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Broncos training camp burning question: Who steps up at tight end?


Last year with the Minnesota Vikings, eight of Case Keenum's 22 regular-season touchdown passes -- 36.4 percent -- went to tight ends. The league average was 26.6 percent.

In the past two seasons combined, Denver's tight ends caught just seven touchdown passes, representing 17.9 percent of the Broncos' 39 total touchdowns by air in those seasons.

With Virgil Green jumping to the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency after seven seasons with the Broncos, there is a wide-open vacancy at the position. That creates an opportunity for contributors to emerge from a young position group whose veteran members have a combined 12 regular-season starts among them -- eight for Jeff Heuerman, three for Austin Traylor one for Matt LaCosse and none for Brian Parker.

Traylor proved his worth as a blocker last year, but also showed the ability to move the chains when given the opportunity on short and intermediate routes.

Heuerman, who caught a pair of touchdown passes last season, looks to build off his late-season surge last year. He spent OTAs timing with Keenum.

"It's good. Even when we had a few scrambles [in practice], Case and I were on the same page. He just kind of knew what I was doing," Heuerman said during OTAs. "It's huge working with Case every day and catching as many balls from him as I can."

But the tight ends with the potential to create the greatest buzz could be the least-experienced members of the group: rookie fifth-round pick Troy Fumagalli and a fifth-round selection from last year, Jake Butt.

Fumagalli, who played for the Broncos' coaches during Senior Bowl week in January, missed all of OTAs because of a sports hernia, so he remains a completely unknown commodity at the pro level.

Butt has yet to play in a game to this point after spending his rookie season recovering from a torn ACL, but he practiced throughout OTAs. His leaping receptions in traffic in the end zone offered an indication that he can be the consistent red-zone threat the Broncos have hoped to find at the position since Owen Daniels in 2015.

In the short term, he has already impressed Keenum.

"Jake is a competitor. He wants the ball no matter what and I like that," Keenum said during OTAs. "I like a guy that comes back to the huddle and [I say], 'Hey, were you open on that play?' And even if there were three guys on him, he's like, 'Yeah, you could have fit it in.'

"[Butt] wants the ball and I love that," Keenum said. "He's hungry right now for knowledge, for how to run routes, for how to maneuver with leverage and I'm excited for him to continue to keep going."

Keenum's willingness to throw into tight coverage and trust his pass-catchers to make plays helped make the Vikings' offense hum last year, leading to big plays for tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Now the Broncos need their young tight ends to prove their dependability.

"As tight ends, we need to earn Case's trust and earn the coaches' trust," Heuerman said. "That's what we're working on every day -- trying to get the timing down, trying to earn that trust and deserve the ball."

The Broncos might rely on a committee approach, or one of the tight ends could emerge and become as productive as Rudolph. Either way, if their tight ends can average a touchdown every other game in the regular season, their unit will have above-average production, and Keenum's first year as Denver's starter will have a better chance of being a successful one.

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