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Denver Broncos Have the Best Tight Ends in the AFC West?

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In a recent post from ESPN AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, the tight ends of the AFC West are ranked 1-11. To nobody's surprise, Antonio Gates checks in at number one on the list, with Kansas City's Tony Moeaki second despite missing all of 2011 with an injury.

I can't say I disagree with those two names up front, and following those two are Denver's Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen at three and four respectively. Williamson says he put Tamme ahead because of his previous experience playing with Manning, but both players seem to add something special to the offense. The Broncos feature a third tight end on the list, 2011 fourth round pick Julius Thomas, a player whom the team is very high on and could be a candidate to break out this season.

The Broncos are the only team in the division with three players in Williamson's top eight tight ends, and while Kansas City has players ranked at number two and five, those are the only two tight ends (Moeaki, Kevin Boss) that represent them on the list. San Diego has Gates at one, Randy McMichael at six, and Ladarius Green at 11 to make it a close race with the Broncos.

But, if you average the rankings out, the Broncos have the highest overall average between three players, and thus you could argue that they went from having the most miserable tight end situation in the league in 2011 (Dante Rosario, Daniel Fells?) to having the best group in the AFC West and one of the best overall crews in the league.

As much as I like the free agent acquisitions of Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen for the Broncos, I think there are some really intriguing players at the bottom of Denver's roster that could make a significant impact if given the chance. For one, Virgil Green was a seventh round pick out of Nevada that I loved last year. He sort of blew up the combine similar to the way that former Oklahoma tight end James Hanna did in 2012.

Matt Waldman, a very respected name in the NFL Draft analyzing world (join me sometime) felt last year that Green was the best tight end in the entire draft because of his immense upside. Obviously, some health concerns pushed him down draft boards, but he was worth the risk in the seventh round. There was really no rhyme or reason why Peyton Hillis fell to the seventh round either, other than he'd not been given a shot. The Broncos cashed in and he has turned out to be a pretty good player.

I'm not saying Virgil Green is going to be a Pro Bowler, but check out what Waldman had to say last year before the draft regarding the former Nevada star:

The safest tight end in this draft is Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph. So if you’re looking for surer things, he has the combination of blocking skills, receiving and toughness after the catch that should earn him a starting opportunity within the first 12-18 months of his N.F.L. career.

But if you’re looking for the most dangerous TE in this draft, Green is the difference-maker. He still needs work as a blocker. Right now, he’s a lot more punch and pop without consistent technique and strength to sustain his blocks. In fact, Green may never have the frame to add enough muscle to become a great blocker at the position.

Although he is a willing and aggressive blocker and should develop into a technically sound player, his lack of polish will initially limit his opportunities as an every-down player. That’s O.K. If a team drafted Green as a blocker, the general manager should be fired. Green is much closer to Shannon Sharpe than Alge Crumpler.

Green has the quickness to get 15-20 yards downfield against most N.F.L. defenders, and his agility separates him from most of the tight ends in this class. When he makes a catch, he’s capable of making that quick cut, spin, or dip away from a defender and accelerate for significant yardage.

And that physicality that I mentioned with his blocking carries over to Green’s ball-carrying. Because he’s a flexible, explosive athlete, Green is also very good at getting his pads low at the point of contact and bouncing off hits. What’s most impressive is that he combines his athleticism with terrific hands and toughness over the middle. He catches the ball in high-traffic areas and takes the punishment.

The team that drafts Green will be able to move him around the field as an x, y or z receiver or use him on the line because of his receiver-like skills, size and strength. If Green can add another 10 pounds and taper his reckless tendencies as a run blocker, he has the athleticism to be a statistical leader at the position.

In essence, Virgil Green is a poor man's Aaron Hernandez. He has excellent size and speed to split out as a receiver, and I hope that he's improved as a route runner having essentially spent last season as a 'redshirt' player for the Broncos. Green occasionally got on the field last season, but he was constantly battling injuries and the Broncos are bringing their young tight ends along slowly. Slowly but surely.

One of the biggest knocks on Green was his blocking coming out of college, but that was definitely something that he worked on throughout the lockout as well as during the short offseason he had with the Broncos. So much so, in fact, that he was able to take a roster spot from guys like Richard Quinn, Dan Gronkowski, and other guys. I found this note in NFL Draft Scout's archives that you may find interesting:

TE Virgil Green went from the roster bubble to beating out the likes of Richard Quinn, Dan Gronkowski and Dante Rosario for the third spot at his position. GM Brian Xanders said Green became one of the team's best run-blocking TEs watching nine-on-seven drills and game tape, and that physicality transferred to special teams, where he played on all four phases.

At the end of training camp and the pre-season last year, I wasn't convinced the Broncos weren't going to cut Green and try to sneak him on the practice squad, but with his athletic ability and immense upside, there is little chance a tight end starved team (how about division rival Oakland?) would pass on a chance to get that kind of kid.

Another player I'm really encouraged by going forward is Julius Thomas, the Broncos' fourth round pick who battled injuries last year, but really stuck out to me when I was at training camp as a guy who looked like a man among boys. Thomas obviously is very raw as a football player, but he has natural skills and is a fantastic athlete whose catch radius is out of this world.

Thomas really caught everyone's eye last year at the Shrine game, where he made some plays and showed off his red zone receiving skills. The Broncos were hot on his trail from there on out. Thomas did a draft diary for a site that I can't remember at the moment, but I remember reading from his diary that he had a private workout with our tight ends coach, and he was one of the players the Broncos did a lot of research on leading up to the draft last year.

It's no coincidence then, that Denver traded up in the fourth round to get him. With the NFL transitioning to utilizing multiple tight ends as a way to truly dominate defenses, teams are looking to pick up freak athletes at the position who are mismatches with linebackers and smaller nickel defensive backs. The New England Patriots are obviously the league model for this strategy, but another team who utilizes their tight end extremely well is the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham is a former basketball player at Miami (in case you've been living under a rock) who caught just 17 passes in his first season as a Miami football player, but five of them were for touchdowns.

Similarly, Thomas played just one year of football at Portland State, where he caught just 29 passes but had 453 yards and a pair of scores. That kind of big play ability caught the Broncos' eye, and I think if Thomas can recover properly from his high ankle surgery, he can be a major weapon for the Broncos going forward. Obviously, he is ranked eighth on Williamson's list for a reason, not just the fact that he's a big name or something. The guy has some talent and while he's not near as athletic as Jimmy Graham, he can certainly be as dominant a player at 6'5" 255 pounds with a 36 inch vertical and 4.6 speed.

With those four guys at tight end, the Broncos have a very good core of guys who could possibly be one of the best in the NFL at that position. This is certainly encouraging since last year, they had one of the worst groups in the NFL.