ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos let tight end Julius Thomas move on in free agency -- the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him to a five-year, $46 million deal -- the team tried to react swiftly to fill what would be an important, yet changing, role in the new offense.
In search of more hybrid, blocking/receiving players at the position -- the type of player they did not think Thomas was -- they re-signed Virgil Green, a quality blocker the Broncos believe can have far more impact as a receiver than he has to this point, then signed Owen Daniels in free agency.
And there may be no greater authority, as a player, on coach Gary Kubiak’s offense than Daniels. In his nine previous seasons, Daniels has only played in offenses that featured Kubiak as the team’s coach or offensive coordinator.
“I’ve said this is an offense that demands a lot from the position,’’ Daniels said. “And it’s because you can be asked to do a lot of different things, even in one series, and line up all over the formation. It requires you to hit your landmarks, to be in the right place at the right time and mentally understand what those right places are.’’
And as the Broncos transition to an offense expected to run the ball more, it is a good time to remember wide receiver Rod Smith, who played for Denver in Kubiak’s stint as offensive coordinator on Mike Shanahan’s staff, once said of the offense, “If you want to catch the ball, you have to block first because if you don’t block (in the run game), you don’t play.’’
And as training camp approaches we’ll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.
Today: Tight ends.
Thursday: Offensive line.
How many coming to camp: 6.
How many the Broncos will keep: Some of the decisions will be rooted in semantics. The Broncos have seven players who would line up at tight end on the current roster.
One of those -- rookie Jeff Heuerman -- suffered an ACL tear in rookie minicamp and is expected to miss the season. He would be formally moved to injured reserve if the Broncos believed they needed a roster spot before cut-downs begin.
But three players -- James Casey, Dominique Jones and Joe Don Duncan -- also are considerations to line up at fullback. Casey, a key special teams player, is expected to line up the majority of the time at fullback once the 53-man roster is determined.
So beyond Casey, the Broncos likely would keep three tight ends on the roster, starting with Green and Daniels. Jones has the most experience with the team among the other tight ends on the current depth chart, but Duncan, a rookie, could squeeze his way into the mix if he shows some versatility as a fullback option to go with his work at tight end.
The guy to watch: Of all of the players the Broncos have selected in John Elway’s tenure as the team’s top football decision-maker, Green was the first to be re-signed as a potential unrestricted free agent.
The Broncos signed Green to a three-year, $8.4 million deal as free agency opened this past March. And they did it because they consider him a quality blocker in the team’s offense.
But they also dove in because of his athleticism -- he was one of the fastest tight ends at the 2012 scouting combine with a 4.64 clocking on the electronic clock in the 40-yard dash -- and their optimism that he can evolve in the passing game. To this point, Green has just 23 career receptions -- never more than nine in any season -- and only one touchdown reception, which came in the 2014 regular-season finale.
If the Broncos have not hit in that projection, an awful lot of the passing game at the position will fall on Daniels’ shoulders. But Green did flash some potential in the new scheme during offseason workouts.
Break it down: Daniels has been a model of receiving consistency in his career. In the seven seasons in which he has played at least 11 games, he has finished with at least 48 receptions five times.
Daniels has had four seasons with at least 50 receptions and figures to get plenty of targets in this offense as well. The two-tight end set likely will be the team’s base formation on offense, unless something unexpected happens in training camp.
Green will get far more targets than he has in the past, or at least that’s the Broncos’ expectation. The No. 3 tight end spot, with Casey expected to line up at fullback much of the time, figures to be largely a blocking role at this point.
Heuerman would have certainly been in the mix in the passing game had he not suffered his injury, but the Broncos don’t have another player on the depth chart that projects for the kind of impact in the passing game Heuerman would have had. So, in the end, this may be a position where the Broncos would take a look at a late signing in the preseason as the roster cuts come from around the league.