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Chad Kelly and Jake Butt show this weekend isn't only about the Broncos' rookies

Posted May 12, 2018

After injuries torpedoed the rookie seasons for both, Kelly and Butt are poised to show that the Broncos' decision to play the long game was justified.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Two of the most-watched players at Broncos rookie orientation weren't even rookies.

And when 2017 seventh-round pick Chad Kelly connected with 2017 fifth-round selection Jake Butt on a series of passes during individual drills early in Saturday's on-field session, it didn't feel like just another series of repetitions that could be quickly forgotten. Instead, it seemed more like the culmination of over a year of conditioning and injury-rehabilitation work, and maybe the dawn of something bigger.

Butt's routes were crisp, just like they were at Michigan. Kelly threw with zip, just like he did at Mississippi when he diced up Alabama's defense in 2015 and 2016 games, throwing for a combined 762 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Even against air, both sights were promising.

"He can rip that thing now," Butt said of Kelly's passes. "You've definitely got to wear gloves. He'll be spinning that bad boy pretty tough."

Kelly's rookie season was waylaid by a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during his senior season at Mississippi and a wrist injury incurred as he prepared for his pre-draft Pro Day workout. Butt's 2017 was doomed by the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in Michigan's 2016 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.

In both cases, the Broncos got them at well below their expected draft value because of the injuries. The team had to be patient. So did Butt and Kelly -- but that doesn't mean it wasn't difficult to sit, watch and wait.

"It's been really long," Kelly said. "But finally getting out, the time's here, and you can feel like yourself again. This is what you do. This is your job -- to be able to get out here with guys and kind of get back in the swing of things."

Both had brief glimpses on the practice field last season as the Broncos evaluated their progress while they were on the non-football-injury list before they were shut down for the year.

"Selfishly and being a competitor, I wanted to be on the field, obviously," Butt said. "But I think it's going to pay off for me, just really getting to 100 percent before I [was] out there this spring."

The anticipation of seeing both Kelly and Butt in action has been growing for a year, but both stand in different spots in terms of their competition. Butt is in a wide-open race at tight end, with no previous full-time starter among the group. The Broncos' six tight ends have just 12 collective starts among them.

If Butt plays up to the capability that had him poised to be a first- or second-round pick in last year's deep tight-end class before he suffered the torn ACL, he has every chance to seize the top role in the rotation.

"Of course. You've got to have that kind of confidence," Butt said. "I think we all do in the tight end room. I think all the receivers do. You've got to have that confidence in this league. That's my goal. That's everybody in the room's goal, and that's what's going to make us better, that we're competing for that No. 1 spot."

It's different for Kelly, with an established No. 1 quarterback in Case Keenum leading the way. But the No. 2 job is there for him to seize, as President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said after the draft that Kelly would compete with Paxton Lynch for the backup spot behind Keenum.

"At the end of the day, I thought of it as, 'Perfect, I can get more reps.' And that's what it's about," Kelly said. "Being consistent in what you do, being athletic in what you do and going out there and competing, whether it's in individual drills [or] it's in a team activity. I just look at it as another opportunity to get better -- each and every play and each and every rep."

It's an opportunity that he's earned through rehabilitation and conditioning work. Kelly reported for the offseason in far better shape than he was late in his college career, and last year, crediting "a lot of spinach and chicken instead of fried food" for his slimmer physique.

"He's changed his body," Head Coach Vance Joseph said. "He is really lean now. He's eating right. He's working hard. He's definitely put the work in, and he's throwing the ball really well right now. So I've been really proud of Chad."

So far, so good. The next few months offer the chance for Kelly and Butt to demonstrate that the Broncos' patience in them was justified.