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 say Putzier joined by Stephen Alexander. In 2006, incredibly, the Broncos had 4 different Tight End's 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. Surely not that easy, but the running game is the staple of the Mike Shanahan offense, and the Tight End position is extremely crucial to the success of the ground game. It was obvious some changes were needed.
Enter the hometown boy Daniel Graham, signed as a free agent during the off-season. Graham is one of the best run-blocking Tight Ends in football, and his presence should do wonders for Tony Scheffler, who has a ton of ability catching the football but lacks knowledge in the running game. Graham is no slouch in the passing game either and the Broncos should be able to create mismatches all over the field when running a Two-TE set. It is going to be fun to watch the Tight End become a vital part of the offense again in Denver. For a team that had a legend at the position it will be vital to their success.
Let's take a look at each player currently on the roster, and what I think we should expect from them in 2007 -
Stephen Alexander --
Alexander is a steady veteran presence on a team, that last year was devoid of much veteran presence at the position. The problem for the Broncos, however, is Alexander, and his protégé Tony Scheffler, are the same type of player. When Alexander broke into the League with Washington he was more of an offensive threat than run blocker. Over time he has become a serviceable run-blocker, but nothing that will make you forget about great blocking Tight Ends of the past. At age 31, and having overcome several injuries over his career, Alexander is in the twilight and the Broncos will take a good, hard look at him this off-season/training camp to see if he can be a factor this season. The Bronco currently have 7 Tight Ends, or too many in my opinion and due to a lack of position flexibility, Alexander may be one of the odd-men out.
Daniel Graham --
The Broncos made several moves this off-season but the acquisition of Graham might turn out to be the biggest by far. There is no questioning Graham's run-blocking ability, and Mike Shanahan is going to find a way to get Graham the ball in the passing game. When I was at Fan-Fair I asked Graham if his role was a major factor in his decision. "Yes, it was a big factor. I asked ever team how they would use me, and Mike assured me that I would be more than just a blocker."
Even more than the football ability, Graham also brings a Super Bowl attitude to the Broncos. Graham won two rings with the Patriots and don't underestimate how much of a factor the knowledge of actually winning comes into play. Graham will also be able to help Tony Scheffler and the other young TE's become better blockers, something Stephen Aleaxander was simply unable to do. I am excited about Graham and about what he'll bring to the table in 2007.
Nate Jackson --
At 28 years old, this could be the final try for Jackson to find a permanent home on the Broncos roster. Originally a Wide Receiver, Jackson was converted to Tight End, has spent time in NFL Europe, and bounced back and forth from active to in-active on game day. At 6-3, 235 Jackson is the classic tweener, not fast enough to play outside, too small to play an effective Tight End. Because of his success with Shannon Sharpe, Shanny has continued to find that type of player, that body type, again to no avail. The signing of Graham seems to signal Shanny is committing to more traditional tight end play, more smash mouth. If that is the case Jackson will be hard pressed to remain in Blue and Orange next year.
Teyo Johnson --
Johnson was the classic draft bust after being selected in the 2nd round by the Oakland Raiders in 2003. Johnson has the size(6-6, 260) and speed to be an effective blocker and route runner but was never really able to get it together in Oakland. After spending the 2005 season with the Arizona Cardinals Johnson was completely out of football in 2006 before signing with the Broncos. Johnson is currently playing in NFL Europa for the Hamburg Sea Devils and is having a decent, if not spectacular season abroad. The Broncos are hoping to catch a bit of lightning in a bottle and Johnson's size and youth are intriguing to say the least. Johnson just hasn't played a lot of football the past couple of years and the more action he gets the better he should become. I think he has a future, just not with the Broncos, perhaps.
Chad Mustard --
Mustard is another young guy who hasn't played a ton of football. What helps keep Mustard on the roster is his versatility, witnessed by his occasional play at fullback, in sort of the Patrick Hape role. Mustard really shouldn't be relied on to be much more than a blocker and special teams player, but he is hardnosed and isn't afraid to hit someone right in the grill. There is always room on my team for guys like that and I have a feeling Mustard will have a spot when it all shakes out this August. His ability to play multiple positions can only help his cause and he is an asset on coverage teams.
Tony Scheffler --
Drafted to become the next great Broncos tight-end, Scheffler showed flashes of brilliance last season, especially after Jay Cutler took control of the reigns in week 13. 12 of his 18 catches came during the last 5 weeks of the season and hopes are high coming into 2007. Scheffler has hit a speed-bump this off-season, suffering a broken foot during OTA's. The initial word has been that Scheff will be ready for Training Camp, but one never does know when it comes to feet. When he does return to the field Scheffler would do well to learn as much as possible about becoming a complete Tight End from Daniel Graham. Scheff has all the tools as a pass catcher, but he leaves a lot to be desired as a blocker, and in the end that was the curse of death for Jeb Putzier as a Bronco. For Scheffler to avoid meeting a similar fate he has to become a more physical blocker and he has the perfect teacher in Graham. Let's hope that Scheff can come back healthy and ready for 2007.
Mike Leach --
I purposely left Leach for last. Though listed as a Tight End on the depth chart, Leach has one job and one job alone. He's the long snapper and will be as long as he wants to be. A thankless position that rarely garners any type of attention except for when something bad happens, we need look no further than the Cincinnati game for an example of how important a guy like Leach is to your team. Leach will make the team, obviously, taking up a valuable roster spot and depth chart position. That means one of the other guys is probably gone.
My Proposed Depth Chart --
Assuming everyone is healthy, here are the guys I think will make the team out of camp.
- Daniel Graham
- Tony Scheffler
- Stephen Alexander
- Chad Mustard
- Mike Leach
Possible Shocker --
Teyo Johnson makes the roster instead of Alexander. This theory took a huge hit when Scheffler whet down, but should Tony come back healthy and Johnson prove to be an athletic option on Special Teams then Alexander could be sacrificed due to his lack of position versatility. Just something to keep your eyes on.
Your turn. Am I on target? Absolutely crazy? Let me know!!!