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Woody Paige: Denver Broncos unconcerned strong starting tight end hasn't emerged yet

April 17, 2018 Updated: April 17, 2018 at 10:28 pm
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Denver Broncos tight ends coach George Chryst, left, confers with tight end Jake Butt during the team's NFL football rookie minicamp Saturday, May 13, 2017, at the Broncos' headquarters in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Broncos' starting tight end for the opening game reported for offseason strength and conditioning training Monday, was with the team last season, is 24 and 6-foot-5, weighs 256 pounds, played in the Big Ten and has a close connection to Columbus, Ohio.

The starting tight end will be ... I don't know.

The Broncos have five on their roster.

With just 12 combined NFL starts, the quintet is lacking in meaningful business experience. Yet, the Broncos' brass doesn't seem anxious, afraid and alarmed about the valuable offensive position.

New starting quarterback Case Keenum should be. Tight ends coach Geep Chryst must be.

Frankly, for four seasons, tight end has been a dud wrapped into a debacle stuck in a disaster.

The Broncos tried four starters in '17, and none finished with 20 receptions, 225 yards or even three touchdowns. They certainly weren't the Four Horsemen. The top tight end, A.J. Derby was released after nine games, and Virgil Green, the only other player beside Von Miller remaining from the 2011 draft, became a free agent and signed with the Chargers. The Broncos didn't care.

Returning are:

* Jeff Heuerman, drafted by the Broncos in 2015, has barely spit a drop since tearing his ACL in his first rookie camp workout. He started six games in 2017 and had nine catches.

* Austin Traylor, a 6-3, 235-pounder undrafted in 2016, was on four NFL practice squads before being signed to the Broncos' auxiliary group. The Broncos cut him last year, then signed him back to the practice squad and activated him in November. He started three games and caught eight passes.

* Brian Parker, 6-4 and 265, wasn't drafted in 2015. He was on the rosters of the Chargers, the Chiefs and the Jets prior to joining the Broncos' practice squad last year. He has never started, but once caught a pass with Kansas City.

* Matt LaCosse, 6-5 and 261 pounds, was signed by the Giants after being undrafted in 2015. He was injured and let go. The Jets signed, then dumped LaCosse, and he returned to the Giants. In three games over two seasons he managed three receptions, then was released. The Broncos signed him in December, and he appeared in two games with zero stats.

* Jake Butt, who was drafted by the Broncos by the Broncos in the fifth round a year ago, spent the season on injured reserve, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in his final collegiate game (Orange Bowl).

Butt played at Michigan, but is from suburban Columbus. Heuerman played at Ohio State. Traylor was born in Columbus and played at Wisconsin. LaCosse did play in Columbus - for Illinois. There is no evidence that Parker, who is from Rochester, N.Y., and played at Albany, ever visited Columbus.

All five are close in age, weight, size and rawness.

I talked briefly with Butt over the weekend, and he is full-go this season. I mentioned that the Broncos did not sign a premier free-agent tight end, or any tight end; of the 55 players the Broncos interviewed at the combine, invited to Denver for a visit or shown any interest in, none is a tight end. And the draft isn't tight end-friendly.

Butt nodded. He has to be pleased that the Broncos have faith in him - and some belief in the four other young guys.

However, not one will be confused with Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, or perhaps Julius Thomas, the basketball player-turned tight end who went to the Pro Bowl with the Broncos.

Thomas, who had 108 receptions, 1,278 yards and 24 touchdowns over two seasons, left as a free agent. He is a free agent again. Yet, he is not a candidate to come back. Neither is future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who is available.

The Broncos will pick a tight end in the draft, or likely trade for, or sign, another veteran later. Of the three the staff coached in the Senior Bowl, only Penn State's Mike Gesicki might stir them. And Dalton Schultz of Elway's alma mater could intrigue the Broncos in the fourth round.

Butt is anticipated to be the starter, with great expectations.

But ...

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