Jeff Heuerman's return a big piece of Broncos' offseason plan

Jeff Heuerman missed his entire rookie season after he tore his left ACL in the fourth of four minicamp practices last May. John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Bottom line is Jeff Heuerman's name won't appear as a "key addition" on any list of the Denver Broncos' offseason moves.

But when it comes to what the Broncos hope to do to improve on offense, Heuerman is at the front of the line.

This is, after all, a guy no one other than the recently retired Peyton Manning said is going to be "an awesome football player."

It's just Heuerman spent his rookie season with the Broncos on injured reserve after he tore his left ACL in May, in what was the fourth of four workouts at the team's rookie minicamp. At the time the players were in shorts and jerseys -- no helmets -- and Heuerman suffered the injury in the open field during a special teams drill.

With that, the third-round pick's season was over. Even after those four workouts, though, the Broncos already had big plans for Heuerman, and they have only ramped up those expectations after seeing his recovery.

So much so the Broncos released tight end Owen Daniels early in the offseason in their quest for some additional salary cap room.

"We're counting on [Heuerman] big time," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "You look at us releasing 'OD' [Daniels] -- and you never know what can happen there down the road -- but when Jeff came in he was very impressive. We feel like Jeff can be a total tight end."

And in addition to the offensive line, the Broncos went into their offseason with the idea to upgrade their production at tight end. Kubiak has made it clear he would like to use more two-tight-end sets and more two-back sets in the season to come.

He believes the offense would be at its best with some of that power element in it and would create more match-up issues for defenses if the Broncos can balance out the formation and not have a strongside or weakside look with just one tight end.

Heuerman, a former captain for a national championship team at Ohio State, is key to that because the Broncos, and he, believe he is an every-down player.

"He's not [just] a receiver, we think he has the ability to do both [catch passes and block]," Kubiak said. "He's a very confident young man. … We are counting on him a great deal … and he's worked really hard. He's really been ready to go probably since a few months ago."

Manning's left foot injury was not something that was easy for the Broncos to deal with this past season -- he missed seven starts before he returned to the lineup in the third quarter of the regular-season finale -- but a benefit was what the Broncos saw from Heuerman and wide receiver Jordan Taylor in Manning's throwing sessions.

During his recovery Manning had extended throwing sessions with Taylor and Heuerman catching most of the passes. Kubiak has said he expects Heuerman to be cleared for full participation in the Broncos' offseason program, which begins April 18.

Heuerman had surgery on his left foot in the spring of 2014 and missed one game in his final season with the Buckeyes. He also injured his right ankle in the Sugar Bowl to close out his final season and took pain-killing injections to play in the national championship game against Oregon.

Kubiak has said even if the Broncos entertain the idea of bringing back Daniels with a salary-cap-friendly contract, Heuerman and Virgil Green figure to be the team's top two tight ends.

"We'll see where Owen is at down the road," Kubiak said. "He played very well for us and he played really big in some big games. I think time will tell, but obviously there were some moves made for us from a cap standpoint to get our football team in position to do some of the things that John [Elway] needed to do. Owen and I are very close and we'll see what happens."

For his part, as this past season drew to a close, Heuerman said he was trying to stay patient and "just getting ready to try to help this team win."

The Broncos will give him plenty of chances to do that.