INDIANAPOLIS — In the first half of the 2016 AFC Championship game, Peyton Manning found tight end Owen Daniels for a pair of touchdowns.
Daniels, who signed with the Broncos before that season, twice found enough space to make those grabs — and to give Denver a 14-6 lead in a game that pushed the team to Super Bowl 50.
Before Daniels made an impact, Manning and Broncos counted on Julius Thomas to create mismatches at the tight end position. Thomas posted back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with 12 touchdowns in both 2013 and 2014. During those two years, he tallied more than 100 catches and more than 1,200 yards.
But in the years since, the Broncos' offense has struggled to recapture that same sort of production.
In 2018, the Broncos' tight end group featured a handful of players attempting to fill that void.
Jeff Heuerman, a former third-round draft pick, suffered a season-ending rib injury after posting his most-productive start to a season. Jake Butt, a 2017 fifth-round pick, started to look like the answer before he tore his ACL during an early-season practice. Troy Fumagalli was placed on injured reserve before the season after aggravating a pre-draft injury. Matt LaCosse stepped in late in the season to catch a touchdown and finished the season with 24 catches.
None of the players, though, offered the Broncos the same advantage that All-Pros Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski provide their respective teams.
Fumagalli and Butt could potentially be part of the solution, but both players have to prove they can stay on the field.
"We're looking forward to Troy and what he can do this year," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said Friday. "He had a redshirt year last year, with the hernia problem he had. So, we're looking forward to getting Troy back. Jake is working his tail off. There's not a guy that I'd like to see be more successful than Jake because of the type of person he is, as well as his want to be great in the NFL. He's had a tough situation with two ACL [tears] in the last two years. But hopefully he's got that situation remedied. And I think that Jake could come in and be a very good player in this league."
Even so, with Heuerman potentially heading for free agency, Elway could again look in this year's draft for a game-changing tight end.
As he said Wednesday at the NFL Combine, that's been his goal for years.
"We've been trying to address that every year," Elway said. "That's a tough position now, especially when you're talking about an in-line guy that is a blocker but can also be a good pass receiver. We don't have a lot of in-line guys coming out of college like we used to because of what they're doing in college ball opening things up and there's more receivers coming out of college. It's much more difficult finding the in-line tight ends than it's ever been."
The University of Iowa, though, could provide a pair of options for the Broncos at the position.
T.J. Hockenson, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end, has been touted as the best tight end in this year's draft class, and his teammate Noah Fant could also sneak into the first round.
And as Fant said Friday, there's hardly been a better time for tight ends to enter the NFL.
"I would say now is the time if any to come into the NFL, with the way they're using tight ends, the way they're using them more in the pass game but also in the run game," Fant said. "The NFL is transitioning into a lot more pass, and with guys like Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowksi who are catching a lot of passes – George Kittle, for example, having the most receiving yards for a tight end."
Both Fant and Hockenson relied on their versatility during their college careers to make an impact in Iowa's run-heavy scheme On the ground, the pair helped clear the way for running backs. And in the passing game, they created mismatches for defensive players across the Big Ten.
And when that happens, defenses have to make a choice. Often, it's not one that turns out well for a defensive coordinator.
"Who are you going to flex out to put on me or put on any player [for] that matter?" Fant said. "It's not just me, we have a lot of versatile tight ends in this class. Put a corner out there, he might be too small. Put a safety, he might be too slow. Put a linebacker, he might be too slow. So, it's one of those things where you get the right matchup, it could be pretty special."
Fant, who could be on the board when the Broncos make the 41st selection of the draft, was scheduled to have a formal meeting with Denver on Friday evening. According to Denver Post reports, the Broncos are expected to meet with at least three other tight ends, including Utah State's Dax Raymond, Mississippi's Dawson Knox and Washington's Drew Sample. The team reportedly already met informally with Stanford's Kaden Smith, who is another of the class' top tight ends.
Hockenson didn't disclose Friday which teams he'd met with — he said there were too many to name each one — but he said it was "flattering" to be discussed as a potential top-10 pick.
He's in the conversation for good reason. He finished his redshirt sophomore year with 760 yards and six receiving touchdowns. Hockenson averaged 15.5 yards per reception in 2018, and he posted a pair of 100-plus-yard receiving games against Big Ten opponents.
As he aims to join the NFL's elite players at the position, he perhaps owes some of his success last year to lessons he picked up from those men.
Hockenson said he watched a handful of tight ends to pick up different tips before the 2018 season.
"There's a lot of things I can tell you I took away from them, but to pinpoint all of them I think would be tough," Hockenson said. "I obviously watched Jason Witten, Travis Kelce, Gronkowski, as I said earlier, George [Kittle], because I played with George and he's a great player. I took many things from their games. I tried to emulate and put them into mine. Obviously, like I said, I'm nowhere near any of those guys. I need to prove myself. College is one thing, the NFL is another and I'm just super excited for the challenge."
Each player will have a different appeal to the Broncos — both in skill set and when they may be available in the draft.
But with more than 2,100 career receiving yards and nearly 30 career touchdowns between them, either could give the Broncos an offensive element that they've desperately missed.
John Elway will soon have a decision to make. Is a Hawkeye the answer?