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Jeff Heuerman's injury still casts shadow on Broncos' rookie program

Jeff Heuerman tore his left ACL in 2014 rookie minicamp, leading the Broncos to adjust their rookie sessions to be more about walk-throughs and off-the-field meetings. John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It’s been two years since Jeff Heuerman tore an ACL in a rookies-only practice just days after the 2014 NFL draft, but the impact of that injury can still be seen in how the Denver Broncos welcome in their newest rookie class.

In fact, the initial gathering, which begins Thursday, isn’t even being called a rookie minicamp. Instead, coach Vance Joseph has called it a “rookie orientation" and it will have as much (or more) to do with life skills off the field as on it.

“It’s not going to be all football," Joseph said. “It’s going to be more just helping guys get acclimated to the NFL. More meetings, some lifting and some running, but not a full-scale team practice."

A year ago, former Broncos coach Gary Kubiak had already shifted the rookies-only practices to more of a walk-through variety in the interest of player safety, but as the league has done away with the rookie symposium the Broncos will spend more time with what awaits the rookies off the field as they join the NFL’s workforce.

Those decisions are among the ripples left behind from Heuerman’s injury, and that of Jacksonville Jaguar Dante Fowler Jr. Both injuries were season-ending, both were in full-speed, non-contract drills and both happened just weeks after all of the draft hopefuls had concentrated on training for the scouting combine and their on-campus pro days rather than football-specific drills.

“In my opinion, it’s tough for guys to train for the combine for three months and then show up and have a full football practice," Joseph said. “That’s when guys get hurt, so we’re going to bring them in, have meetings, lift them and run them, but not have a full-fledged practice. That should help guys kind of get accustomed to what we’re doing."

Then, on Monday, the Broncos’ rookies will join the team’s veteran players in the ongoing offseason workouts.

That means first-round pick Garett Bolles, second-round pick DeMarcus Walker and the rest of the Broncos’ rookie class will get a few days to ramp up before they dive in to football drills. The Broncos are currently in Phase 2 of their offseason program, which by league rules allows on-field work for players in their position groups with assistant coaches. There can be no 11-on-11 team drills conducted during Phase 2.

For his part, Heuerman has always called his injury, which occurred during a special-teams drill, a "freak kind of a thing." But it is certainly something the Broncos don't want to repeat if if can be avoided. Joseph said he believes the current format will help that cause.

Heuerman, a player the Broncos had hopes would be a key contributor when they selected him in the '15 draft, missed his rookie season, and then last season he battled some nagging injuries as he finished with just nine catches.

The Broncos have two players in their draft class who need some additional monitoring given each is returning from injury -- tight end Jake Butt (fifth round) and quarterback Chad Kelly (seventh round). Butt tore his right ACL in January in Michigan’s appearance in the Orange Bowl (he tore his left ACL earlier in his career with the Wolverines) while Kelly suffered his season-ending knee injury in November.

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said Kelly is also recovering from a thumb injury, though the injury was also described as a wrist injury when Kelly cut short his pro-day throwing session.

Elway said both players could be able to play in games, at least in some capacity, by September.

Butt is expected to get some significant playing time in the offense if he recovers as expected.

“I’m right on schedule," Butt said. “The plan right now is to be ready for the beginning of the season. I don’t see why that’s not possible ... that is ambitious ... I’ve always been ambitious. I think that’s what helps me unlock my full potential, setting goals that many people might think are crazy and then going out there and doing it."