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Under Pressure: The last two drafts have squeezed out Jeff Heuerman

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Broncos have had a great offseason in 2020. They made some big moves in free agency, they added star talent via trades and then crushed the 2020 NFL Draft. Their roster has been upgraded by a wide margin just based on the elite-level talent that has been added this calendar year.

In this new series, “Under Pressure,” I’ll look at some of the players who are most under pressure after the moves in free agency and the draft. The talent added to this roster is going to push some players – maybe even some fan favorites – off the roster.

Today, I’ll examine the situation surrounding Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman. Let’s see why he’s under pressure in 2020.

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Background

The Broncos decided to select Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He didn’t do much in college from a receiving perspective, as the Buckeyes used Heuerman on tunnel screens from the tight end position. During his four years in college, Heuerman ended his career with 52 catches for 792 yards and seven touchdowns total. I had a fifth-round grade on him and felt he was over-drafted by being selected on day two of the draft.

Heuerman did have good size and was known as a blocker, but he was undeveloped as a receiving option. The Broncos didn’t get to develop Heuerman as a rookie because he was hurt in rookie minicamp. Before he could get things going, Heuerman suffered a serious knee injury that knocked him out for the entire 2015 season.

In 2016, Heuerman did get to see the field, but he didn’t do much. In 11 games, Heuerman caught only nine passes for 141 yards as a reserve tight end. In 2017, Heuerman was expected to do more, but he only made it through 14 games and had a similar statistical output (nine catches, 142 yards, two touchdowns). Heuerman did have a career-best season in the final year of his rookie contract, playing in only 11 games, but catching 31 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns.

He did hit the open market before the 2019 season, but Heuerman did not get much interest as a free agent. The team ended up bringing him back on a two-year deal worth as much as $9 million with incentives. With the selection of Noah Fant in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Heuerman was once again a reserve player for the Broncos. He only played in eight games catching only 14 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.

In 2020, Heuerman is on the books for around $4.3 million with only $500,000 in dead money. That means the Broncos could move on from Heuerman and free up almost $4 million in cap space. That number of potential free money could come in handy if the team needs help at a certain position before the start of the regular season. Heuerman’s salary only adds to the pressure for him to make the final roster but it’s not the only reason.

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The Pressure

The pressure for Heuerman is going to come from his former college teammate Nick Vannett. Like Heuerman, Vannett was a third-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The two not only have their college in common, but both players have failed to do much at the pro level. Vannett is a big-bodied tight end like Heuerman, but he might be a better receiving threat. It’s not like Vannett is a dangerous weapon, he has appeared in more games and still might have a bit of untapped potential as a receiver while we pretty much know who Heuerman is and what he can (and can’t) do.

In addition to Vannett, he has more pressure to make the final roster because the Broncos added another tight end in the draft. In the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected Albert Okwuegbunam out of Missouri. He was a favorite target of Drew Lock in college for the Tigers and that chemistry could help the rookie win the No. 2 job at the position behind the starter Fant. No matter if Okwuegbunam is second or third on the depth chart, there is a good bet he’s going to be above where Heuerman lands.

Not only do the Broncos have players like Vannett or Okwuegbunam to push Heuerman down the depth chart, there are other players on the team who might be better options.

Troy Fumagali is a better receiver than Heuerman, but he’s not a better blocker. Jake Butt could have been the best tight end on this team, but knee injuries have robbed him of his once great potential. Austin Fort was picked up as a college free agent out of Wyoming in 2019 and he looked good in training camp before being lost for his rookie season with a knee injury suffered in a preseason game against the Seahawks. Any of these three players has an opportunity to beat out Heuerman in the pecking order.

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What He Needs to Do

Heuerman is tough, and he’s proved that over his pro career by playing through some various injuries, but he needs to finally stay healthy for a full season. He first needs to make the team in order to do that, so Heuerman needs to make sure that he doesn’t get too banged up when teams are practicing in training camp.

We should see a lot of Heuerman in the preseason this year. It would be good timing for him if he finally flashed the ability as a receiver the Broncos thought he could have coming out of college five years ago. He’s going to be getting work with the second- and third-team offense, so that means he will have to show well catching passes from veteran backup Jeff Driskel.

If he gets any chances to catch passes from Lock in practice or the preseason, Heuerman needs to take full advantage and show that he can be a reliable receiver for the young quarterback. Heuerman’s fate would be sealed if someone at another position is injured and the team needs to hit the free agent market to fill the spot. His contract puts him in an uncomfortable position and he is certainly no lock for the 53-man roster.