ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —The play itself wasn't anything spectacular.
The tight end broke out of his stance, headed upfield and caught a pass down the seam from Drew Lock.
It was just a routine play during the first day of Broncos training camp, but for Jake Butt, it meant a bit more.
There was no pain, no lingering soreness and no indication that he'd spent much of the last three years away from the field. After a host of knee surgeries, Butt finally feels healthy and ready to compete in a crowded position room.
"Moving around, running around, I've been feeling really, really good, honestly," Butt told DenverBroncos.com. "All my weight room numbers are up. This is the strongest I've ever been. That's for both of my legs. I feel fast and explosive. I get it. I understand that I'm going to have to earn anything I can get around here, and I'm OK with that. But for me, the main thing I'm excited about is I feel healthy, and I feel like I can go out there and be myself."
When healthy, Butt has intriguing talent. He won the John Mackey Award as a senior at Michigan as the nation's top tight end, and he set school records for career receptions (138) and yards (1,646). He tore his ACL in the 2016 Orange Bowl, though, which pushed the first-round talent down draft boards. Denver selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and he spent his first season on the non-football injury list as he rehabbed.
As he entered his second season, Butt showed why the team invested in him. He started the first three games of the season and caught eight passes for 85 yards. In Week 2 against the Raiders, he caught four passes for 48 yards, including a key catch on the Broncos' final drive to help set up a game-winning field goal. Butt, though, tore his ACL in practice ahead of the Broncos' Week 4 game and was placed on injured reserve. A year later, as the team headed into the 2019 season, Butt was still dealing with aftereffects and had to have a clean-up surgery on his meniscus.
"This one was probably the hardest one," Butt said. "Kind of just what made it so hard is I had just finally rehabbed 18 months pretty much from my second ACL. For me, I never was a guy that was injured. I think I might've missed one game in my entire college career — and that was from my first ACL, and I played a game six months after surgery. I've always considered myself as a reliable guy for the team, someone that really doesn't get hurt. This third one, it kind of took that identity from me. It was a little bit tough to deal with mentally, [but] I think it's made me stronger. I feel like I'm over that mental hump now, and I've had a whole offseason to actually performance train and get my body ready rather than rehab. I'm excited about the opportunity I have."
Butt certainly has an opportunity to make the roster, but the tight end room is far more competitive than when he arrived in Denver. First-round pick Noah Fant showed Pro Bowl potential as a rookie, and the Broncos added Nick Vannett in free agency and Albert Okwuegbunam in the draft this year. Butt will likely compete against Troy Fumagalli and fullback/tight end hybrid Andrew Beck for a roster spot. And while the Michigan product said he thinks he's gotten better at run blocking, his strength comes in the passing game. That means he may have to compete for snaps with Fant and Okwuegbunam, who also thrive as pass-catchers.
"I'm going to have to earn a role on this team," Butt said. "It's been obvious that I haven't produced to the level that anyone would've liked. Since I've been drafted, I've been hurt. I've been off the field. That's obviously a problem. For me, I'm happy to be healthy and then I just want to go out there and continue to get better every single day and just build on that."
Butt, who has been practicing without a brace, said he has looked back at that short 2018 stretch to remind himself that he can be successful in this league. He asked the team's video staff to send over footage of all of his OTA, training camp and in-game reps from that season, and he's used those plays as motivation.
"[I did that] just to remind myself, especially last year, that I do have the talent in me and I can play in this league," Butt said. "I've proved it to myself in those months. For me, I needed to get healthy physically and then get over some of the mental block of coming back from your third ACL. That's where I feel like I am right now. Again, I'm running with no brace. I'm changing direction off both feet. For me, it's just shaking off the rust.
"This is the first time I've been healthy in two years. The more reps I can get, the better [and] the more I can detail my technique and elevate my game throughout this camp."
Butt said he knows at some point he'll have to prove he can stay healthy, and he's spent extra time in the training room to receive preventative treatment. If he can do that, it may be hard for the Broncos to ignore his alluring talent. When he was on the field in 2018, he was a mismatch for the Broncos' offense. It's a real possibility he could be the same sort of threat in 2020.
Regardless of whether he makes another regular-season catch for the Broncos, though, the fourth-year player appreciates the chance he'll have over the next few weeks of training camp.
To run, to block, to haul in passes — all without pain.
"One thing I've realized in my four years here is I've been through a lot of different [stuff], a lot of tough circumstances," Butt said. "I've seen a lot of guys cycle in. I've seen the roster turn over. It's just a blessing and an opportunity to be here on a daily basis anyways. I'm just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get."