The tight end position, a position which has been problematic for Denver for a number of years, could well be the spark plug for the 2019 offense.
The Denver Broncos have struggled to find consistent production at the tight end position since the departure of Julius Thomas at the end of 2014, as his departure coincided with the Broncos dropping from the fourth best offense in the league in 2014, to the 16th best in 2015.
Thomas went to back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2013 and 2014, scoring 24 touchdowns and picking up 1277 yards in 27 games across those two seasons.
In the following four seasons, the Broncos have just 12 touchdowns from the tight end position, and in the three years post-Peyton Manning, the tight end position has yielded just 553 yards per year.
Injuries have been a big problem at the position. Current trio Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli have played in just 40 games out of a possible 112, with each missing their entire rookie season.
Heuerman has missed time in all three years since his rookie season, Butt suffered his third ACL injury just three games into the 2018 season and Fumagalli has yet to pull on the orange and blue jersey.
John Elway gave Heuerman a 2-year, $8 million extension this offseason, and he will be expected to be a significant contributor to the offense, however the real optimism comes from 2019 first round pick Noah Fant.
Injury troubles have evaded Fant, touchwood, with the Nebraska native appearing in 24 of Iowa’s 26 games across the last two seasons, and one of those missed games was the Outback Bowl, which Fant skipped ahead of the NFL Draft.
Fant has 1,013 yards across the past two years, and has been a touchdown machine with 18 in his 24 games, and in 2018 Fant was a consensus first-team Big 10 selection. This followed third-team all-Big 10 honours in 2017 when he led the nation in yards per catch, with 16.5.
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah stated that: “He runs by everybody when you watch him,” and Fant flashed elite speed with a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Fant will be crucial to be helping the Broncos stretch the field, and allow Flacco to utilise his arm strength, the ex-Ravens quarterback reported to have the ability to throw the ball seventy yards downfield in OTAs (Organised team activities).
Fant has expressed his delight to be working with Flacco since being drafted, as he said: “I would argue that I’m in the best situation for a tight end in this draft, being with the Denver Broncos.
“I can’t express how happy I am about that. I’m just looking forward to it.”
The Hawkeye is right to be pleased to be working with Joe Flacco, who has targeted tight ends with 23% of his passes over the last three seasons, the fifth highest rate in the league.
Tight ends Dennis Pitta and Benjamin Watson led the Baltimore Ravens in receptions in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and in seven of Flacco’s 11 seasons in Baltimore, a tight end was among the top three Ravens in receptions.
The offseason changes to the coaching staff should also put Fant in a position to succeed, with offensive coordinator Rich Scangerello arriving from a San Francisco 49ers team that saw tight end George Kittle, a teammate of Noah Fant at Iowa in 2016, record 1377 yards and five touchdowns in 2018, earning himeslef a Pro Bowl selection.
The Broncos will be hoping that the combination of Flacco’s arm strength and Fant’s speed in Scangerello’s offense can cause real problems for NFL defences in 2019.