There are holdovers in the Broncos' tight end room this year. Five-year veteran Jeff Heuerman and 2017 fifth-round pick Jake Butt are both back, having recovered from the injuries that prematurely ended their 2018 season. Troy Fumagalli, a fifth-round pick last year, also returns after missing the year with a sports hernia.
Yet despite those familiar names, the position group appears entirely different. The presence of Noah Fant, Denver's first Round 1 selection at tight end since Riley Odoms in 1972, has much to do with that. But the reasons go deeper than the No. 20 overall pick.
Fumagalli looked like a revelation during OTAs and minicamp. Working mostly on underneath routes, he became a reliable short-to-intermediate target for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has long favored the tight ends, with Baltimore's tight-end group frequently among the NFL's most productive in the last decade. Heuerman picked up where he left off before he was injured last year. Butt said late last month that he is "very close to 100 percent" as he completes his recovery from a torn ACL.
"Everybody brings a little something different to the table," Butt said on June 26. "We've got Noah, who's just a freak athlete; he can stretch the field more than any tight end I've ever been around.
"Jeff can really stretch the defense [with] what he can do in the blocking game, but also what he can do as a receiver. I think his blocking is extremely underrated, and you can't just expect him to be a blocker full-time, because he can go out there and run.
“And then 'Fum' and I, with the underneath routes, winning on third-and-8 and things like that, man, we've got a lot of different guys that can do different things.”
So if the Broncos keep Fant, Fumagalli, Heuerman and Butt, then they will carry more tight ends into the regular season than in each of the last three years. The last time Denver had four tight ends on its Week 1 roster was in 2015, and that was in part because James Casey was also listed as a fullback.
Given that new Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello comes from a background in San Francisco that saw the 49ers lead the league in fullback usage last year, it seems likely that Andy Janovich will have a roster spot. So if the Broncos are to keep four pure tight ends for the first time since 2015, that fourth spot will have to come from another position group.
While Fumagalli, Heuerman and Butt all possess potential, any recurrence of previous injuries means the Broncos could be caught short of depth on the active roster if at least one of them succumbs at some point.
But if the Broncos have to make a difficult choice at the deadline and part ways with one of those three returning tight ends, they might find their depth from the practice squad, which could find at least one tight end among those currently on the roster.
Rookie Austin Fort displayed a knack for red-zone receptions during offseason work, and Bug Howard had moments where he looked like a dynamic pass catcher, owing in part to his background as a wide receiver. Howard is officially listed at 220 pounds -- but he said that is out of date and was his receiving weight.
"I'm way past that point. I think they just took my rookie-year roster [measurements]," he said two weeks ago, laughing. "I haven't been that in a while."
Howard actually weighs 240 pounds, the size at which he played tight end for the Atlanta Legends of the ill-fated Alliance of American Football. He departed the AAF with experience and momentum and parlayed those into a successful tryout at the Broncos' rookie minicamp in May. He continued building his case for the roster from there.
At the minimum, Howard and Fort can continue pushing Fant and the veterans in the position group. But their play also ensures that the cut to 53 could be painful – even if they go heavier at the position than they have in recent years.
"I think we've got a really talented room," Butt said. "A lot of competition from top to bottom, and I think that's a really, really good thing for everybody, because it forces us to be on our 'A' game every day."