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Broncos' tight ends look to break out in new offense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to where, exactly, tight ends have fit in the Denver Broncos' offense of late, Virgil Green has consistently said "forgotten" is too strong a word.

“I wouldn’t say that," is how the six-year veteran put it early in the Broncos' offseason program. And “I still wouldn’t say that" is what he said just before they adjourned for their summer break last month.

However, "sparingly" is not too strong a word. And with a new coach, new offensive coordinator, a new playbook and one very crowded spot on the depth chart, the Broncos seem inclined to see what more they can get from this group in the passing game.

But here’s the bottom line: This isn’t a new dilemma. The last time a Broncos tight end finished a season with at least 50 catches when a future Hall of Famer (Peyton Manning) wasn’t throwing the ball or a current Hall of Famer (Shannon Sharpe) wasn’t catching it was 2001.

The player?

Your answer there is Desmond Clark, who finished with 51 receptions that season.

In between, Tony Scheffler had a pair of 40-catch seasons in 2007 and '08, but since Sharpe’s retirement, only Manning in Adam Gase's wide-open offense consistently made a tight end a 50-catch threat. Julius Thomas had 65 grabs in 2013 -- when the Broncos were second in the league with 659 pass attempts and set a single-season record for points -- while Jacob Tamme had 52 receptions in 2012.

And while a 50-catch season is a lot to ask as the current Broncos aim to give wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders plenty of action in the passing game, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s recent history suggests Denver's tight ends can expect to be more involved than last season, when Green’s 22 catches led the position group.

“I just think we had to do things a little differently [last season]," Green said. “We were in, blocking some -- we had to get the run game going a little more, and we were in a lot to block the rushers."

Certainly, the presence of a player such as Antonio Gates in McCoy’s offense in his four seasons as Chargers coach pumped up the tight-end numbers. And the Chargers didn’t have a tandem of receivers to work on the outside like Thomas and Sanders.

Still, McCoy kept the tight ends and running backs busy in those four seasons, and the Broncos players who have looked at that game video believe he will do the same in his return to Denver. Gates caught at least 53 passes in all four of his seasons with McCoy. During that same stretch, the Chargers also saw a running back catch at least 36 passes three times and a tight end other than Gates catch at least 36 passes twice.

“I think this is a great offense for tight ends," A.J. Derby said earlier this offseason. “I think [McCoy’s] past record in San Diego shows that."

Of the group, Green is the only player who was on Denver's roster when McCoy was in his first stint as the team’s offensive coordinator (2009-12). The Broncos have seven players at the position, including two picks from the past three drafts in Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt.

The Broncos took Butt in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, but had it not been for a knee injury in Michigan’s bowl game in December, Butt would have carried a first-round grade from many teams. Butt almost certainly will open training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he continues his rehab.

The Broncos like his progress, and he projects for plenty of playing time down the road; coach Vance Joseph said Butt likely would play sometime in the regular season. The Broncos drafted Heuerman -- who missed his rookie season in 2015 with a knee injury -- with the idea he could also be the blocker/receiver combination they want.

Further, the Broncos liked what they saw from Derby after his arrival from New England in a trade last season, and have always believed Green’s athleticism warranted additional time in the offense.

For his part, McCoy hasn’t committed to more work for any particular players. He has consistently said the Broncos will “do what we do best" and construct an offense that “puts everybody in the best position for us to move the ball, score points and help us win games."

“But we think that can be us," Green said. “No question, we have the group of guys to get that done. We just need opportunities and want them and then take advantage of those opportunities."