ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos officially need tight ends. It’s why rookie tight end Noah Fant, if he wasn’t already, really needs to be on the fast track now as injuries have rocked the position.
“Invariably, every camp, there is one position group that kind of gets [injured] more than others,” said Broncos coach Vic Fangio. “Tight end has been that position in this camp. … It’s a concern. … We just got to trek through it.”
Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli and rookie Bug Howard have each missed time in training camp with injuries. And Thursday night rookie Austin Fort, who had forced himself into the conversation for a roster spot with all of the work in practice he got when the others were sitting out, tore his ACL and will miss the season.
Butt, who has suffered three ACL tears since the start of his career at Michigan, has battled knee soreness throughout camp and is still a major question mark for the season. Butt, who practiced sparingly Sunday for the first time since July 20, Heuerman and Fumagalli have each spent at least one of the last four seasons on injured reserve.
“[It is] absolutely frustrating. It’s been the hardest thing, mentally, I’ve ever had to go through,” Butt said. “ …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. … I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. I’m not going to complain. I’ll just put my head down and work and get back out there.”
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It all puts offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello in a bit of a bind, given the position’s importance in the scheme — the Broncos want to feature a heavy dose of two-tight-end and two-back sets. While Butt, Heuerman and Fumagalli were all in uniform for Monday’s practice, Fant is already in position, if the injury luck doesn’t improve on this part of the depth chart, to be the constant in the position group.
However, for Fant to produce at a level that led the Broncos to draft him in the first round of April’s draft, he will have to speed along the learning curve.
As Fangio put it early on in his work with Fant: “Yeah, he can run. We all knew that. That was easy. But now he has to learn how to be a tight end in the NFL. He’s got tools, but, you know, I can go into Home Depot and walk out with a bunch of nice tools, and I’m not a carpenter. We have to teach him how to be a tight end in the NFL.”
Fant’s speed — he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in February, or faster than 17 of the wide receivers who were clocked in Indianapolis — is certainly noticeable. But a few dropped passes, a few bobbles in his routes and a penalty or two have limited his opportunities to fully show the skills the Broncos want him to have.
Through two preseason games, Fant has three catches for 21 yards, the longest for eight yards.
“I think there’s times in college where you thought you could get away with certain little things, here and there,” Fant said. “It’s not that way here. It didn’t take long to realize that. I’m just trying to get it right, to be on point with every little thing, because that’s what is required.”
The Broncos haven’t had a tight end grab more than 32 receptions in a season since Peyton Manning was throwing passes for the team and Jacob Tamme, Julius Thomas, Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen each topped 40 receptions at least once in those four years — Thomas did it twice.
“We are asking [our tight ends] to do a lot, no question, but we think we know what he is capable of,” Scangarello said. “It’s not just learning the offense; it’s also him learning the nuances of the things that we know he’ll excel at. … He really has shown to be a quick learner. He’s got a skill set, and he can do just about anything … so, that’s our job, to put him in the best places to show that.”