The Broncs are still trying to replace Sharpe
The Broncos have always enjoyed strong Tight End play during the Mike Shanahan era. Sure, having a Hall of Fame player at the position for let's say, a decade, substantially increases productivity, but even without Shannon Sharpe the Broncos have been able to utilize their Tight End's in their offensive sets. A look, however, at the production coming from the position the past 5 seasons shows a disturbing trend downward -
2002 - 61 rec. / 686 yds / 3 TDs
2003 - 62 rec. / 770 yds / 8 TDs
2004 - 58 rec. / 770 yds / 3 TDs
2005 - 58 rec. / 651 yds / 1 TD
2006 - 43 rec. / 518 yds / 6 TDs
In the stats above, 2002 and 2003 were Sharpe's last two seasons as a Bronco. After he retired, the Broncos went to more of a platoon scenario at tight end. In 2004 it was Byron Chamberlain and Jeb Putzier. 2005 saw Putzier joined by Stephen Alexander. In 2006, incredibly, the Broncos had 4 different tight ends make catches, rookie Tony Scheffler, Alexander, Nate Jackson and Chad Mustard. Sure, the TD production went up, but the number of catches and yards dropped significantly. Also suffering was the Broncos ground game. 2006 saw the Broncos finish 8th in the League in rushing, their lowest finish in the 5 years studied. Their rush total, 2152 yards, was their lowest of the period and nearly 400 yards worse than 2005 when they finished 2nd in the League, behind only the Atlanta Falcons. One could easily come to the conclusion that 400 yards over a 16 game season can be the difference between 13-3 and 9-7.
Things got better in 2007, with Broncos' Tight Ends combining for their best season since Sharpe retired, a subtle sign that the health of the Broncos short passing game might be starting to improve -
2007 - 71 rec. / 891 yards / 8 TDs
The running game, however, continued to decline - 1957 yards - but that number can be misleading. The Broncos averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, easily enough to be successful on the ground. Being behind, forced to throw the football to stay in games, was a major factor.
For the Broncos to be successful in 2008, the Tight Ends must play well in both facets of the game. If 2007 was any indication, the Tight End position is one of strength for the Broncos heading into Training Camp. Let's take a look at each and talk about how they'll impact the roster in '08.
Daniel Graham joined the Broncos in 2007 with alot of fan-fair. A local boy whose father played for the Broncos, Graham had won Super Bowls as a member of the New England Patriots. Unhappy with how the Patriots utilized him in the offense, the former Colorado Buffalo was set on proving to everyone that he was more than a blocking Tight End. He wanted to show that he could be a major weapon in the passing offense. After 2007, Graham did prove some things. He is exactly as advertised in the running game, one of the best blocking Tight Ends in football. A weapon in the passing game? The jury is still out.
In 6 years, Graham has 144 catches totaling 1639 yards. That averages out to 24 catches/273 yards per season. In 2007, Graham had 24 receptions for 246 yards. In other words, he did exactly what we should have expected him to do. The Patriots, it seems, used Graham the way he should be used, as a blocking TE first, a target in the passing game second.
That said, I am expecting more from Graham in 2008. The Tight End is a big-time part of the Shanahan West Coast offense, and with a year in the system under his belt, coupled with a stronger offensive line and depth at WR, Graham should get some opportunities to earn the $15 million of guarantees the Broncos gave him before last season. Look for Graham to be upwards of 35-40 catches, closer to 400 yards, and numerous crucial third down receptions in the flat.
Tony Scheffler had high hopes heading into 2007. As a rookie in 2006, Scheffler seemed to find his groove when Jay Cutler took over at quarterback. The roomates seemed to click on the field. That all changed a bit when Scheffler broke his foot during the off-season. Though he was able to make it back in time for the season, and officially played in 16 games, the foot bothered Scheffler off and on all year long.
