ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It wasn't that long ago that the Broncos' tight end group was the league's least productive in terms of receptions and yardage. In 2011, Denver's tight ends caught 30 passes for 402 yards and three touchdowns; a year before, they never scored, and amassed just 222 yards on 27 receptions.
Some of the increased production was due to a more pass-intensive offense that came with Peyton Manning's arrival last year. But the 2010 offense was even more air-centric -- that unit passed on 60.9 percent of its snaps, five percent higher than in 2012.
The credit goes to last year's free-agent pickups, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, who combined to make their position a more prominent receiving threat in the offense than any Broncos season since Shannon Sharpe retired. Tamme, Dreessen and Virgil Green combined for 98 catches, 974 yards and seven touchdowns; their production completed a three-year trend in which the tight ends increased their percentage of total Broncos receptions from a nadir of 8.1 percent in 2010 to 13.8 percent in 2011 and 24.4 percent last season.
That percentage might take a hit if Denver's wide receivers stay healthy, particularly Wes Welker. Welker figures to take the bulk of work in the slot, a position that was occasionally filled by Tamme last year, since he has the speed and pass-catching ability to operate split from the offensive line.
Tamme can make plays from a traditional tight end position, but last year the Broncos' preference in that role was for Dreessen, who is nine pounds heavier than Tamme. Dreessen played 863 snaps (75.5 percent), while Tamme was on the field for 528 snaps (46.2 percent).
But they remain remain the men of the moment, and each have two years left on their contracts. The question heading into the draft revolves around the future of the position, where 2011 draft picks Virgil Green and Julius Thomas have two more years remaining on their rookie deals.
Green has emerged as a solid blocking complement to Dreessen. After he returned from a four-game suspension to start the season, Green averaged 14.7 snaps per game, and played a majority of the snaps (43 of 77) in Week 15 at Baltimore, when the Broncos emphasized a two-tight end formation as they focused on the run while protecting a multiple-score lead in the second half.
But the jury must still be considered out on Thomas, who the Broncos knew was going to be a project when they drafted him after just one season of college football, at FCS-level Portland State. The former basketball standout's progress has been further hindered by ankle problems that dogged him in 2011 and kept him out for all of the 2012 offseason.
Thomas also lost the 2011 offseason to the lockout, so these workouts and OTAs are collectively his first opportunity to work and develop for a full year. A decade ago, Thomas would have been an ideal candidate for a spring in what was then known as NFL Europe, which would have given him the snaps he needs. Without that, he's left with the practice field, where his development this year will be crucial.
What is clear regarding Thomas is the Broncos' continued hopes for his development. Even though they deactivated him for the last 12 regular-season games and the playoff loss to the Ravens, he remained on the 53-man roster. The Broncos weren't willing to risk exposing him to the waiver wire.
If he stays healthy, he'll get chances. As with any other player, it's what he does with them that will determine whether he joins Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Marcus Pollard, basketball players who parlayed limited or non-existent college-football experience into successful NFL careers. (Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez doesn't fit that mold, because he started two full football seasons at Cal in addition to playing basketball there.)