Mason's Mailbag: Tight end still in play for the draft?

Say we draft a top tight end, then all three of our current TEs come back healthy and play great, but none have enough cachet to be trade-worthy yet -- what does a team try to do with four exciting young players at one position?

-- Stacy Carson (@carsonic on Twitter)

Keep them all and rotate them liberally. The third and fourth tight ends of the group would likely receive extra special-teams repetitions. If the Broncos do draft a tight end early, they may target a premium receiving threat like any of these prospects: the Iowa duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Alabama's Irv Smith Jr. and Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger.

Don't forget this bottom line with the Broncos' tight-end room: You have three players who finished the 2018 season on injured reserve in Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and Jeff Heuerman. Third-year veteran Temarrick Hemingway is the only tight end on the current roster who did not spend time on injured reserve last year. While Heuerman and Fumagalli are at full speed -- and Fumagalli added 10 pounds in the weight room last year -- Butt is not expected back until training camp as he works his way back from a third ACL tear in five years. 

All it would take is one injury to turn what appears to be a surplus into having only the minimum of what you need.

I feel like everybody talks about drafting defensive players, but what about our offense? We've been upgrading our defense. Why not try to do more with our offense in the draft to give Joe Flacco a better chance of excelling?

-- Anthony Tule

I don't know who is among the "everybody" to whom you refer, but I think there has been more talk about adding players on offense than defense. The signings of Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan took the secondary off the front burner. On defense, the inside-linebacker possibilities dominate chatter, but the offensive discussion continues to incorporate tight end, interior offensive line, wide receiver and quarterback.

That said, Head Coach Vic Fangio had a notable comment at the Annual League Meeting regarding the offensive talent level his team currently possesses:

"I think offensively, we have a chance to be better than people think we do. I think the players are better on offense than the perception was when I first got there."

The additions of Flacco and Ja'Wuan James should make quarterback and right tackle better. But you can also expect improvement from young players who saw extensive work last year.

One example is Courtland Sutton. In 2018, he became the 14th wide receiver in the last 14 seasons to have at least 700 receiving yards, 15.0 yards per reception and four or more touchdowns. Nine of those 13 would eventually become Pro Bowlers, and all but one of them would break 1,000 yards for a single season at some point in their careers. Fellow 2018 draftee DaeSean Hamilton should also have better production in an expanded role.

Royce Freeman was on pace for an outstanding rookie season before injury struck; expect him to play a major role. A young offensive lineman like 2018 sixth-round pick Sam Jones could take some significant steps forward.

The Broncos will definitely add to their offense throughout the upcoming draft. But a massive part of their path to improvement rests in players like those players already on hand, including the ones previously mentioned and and others such as offensive linemen Connor McGovern and Elijah Wilkinson, wide receiver Tim Patrick and tight ends like Butt and Fumagalli.

Nightmare scenario for Denver April 25 ... Devin White, Ed Oliver, Quinnen Williams all gone. No one wants to trade up to 10. Who do you think Denver is taking? T.J. Hockenson? Drew Lock? Dwayne Haskins? Or do they make the edge rush even scarier there?

-- Tim Wenz (@LwyrUp406 on Twitter)

You say, "nightmare." I say, "Plenty of great options still available." While I won't narrow it down to one, I'll start with the tight-end position, which is intriguing because it can help give Flacco the sort of talent and depth he usually had at his disposal during his best Baltimore seasons.

Hockenson and Fant are on the board in your scenario. While Fant is not currently the blocker that Hockenson is, he has 4.5 speed with a 249-pound frame. Fant also has a slightly larger catch radius and can cause matchup problems. Michigan linebacker Devin Bush is still there; only one inch and .01 of a second separates him from White; both have outstanding film and have clear separation from the rest of the inside-linebacker class. 

If the Broncos do look to edge rushers, as you suggest, Ohio State's Nick Bosa and Kentucky's Josh Allen will almost certainly be off the board. But Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, who was the best player on the field at the Senior Bowl in my eyes, could still be there. The Broncos could look to the offensive line; Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams, a potential top-10 pick, could move inside and work at guard.

The other thing to consider is this: In your "nightmare," Lock and Haskins are both still there at No. 10. While either could be an option, their presence could make the Broncos' draft slot exceptionally valuable to a team craving one of those quarterbacks. In that case, I doubt the Broncos would lack suitors for helpful trade possibilities. A trade could give the chance for the Broncos to fill more needs from an area that could be this draft's sweet spot: the range from the 20th to the 50th pick.

#AskMase What are the main differences between modern training camps and ... an old school-type camp? Logistics or mentality or both?

-- Mile High Memories (@MileHighMems on Twitter)

I expect it will actually be more about fundamentals and developing them within the scheme. Thus, good technique becomes habit, so it's not something about which players must think; they can simply react and play. It then becomes easier to incorporate more complex concepts once a solid base of understanding and fundamentals exists. There could be more camp days with tackling, but even then, expect prudence and limits; the first goal remains to ensure readiness and full strength for the regular season. 

Fangio indicated at the Annual League Meeting that teaching, rather than situational drills, will be the first focal point of on-field work, starting with OTAs.

“[Situational work] won’t be a major part early because we want to teach our systems first," he said. "We’re going to stress teaching our systems first, and once we feel comfortable there, then we’ll do a lot of work in those areas."

What you will not see is "old-school" in the Bear Bryant "Junction Boys" vein. Here is an example of what NOT to expect:

In 1987, I witnessed NFL training camp for the first time. My dad took me to watch the Buccaneers practice at Pepin-Rood Stadium on the campus of the University of Tampa. As we sat in the shade of a covered grandstand, then-coach Ray Perkins -- a Bryant disciple from the early 1960s -- ground his Bucs through the first of three practices that day. That isn't a typo; the Bucs really did have three-a-days in the searing, stifling Florida heat. Including warmups, the players were on the field for upwards of five-and-a-half hours per day.

The goal was to have a team that would be tougher in the second half of games -- and the season. A three-game midseason stretch in which the Bucs were outscored 55-3 in the fourth quarter and barfed up late-game leads of 26-14 and 28-3 proved that the opposite was true. The team was out of gas and lost its final eight games.

The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA has the following regulations to ensure such camps do not return:

  • No more than four hours of on-field work in one day.
  • Only one practice in pads per day. It cannot exceed three hours. The other session must be a walk-through.
  • No pads on the first three days of training camp.

Our fan base is outstanding. Most of us fans are loyal through thick and thin. I’m a born fanatic since 1975. What really impresses me is the amount of ex-players and coaches -- whether homegrown or transplants -- that stick around in the Denver area, or are still very involved in the community and culture. I don’t follow other teams so I have no real comparison. Am I biased and ignorant?

-- Aaron Hayden

Not at all. While there isn't readily available data to confirm this, it does seem like there are some NFL markets where players are more likely to stay after their careers than others, and Denver is among them. Most of these markets tend to be Sun Belt markets with relatively kind winter weather -- at least compared with the Midwest and Northeast, for example -- and growing economies. Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas, Houston, Arizona and the California teams also tend to have a relatively high percentage of long-term players remain in those areas after their retirement from playing. 

Some become elite players elsewhere, but stay in Denver for a few years after their career ends. Safeties John Lynch and Brian Dawkins are examples; each started their post-playing life by calling Denver home before moving elsewhere. Other ex-players leave and return, such as Steve Atwater. After his playing career, he lived in Atlanta and Maryland before returning to Colorado in 2017. He provides the best endorsement for Colorado, since he and his family lived in other spots around the country. They learned that there is no place like home -- and home was the Denver area. Colorado and the Broncos are the better for having the Atwaters back in town.

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