Despite the injury, and a slow start that saw Scheff make just 2 receptions through the first 5 games, Scheffler turned it on the final 2/3rds of the season once again becoming a trusted target of Cutler. Even more impressive to me was Scheffler's improvement in the running game, a requirement to stay on the field in a Mike Shanahan offense.
This is a big year for Scheffler. First, he needs to prove he can stay healthy. The foot problem that plagued him in 2007 reared it's ugly head again early in workouts forcing Scheffler to miss significant time. Now pain-free for the first time in over a year, Scheffler has proclaimed himself ready to go. If he can stay healthy and productive for a full 16 game season there is no reason why Scheffler can't finish somewhere in the 65 catch range and approach 700 yards. It's a fact that Cutler looks for Scheffler when things get tough. Let's hope Scheffler can stay on the field to help his quarterback out.
Every year seems to be the year that Nate Jackson becomes this super-hybrid, receiver/tight-end threat that no one can match-up with. Every year Jackson is on the shelf by week 10 with a groin pull or hamstring tear. Shanny loves the guy, however, and it looks like Jackson is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster once again.
There is little doubting what Jackson can bring when he can stay on the field. Solid on special teams, Jackson has good speed, especially for his size, and does create issues for defenders. Too fast to be covered by linebackers, Jackson is too strong for a corner and even most safeties. It is a tempting and attractive package, even if Jackson has been more of a tease over his first 5 seasons.
As for 2008, this has to be the make or break year in Denver for Jackson, doesn't it?? This will be the 6th time Jackson has broke camp with the team, and if he can't stay healthy and make an impact, even if it is just as a special teams ace, will he ever be able to do it. That is the big question, but with the Broncos likely to carry 4 Tight Ends into the season it appears Jackson will get the chance.
There might not be any statistics for Leach, and you could probably run into him on the street and have no idea he is one of the most important members of the team. While Leach is listed as a TIght End, his worth to the team is in one ultra-important area - the Long Snapper - and Leach is one of the best in football.
There has been talk in the NFL recently of making a game day roster exemption for long snappers, similar to the way the 3rd quarterback is designated. Makes complete sense to me, because you are highly, highly unlikely to see Leach ever lineup at Tight End. Given the spotlight last year when Peter King listed him as #1000 in his Top-500 in the NFL, Leach has been just as important to the special teams in past seasons as Jason Elam, perhaps more.
We have seen first hand what a bad snap can do to a team and a season. Have the Bengals recovered from their botched extra point against the Broncos in 2006?? I can't remember the last time Leach blew a snap, and think about the Buffalo win last season. Sure, Elam was clutch, but Leach had to get the ball set and snapped. Impressive.
If you were going to list the Broncos roster by how safe they should feel, Leach would be right up there with Cutler and Champ Bailey. Long snappers are hard to come by. When you get a good one you simply don't ever let them go.
Pierce is the virtual no-name of the group. Signed as an undrafted free-agent by the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, Pierce went on the spend 2004 and 2005 with the Dallas Cowboys. Out of the NFL for 2 seasons, the Broncos signed Pierce to a futures contract on Dec. 31, 2007. Nothing more than roster fodder or someone for the Practice Squad, Pierce will unlikely see much more than the first couple weeks of camp.
After doing some digging, and talking to my sources, Chad Mustard has officially been moved back to tight end. While his versatility makes him an attractive piece to keep around, can the Broncos really afford to keep 5 designated tight ends? Even if you answer that question, Mustard is likely out for the start of training camp with a torn hamstring he suffered during team workouts in early June. Even if you think Mustard is valuable enough to hang onto when healthy, is he worth a roster spot at less than 100%??
My thought is no and no. I am going to stick with Nate Jackson(call me a fool) and the injury to Mustard makes it impossible for me to think he'll break camp on the roster. If he can get healthy, however, Mustard will surely be the first name in Shanny's rolodex should someone get hurt in camp.
Ok, time for your thoughts on the Tight End situation! Coming up in Part 2, Defensive Tackle