a pass-catcher and does not think about running after the catch before he secures the ball.
Not only were his hands on full display as he was making tough catches consistently, but Fumagalli’s versatility was shown as he moved around the formation. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio commented on what he saw from the second-year tight end on Thursday.
“He’s versatile. He can play in line. He’s shown in, the offseason, that he’s got some receiving ability. I think our quarterbacks are comfortable throwing to him. Again, it’s still early — no pads yet — but he is doing fine.” Fangio said.
I did ask Fangio if Fumagalli could play H-back and line up in the backfield like a fullback to which he replied, “I don’t know that yet. We’ll see.”
If Fumagalli can line up as a fullback/H-back, then he could play a much larger role than some think in 2019. This offense under offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello is going to be one of the most tight-end friendly in the league and should regularly feature two tight end formations. Fumagalli was a beast during minicamp and OTAs, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him carry over that performance to day one of training camp.
The Broncos have not had a great tight end room for years. Ever since they lost Julius Thomas in free agency, they have been looking for their next quality starter. It seems like every year they’ve been taking a chance on drafting a tight end with varying picks.
This year, the Broncos added tight end Noah Fant in the first round. He has all the tools to be a dominant receiving weapon in the pros and Fant’s physical ability stands out from the other tight ends on the roster. Simply put, Fant is bigger, faster and stronger than the players he’s competing against at the position.
Fant did have some struggles on the first day of training camp, mainly with blocking Von Miller, but he’s too good to keep off the field for that long.
Jeff Heuerman was kept around in free agency this year. The Broncos signed him to a two-year, $9 million deal and Heuerman should stick around on the roster as a blocking tight end. In addition to Fumagalli, Fant and Heuerman, the Broncos also have Austin Fort and Bug Howard.
Fort has good size for the position and he’s been making plays consistently all offseason, starting at the local pro day he participated in for the Broncos. The undrafted rookie from Wyoming is a converted quarterback and that shows up in his routes. He knows how to find the soft spot in a zone and Fort knows how to come back to the ball and present himself as the biggest target for his quarterback. Like Fumagalli, Fort carried over his offseason performance – although it does come with the third-team offense while Fumagalli is having success with the first team. Howard did not practice on Thursday as he was sick, but he’s a converted wide receiver who had some flashes this offseason too.
There is no doubt about it, the Broncos are suddenly stacked at the tight end position.
When you look at everything surrounding the tight end position with the Broncos, one thing is clear; Butt is no lock for the 53-man roster. He was limited to seven-on-seven drills during practice on Thursday and admitted after practice that he was still shaking off some rust and trying to get his route-running ability back right now.
We all should be fans of Butt, especially because of his skill set and work ethic. He’s worked hard just to make it to this spot, but his body betrayed him last year and that could ultimately prevent him from being the pro tight end he could’ve been with a clean bill of health.