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Injuries at key positions put a strain on Broncos’ offense, defense

Broncos have taken a hit at tight end, fullback and linebacker - three key positions for the Broncos’ offensive and defensive schemes.

DENVER BRONCOS Photo by Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Good morning, Broncos Country!

As the Broncos get ready for joint practices with the 49ers later this week, they are down two critical positions for Rich Scangarello’s offense - tight end and fullback - and suffering at one of VIc Fangio’s favorite defensive positions - linebacker.

After a season-ending ACL tear for Austin Fort, an undrafted tight end who was making a strong case to be on the roster, and a two-month-ish recovery for Andy Janovich after injuring his pectoral muscle in Thursday’s game, the Broncos will be moving down the list to find guys to fill in.

With a banged up TE corps already, the Broncos considered searching for another tight end, but Vic Fangio noted on Sunday that “they don’t grow on trees” this time of year as teams still have 90 guys on their rosters.

“Our tight end position has gotten hit hard, but we still have six, albeit that a couple of them are limited,” the coach said.

Jake Butt, who has been put on IR his last two seasons and was recently sidelined for soreness in his knee three weeks ago, returned Sunday for the first time since July 20.

Tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Bug Howard - both sitting out the past few days for minor injuries - had limited participation Sunday but were at least on the field.

Butt told reporters that his injury recovery has been the toughest thing he’s had to go through as a football player.

“Absolutely frustrating. It’s been the hardest thing, mentally, I’ve ever had to go through,” Butt said. “I put the work in every single day. This is what I want to do. I want to be out here more than anything in the world. This isn’t by choice that I’m sitting in the training room or that I’m dealing with these little hiccups here and there. It’s definitely not by choice.”

But the third-year tight end added that he wasn’t going to complain.

“I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I’ll just put my head down and work and get back out there.”

Butt said he has used journal writing to help him focus on the task at hand - getting back to football.

“Everyone that’s known me my whole life knows how much this game means to me. It’s really not an option. I’m not going to quit,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think about the injuries when he’s on the field. “If I feel good, I’m not worried about anything. I felt good today. I’m running routes, playing hard off my left leg. Also, I’ve had two surgeries on my right [leg]. My right feels fine, my right feels great, so there’s no doubt I’m going to overcome this left one. It’s just taking a little bit more time than I’d like.”

At fullback, a position not every team utilizes but one destined to be used by Scangarello, who came from the 49ers where fullback Kyle Juszczyk was a major part of the Niners game plan, the Broncos have one hope until Janovich can return - rookie George Aston.

Fangio was non-committal on how likely it would be that Aston would make the roster, saying he still must prove he is “worthy of fulfilling that role” but did note Aston has been a nice surprise.

“Yeah, he’s been a surprise guy coming as an undrafted free agent. There aren’t many fullbacks out there these days in college or pro football, so there’s not an abundance of them,” Fangio said Sunday. “I think he’s had a nice catch and run after the catch the other night. He’s got a chance.”

That’s close to high praise from Fangio, and Aston realizes better than anybody that his job is still the same, whether he’s playing to make the practice squad or the final 53. In the meantime, he’ll take everything he has learned from Janovich and try to put it to good practice.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Aston said about what he’s taken from Jano’s example and mentorship. “You get to this level, a lot of college ball and a lot of football up to this point, you think you know a lot about football, but just in a couple of weeks you learn so much about things you had no idea about. He’s been more than amazing to me. Any questions I have, he’s right there helping me out with anything I need. It’s been pretty cool.”

On the defensive side of things, a pec injury to reserve inside linebacker Joe Jones makes him the third linebacker alongside Todd Davis and Josey Jewell to be sidelined. Jewell was practicing again Sunday, but Alexander Johnson, Josh Watson, Keishawn Bierria and Joe Dineen Jr. are going to need to step up while Davis continues recovery from a calf injury.

Justin Hollins, who is currently learning/playing both inside and outside linebacker, could also help out.

“I’ve seen good progression in that he’s learning two positions, which is hard. He’s shown that he can run and he’s got some athletic abilities, long and all that,” Fangio said. “He’s just got to develop the love of hitting people like linebackers in this league have to have.”

Also helping matters at linebacker is the fact that safety Jamal Carter asked to switch to linebacker, likely looking at his chances of making the defensive back roster and figuring he could help out at a position in need of some strength.

“I’ve been wanting to play this since high school and college,” Carter said Sunday after practice. “I like being in the trenches. I’m a physical specimen. I don’t like being too deep away from arms and contact. It’s going to fit me.”

Fangio is still at wait-and-see mode but he’s giving Carter the shot he asked for.

Right now, it’s temporary, but if he looks good in there it will be permanent,” the coach said. “Our numbers have gotten low there, and he’s always wanted to play in there, so the timing was good. He wants to be in there.”

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