Fans of the Denver Broncos have learned to temper expectations when John Elway and Co. trade for a tight end. On paper, A.J. Derby is nothing special, Derby didn't even play tight end until his final season at Arkansas. He started his collegiate career at Iowa as a linebacker, he was redshirted, then transferred to Coffeyville Community College (Kansas). During his stint at Coffeyville, he switched positions, this time to quarterback and tossed 22 touchdowns while leading the Red Ravens to the Region IV semifinals. Finally, he transferred to Arkansas and spent his Junior year again as a backup quarterback. Prior to his Senior season, he moved over to tight end where he started 7 games (out of 11) for the Razorbacks.
Name: A.J. Derby
Position: Tight end
Height: 6'4" Weight: 255
Age: 25 Experience: 3rd
He was drafted in 2015 by the New England Patriots in the 6th round, Derby was promptly placed on injured reserve after clearing waivers in August of 2015. In 2016 he competed for the third tight end spot on the Patriots roster, showing off in training camp and beginning the Age of Derby, he nabbed 15 receptions in four preseason games for New England, averaging 12.6 yards per catch and snatching a touchdown to close out the 2016 preseason.
Meanwhile, in Denver, Trevor Siemian had just been named the starting quarterback, Virgil Green would be injured in a few weeks, Jeff Heuerman was essentially in his rookie season and veteran tight end John Phillips was released soon after the Derby trade to make roster space for practice squad member Taurean Nixon.
The Broncos traded a 2017 5th round draft pick for Derby on October 25, 2016 (7 days before the 2016 trade deadline). Derby saw his first action for Denver in a week 9 contest against the Oakland Raiders, a game which Derby actually started for the Broncos. The second-year tight end would not see his first professional regular season catch until the following week when he caught two passes from Siemian.
Reports indicate the Broncos are high on TE A.J. Derby heading into the 2017 season. pic.twitter.com/gWmk0fyQ3Q— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 21, 2017
I've not seen a tight end so willingly take on nose tackles and defensive tackles at both the collegiate and NFL level. Derby is widely regarded as a huge slot receiver and in 2016 Derby was essentially that. During one stint last season he had 12 catches in a row on 12 targets. However, his nose for smacking down on 300 lbs. interior defensive linemen is undeniable and probably a nod to his days as a linebacker.
Under the previous regime, it was easy to project Derby as an H-back. However, unlike most teams, Denver employs several 'H-backs', between fullback Andy Janovich, Virgil Green and Jeff Heuerman the plan for Derby this season under new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's offense is likely to get the ball into Derby's sure-hands early and often.
If you remember anything about Derby last season, it is probably the fumble that he lost with the game on the line in Denver's week 14 loss to the Tennessee Titans. A win against the Titans that week may have propelled the Broncos to the playoffs.
Derby technically has only played tight end for three seasons (two in the NFL) and has yet to make it out of a season healthy. Both Derby and Green entered the NFL's concussion protocol following the Broncos week 15 matchup against the Patriots. Derby was not cleared for the remaining two games of the season.
"I’m not wearing a wire," Derby said December 16, 2016, lifting his shirt to show no recording devices. "Everyone has a conspiracy when it comes to Bill [Belichick]. They always think he’s cheating at something." Derby on the Twitter conspiracy that he was a plant by the Patriots.
With veteran Green cemented as a blocking tight end, this is possibly the last shot that Derby will have to make a name for himself as a Bronco. Both Heuerman and rookie Jake Butt appear to be breathing heavily down his neck, not to mention Henry Kriger-Coble is likely itching to get off of the practice squad.
In 2016, Derby caught 87.5% of his targets. Imagine what he will be able to put together under McCoy's system.