Jeff Heuerman's rookie year did not go as planned.
The Broncos' third-round draft choice in 2015 was considered a big-time contributor to Gary Kubiak's then-new offense, which likes to feature two tight-end sets using big, strong, not-afraid-to-lay-the-wood tight ends like Heuerman. And with the loss of Julius Thomas to free agency, Heuerman was also considered a likely candidate for Peyton Manning's "third receiver."
But on the first day of rookie minicamp, the former Buckeye went down with a torn ACL.
Season over just a few hours after it had begun.
"I was real high getting drafted, about as high as you've been in your career. And then seven days later about as low as you've been in your career," Heuerman said. "A lot of emotions going."
But it was his new teammates and coaches who kept the IR'd rookie motivated while he was not allowed on the field.
"The coaches here were outstanding. The players, my family, so a lot of people helped me get through it," he said. "Once you start getting into it, [it becomes] another grind. ...You just kind of put your head down and full speed ahead and get to work."
And even though he had to watch instead of help his new team win the Super Bowl, Heuerman was very appreciative of being included in an experience he called the "National Championship on steroids."
"I was a little bit bummed, like, ‘Man, we're in the Super Bowl and I can't play,'" Heuerman said. But DeMarcus Ware made sure the rookie knew he was part of it all. "It kind of hit me and he was like, ‘You can't think like that. You have to go like you're playing and enjoy it like you are.' The support system around here this last year was outstanding. It was just fun seeing another reach their highest goal that year."
From the very beginning, Kubiak told Heuerman to stay involved - go to all the meetings, travel with the team, be on the sideline.
And that's exactly what he did.
"Every meeting, even Saturday night meetings before the games, I was there," Heuerman said. "I appreciated that because they easily [could have] said ‘whatever, go do what you've got to do, get your knee right.' I appreciate them having me involved in everything and giving me the opportunity to learn. It was good."
And Heuerman had an opportunity that few rookies get - mentoring from Hall-of-Fame certainty Peyton Manning. And while Manning was doing injury rehab of his own last season, he pulled Heuerman and practice squad receiver Jordan Taylor into his recovery routine to be his receivers.
That's some pretty good "practice time" for a rookie - and Heuerman knows it.
"Peyton is obviously Peyton Manning," Heuerman said, adding that he talked with Manning about the quarterback's experience missing an entire year with his neck surgeries in 2011. "Even working with him and just the little things and the learning and how he handles himself. ...He kind of gave me some pointers. How to get through it."
Heuerman's spirits were likely buoyed by the positive comments Manning made about the tight end, saying "he's an awesome football player."
"I think it helps my confidence," Heuerman said about how that time will help him this year, but he added that talk is just talk unless you can follow it up.
He intends to follow it up.
"You can talk a lot, but you have to go out there and do it," Heuerman said. "Peyton talking me up, I guess it's good and everything, but I have to get out there and do it and get out there on the field and perform."
Kubiak is certainly expecting him to perform and has indicated he has big plans for the big tight end.
"We're counting on him big time," Kubiak said last month, noting that Heuerman impressed him when he came in last year. "We feel like Jeff can be a total tight end. He's not just a receiver. We think he has the ability to do both catch and block. He's a very confident young man and he comes from a winning program. He's really been ready to go probably since a few months ago."
Watching team leaders such as Manning and Ware, Heuerman observed how they handled their business, and he took it all in.
"You pick up a lot of things that you're not going to get otherwise. I learned a lot of things that I wouldn't know if I was coming in as a rookie now," Heuerman said. "It's a huge learning year, so I just kind of took in everything I could."
The tight end buckled down in the classroom and made sure he was a step ahead when the time would come to get back out on the field.
"For the most part, I know the offense pretty well. You know it in the classroom, but you also have to go out and know it on the field," Heuerman said. "That's kind of where I'm at now. Just getting out there and putting the paper to the field."
So far this offseason, Heuerman has been excited to do just that - but the former third-round pick knows he still has to prove himself on this Super Bowl-winning team.
"Just getting out there and running around with the guys and getting out on the field feels good," he said. "You've got to go out there and make the plays. That's what I'm looking forward to and most excited for."
Well, that, and being recognized as an actual player on the team. More than once last season the injured rookie had to prove to security he belonged.
"I dealt with that a good amount. People asking, ‘Are you really on the Broncos?' ‘Yeah, I swear,'" Heuerman said, laughing. "I'd have to show them my key card to get in. He's like, ‘Alright, alright, you can go.'"
Heuerman - and coaches alike - are hoping this season everyone recognizes him by his jersey on the field instead.