Broncos will have to adjust plan after Jeff Heuerman's injury

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Plans are nice, all neat and tidy as they are written on the drawing board.

The Denver Broncos had a plan, and rookie tight end Jeff Heuerman -- who had been in the team’s complex for just a little more than two days -- had already made a big enough impression that he was going to be a piece of the puzzle on offense, and not just a little one.

But Heuerman’s season ended Saturday afternoon when he tore his left ACL in a special-teams drill in the last practice of the Broncos' rookie minicamp. The team was practicing in jerseys and shorts -- no helmets -- when Heuerman’s left knee buckled as he tried to make a cut running in the open field.

After the Broncos confirmed the ACL tear with an MRI exam, coach Gary Kubiak said, “Jeff was going to be a big part of our team this year, and he’s still going to be a big part of our team and organization in the future."

Kubiak has made no secret that a potent offense that largely used the tight end as a matchup complement to a three-wide-receiver set over the last two seasons in particular has had a slight makeover. The tight end is now going to carve out a far bigger slice on the to-do list when the plays get called, whether it be in a pumped-up running game or when the Broncos let quarterback Peyton Manning go to work in the passing game.

As a result, the tight end position has been at the forefront of the team’s offseason plan. The Broncos let several free agents head into the open market, including tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

Thomas was largely the only receiving option at the position, and a good one at that, but he was also a player who struggled plenty when asked to play out of a three-point stance along the line of scrimmage. He was also in line for a far bigger contract than the Broncos were willing to give, so they didn’t make an attempt to keep him in the months before free agency.

The Broncos were looking for more blocker/receiver hybrids, so they re-signed tight end Virgil Green, then signed Owen Daniels and James Casey in free agency before using a third-round pick in the draft on Heuerman. With Casey expected to be used at fullback more than at tight end in the offense, to go with plenty of work on special teams, there was room in the rotation for Heuerman to carve out some significant playing time.

And though Heuerman was injured in just the fourth on-field practice for the team’s rookies since they joined the Broncos, coaches were already optimistic Heuerman not only had confirmed he was going to be up to the task physically, but that mentally he was prepared to learn the offense quickly.

Kubiak said Friday one of his methods to gauge the first-year players’ progress in this weekend’s minicamp was to give them a pile of information and see who could sort through it.

“It’s almost like an overload, you almost try to give them a little too much," Kubiak said. “You want to see who goes out there and who blows up and who gets acclimated."

Heuerman was one of the players the Broncos identified, even in the early workouts, as someone who could get acclimated quickly. The coaches were already looking at Heuerman as a player who was in line to get significant snaps in the offense.

Those additional snaps will now get divided up, largely between Daniels and Green, with the Broncos having to consider adding another tight end later if they see a veteran who is still available and will fit the offense. The day before his injury, Heuerman could also see the potential playing time that was out there for him.

“Yeah, especially learning the playbook these last few days, tight ends are very active," Heuerman said Friday. “As a tight end, that’s what you want to do. There are a lot of tight ends here, too, and I’m looking forward to learning from them and competing. So it’ll be good."

It may have indeed been good, but the Broncos will have to wait until next year to see Heuerman in the offense again.