The biggest story for Denver Broncos tight ends heading into training camp isn't happening on the field at all. It's happening in the front office.
The Broncos are trying earnestly to sign Julius Thomas to a contract extension following a breakout year in 2013, where he tallied 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those numbers have him ranked among the top playmaking tight ends in the league, an element of the roster the Broncos haven't enjoyed since Shannon Sharpe last donned orange and blue.
While Thomas is no Sharpe yet - he lacks the blocking ability that Sharpe demonstrated, and he is still raw as a route-runner - he has a nose for the end zone that is unparalleled. He broke Sharpe's franchise record for regular season touchdowns in 2013, and he did a lot of it with his feet as much as his hands. The majority of Thomas' 12 touchdowns were caught outside of the end zone in 2013, with Thomas having to run to paydirt, often breaking tackles. Just watch these 2013 highlights of J.T.'s season - only two of the touchdowns shown here were caught in the end zone.
Now that Thomas is a known commodity, the focus for him during training camp will be whether he can elevate his game to the next level. Can he improve as a blocker? Can he get even more involved in the passing game? Can he come out of his soft-spoken shell to emerge as a leader for his position group? These are the elements we'll be watching closely at camp.
How many will make the team?
Last year the Broncos kept four tight ends on the roster, which was a high number. They balanced that out by keeping only five wide receivers (including Trindon Holliday, who was more of a returner). If the Broncos keep six wide receivers this year, as they typically do, they may only be able to keep three tight ends.
In what round will you be drafting Julius Thomas in fantasy football this year? You certainly won't be lucky enough to get him in the last rounds like many fans did a year ago.
One of the most under-utilized talents on the Broncos roster, we thoroughly scouted and broke down Virgil Green just recently. He's stronger than Julius Thomas, faster than Julius Thomas, and just as tall as Julius Thomas. So why isn't he ahead of Julius on the roster? That is one of the great unknowns, but perhaps this is the year Virgil Green finally makes some plays in training camp, earning the opportunity to repeat the success on Sundays.
Jacob Tamme could be a starting tight end on half the rosters in this league, but in Denver, he's Julius Thomas' backup. While his sample size is much smaller, he actually graded higher than Thomas in both pass catching and blocking, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Tamme is on the bubble because his roster number is relatively huge at $3 million for a backup tight end. Some Broncos fans are surprised he made it through the offseason with his roster spot intact.
Another veteran, quality backup, Dreessen has been hindered by knee ailments since an offseason ago. He underwent two knee surgeries in the 2013 offseason, only to be limited in most games and benched during Denver's playoff run. He underwent another knee surgery this offseason with the hopes of returning to his 2011-2012 form. It's not clear whether he'll be ready for training camp - he has missed all of OTAs so far.
Denver's wide-receiver-to-tight-end-conversion project, Robinson is Brock Osweiler's buddy from ASU and part of the Broncos' three-man Arizona influx from 2012 (including Omar Bolden). He had a good camp in 2013, but that only landed him on Denver's practice squad. He'll need a better camp in 2014 to make the roster, and even that might be easier if he were to switch back to wide receiver.
Cameron Morrah played in 27 games from 2009-2011 with the Seattle Seahawks, but he hasn't seen the field since.
Another former Seahawk who hasn't seen the field since 2011 (and with only one regular game appearance in his career), Konz has an uphill battle this training camp.
"Even though Julius had a tremendous year for us, he's only (played) 23 games. We want Julius to be a Bronco for a long time and we think he has tremendous upside, but he's not at (Jimmy Graham's) level." - John Elway, reflecting on how Jimmy Graham's $40-million deal impacts contract negotiations with Julius Thomas.