And no, it isn't Peyton Manning. While Manning will likely have the biggest impact on the Broncos 2012 season, another addition may alter the Broncos season greatly. These two players provide an immediate upgrade and will improve their units through skill and leadership. These are two veterans are proven and experienced, something we haven't had in a while. Now I talked about another key free agent signing a short time ago, and we'll continue this trend by looking at another player.
I'm talking about tight end Joel Dreessen. Let me try and make the case for why we needed him and how he fixes our tight end situation.
Why We Need Him:
2010 and 2011 seasons were two of the worst in terms of tight end play for the Broncos in recent years. Even in 2009 the Broncos still had solid tight end play, but the past two seasons the Broncos struggled to find receiving tight ends. Part of that has to do with the scheme in 2010. Since pass catching tight ends aren't as key in McD's spread offense, that is why the Broncos carried three blocking tight ends and no real receiving tight ends. With the firing of Josh McDaniels, John Fox worked with Mike McCoy to try and work tight ends into the passing scheme more and brought in two veterans Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario as well as drafting two tight ends who have strong receiving ability in Julius Thomas and Virgil Green. They had a plan, but the problems with that plan came with it's execution. Both Fells and Rosario were players who had generally struggled on their previous teams and were never very productive as blockers or receivers. This misstep was the first mistake in the Broncos plan to alter their tight end scheme.
The second came with the struggles of rookie tight end Julius Thomas. Like many fans and the media, I bought into the hype of Thomas based on his camp play without actually watching him in college. This overhyping lead to a severe let down once the pre-season games actually started, Thomas looked lost in protection and never displayed his speed or hands in receiving situations. Because of this he saw limited playing time as the season went on, only seeing 48 snaps the whole regular season.
Virgil Green came in with different expectations, taken much later than Thomas, he wasn't seen as the long term answer at tight end. Green had established himself though for his blocking ability where he spend nearly 80% of his snaps. He was never the physical specimen or athlete that Thomas was, but he was able to work his way into the roster as a classic H-back who'd either stay at the tight end position or shift to the fullback spot if need be. Because of this he was able to get on the field for over five times the snaps of Thomas, 275 to be exact.
But at the end of the season, the Broncos tight end situation was still a mess. Fells and Rosario were not brought back and questions still circled about Thomas. Green had proven himself as an H-back, but lacked the overall skillset to be a strong receiver. These questions caused the Broncos to go into free agency once again to try and solve their problem and this time, they got it right. Enter Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Now Tamme is a player who has risen rapidly over the past seasons with the injuries to Dallas Clark as well as his ability to be productive despite Manning going down. Tamme is largely a pure receiving tight end, and a solid one at that, but this article won't dwell on that too much, instead we're going to discuss the other tight end they brought in, Dreessen.
What Dreessen Brings:
Joel Dreessen brings what EFX thought they were getting with Fells, a guy who can both catch and block. The difference this time is Dreessen is proven, something Fells and Rosario weren't, despite what some believed. Now I know some of you may be asking, "How is Dreessen different?" Well that's my goal for this article.
Pass and Run Blocking:
An area that was important under McD had lost some importance last season. With the arrival of Peyton Manning, the return of tight ends who can block has returned. While I know the Broncos aren't looking for the pure blockers we had in 2010 like Dan Gronkowski and Richard Quinn, having pass blocking ability is vital, and luckily the Broncos picked up a tight end who can do just that.
Now blocking is a tough thing to gauge, luckily there is a metric that can help us, Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE). This looks at the number of pressures, hits and sacks the tight end allowed divided by the number of pass protection snaps played. This way we can see how often a player gives up a pressure. Now Joel Dreessen played 93 snaps in pass protection in 2011, just over 30% of his total snaps, and during that period he only allowed one sack and two pressures. Out of the max 100 PBE, Dreessen scored a 98.1, 7th best in the NFL.
Now when it comes to run blocking, he's even better. When the runner was running on his side, he only allowed 6 tackles behind the line due to a mistake he made. That's out of 456 run blocking snaps, that's a failure rate of 1.3%, pretty good if you ask me. Actually with tight ends who had 300 or more run blocking snaps, he ranked 3rd.
Now Joel Dreessen will never be a Rob Gronkowski, but what he brings is reliability. Now last season our tight ends were note exactly what you'd call reliable in terms of not dropping the ball. Dreessen doesn't have this issue, over the past four years Dreessen has dropped four passes out of his 134 targets, that's a drop rate of less than 3%. He's also a much better red zone option than anyone the Broncos have had since Daniel Graham in 2008. Over the past three seasons he has 11 touchdowns, six of those came last season. Oh and did I mention only one fumble in that same time period. His large size and decent speed especially make him valuable in deep seam routes where he can exploit the defense's zone coverage, something that plays exactly into the strength of Manning's game. He also has a very good yards per reception with 12.4.
In the end, Dreessen fits the scheme, has the size and speed to make plays and has a proven record of solid pass catching production. This is exactly what John Fox was looking for when he went after Fells and Rosario and now he has that player.
Overall, Dreessen is a top tier blocker and reliable pass catcher. The kind of balance the Broncos haven't had in nearly a decade. Look for Tamme to be the primary receiving tight end. Dreessen won't top 700 yards, but 400-500 yards and 3-4 touchdowns is a reasonable expectation. Dreessen is an every down tight end who is mutli-purpose tool, which is what Manning loves.
Now Joel Dreessen isn't a long term answer, he turns 30 this year, but he'll provide two to three good years while the Broncos staff evaluate what they have in Julius Thomas going forward. Similar to the addition of Mike Adams to the safety squad, the Broncos add an immediate starter who brings leadership, production and experience that has been lacking. He upgrades a squad with major question marks and provides a stop gap while the younger players prove if they can develop or not.