ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --It's simplistic to say that Peyton Manning is a tight end's best friend. But what became clear last year when he arrived is that the position would no longer be neglected as a pass-catching threat in the Broncos offense.
Tight ends accounted for 24.4 percent of the Broncos' receptions, 20.9 percent of the Broncos' receiving yardage and 18.9 percent of their passing touchdowns. Those weren't prodigious numbers, but they were solid and reversed the trend of the previous three seasons.
But as the countdown to training camp begins, it's fair to wonder whether that prominent role will continue. The arrival of slot receiver Wes Welker changes the dynamic of the Broncos' formations; with him on the inside and returning 1,000-yard receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker split on the flanks, it would seem the best way for the Broncos to get their most explosive personnel on the field is by leaning heavily on three-wide receiver packages.
Or is it?
"We'll mix it up," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "It's all going to be game plan-predicated. Whatever is best for that week is probably what we'll focus on.
"We're going to use our players to the best -- whatever they do best, that's what we're going to do. So if that week means it's more 12 (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) personnel than 11 (one running back, one tight ends, three wide receivers), then that's what we'll do. If it's more of an 11 game-plan week, that's what we'll stick with."
Last year, "12" was the magic number. Denver averaged 1.43 tight ends on the field per play, evidence of the prevalence of two-tight end packages. They started eight games with at least two tight ends, and opened in a three-tight end package in Week 6 at San Diego.
If the Broncos keep emphasizing "12" personnel, then there is room and need for four tight ends on the 53-man roster, as was the case most of last season, when burly Joel Dreessen and explosive Tamme were backed up by Virgil Green and Julius Thomas, whose skill sets closely matched those of the respective veteran in front of them on the depth chart. But if the Broncos lean more on three-wide receiver sets, then four tight ends might be a luxury they can't afford in constructing a 53-man roster.
That conundrum could shape the context of the battle for playing time at tight end during training camp and beyond, and began to take shape during organized team activities and minicamp.
With Dreessen sidelined for most of OTAs after minor knee surgery and Tamme a known, comfortable quantity, the Broncos took a long look at Julius Thomas this offseason. For the previous two years, the potential of the former college basketball standout at Portland State had been negated by ankle problems that didn't fully clear up until the end of 2012.
But on the practice field, the Broncos got a glimpse of what the 2011 fourth-round pick might accomplish. He repeatedly got open, made catches all around the field and even proved he could stretch the defense on one play May 30, when he beat Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore down the seam for a long touchdown.h
"As tight ends, we don't get that many down-the-field catches, and I'm always like, 'Man, if I could just get a 50-yard pass one time, I'd feel great," Thomas said.
"He is a great athlete. A big target," Manning said of the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder. "If you can't complete a ball to Julius, as a quarterback, something is wrong with you."
This was the first extensive work Manning had throwing to Thomas. It might have come earlier, but a recurrence of Thomas' ankle problems forced him off the field in March 2012 and led to surgery. Until then, Thomas had been counting on getting extra work with Manning, and was one of the players to accompany him to a local high school for informal work just a week after he signed his Broncos contract.
"You're going in, Peyton Manning's here, and you have some time to work with him, and then you find out a week and a half later that you've got to have surgery on something that's already been making you frustrated," Thomas said. "It's something that happened, it's in the past, and all my focus is on getting better and moving forward."
All that matters from Thomas' past is the Broncos' decision to stick by him through the ankle problems. He was inactive the last 14 games of 2012 and might have seemed an obvious candidate to move to the practice squad. But doing so would have meant exposing him to the waiver wire, something the Broncos didn't want to risk, knowing his potential.
While Thomas was a breakout star during OTAs, his fellow 2011 draft pick, Virgil Green, also stepped forward with some athletic downfield receptions as the on-field work progressed. Green is a solid blocker who worked extensively in two-tight end packages last year after returning from a four-game suspension.
In the final 12 games of the regular season, Green played an average of 14.7 snaps per game. During that same span, Dreessen played 54.2 snaps per game and Tamme 29.8. Green was a clear No. 3, but that wasn't a bad place to be for a former seventh-round pick who, like Thomas, turned some heads in OTAs.
THE TIGHT ENDS: THE BASICS
Joel Dreessen: He finished 2012 with a career-high 41 receptions and played more snaps (863) than any other Broncos tight end. His heavy use was as much due to his blocking acumen as anything else; he was effective there, particularly in pass protection. Dreessen would like to increase his per-catch production; he averaged 8.7 yards per reception last year, his lowest pace since 2008. Dreessen is also valuable on special teams and is the Broncos' emergency long snapper.
Jacob Tamme: With Brandon Stokley no longer on the roster, Tamme now has more experience working with Manning than any other Broncos target. Their years together in Indianapolis helped forge a working relationship that made Tamme a crucial security blanket on short and intermediate routes. Even though Tamme was limited to just 46,2 percent of the snaps, he was targeted more often per play than any of the Broncos' other primary pass catchers. Manning threw Tamme's way once every 6.2 snaps the six-year veteran was on the field. Further, Tamme had the lowest drop percentage in the NFL last year (0.0), according to ESPN.com. With that sort of production and trust between quarterback and target it's hard to imagine the position without Tamme.
Virgil Green: When the Broncos needed to grind down the clock with a lead, they often turned to Green, who was an asset in two-tight end formations late last year. Three of Green's five receptions and 44 of his 63 yards in 2012 came in one game against the Saints. Green has started five career games, but is still searching for his first NFL touchdown.
Julius Thomas: Although this will be his third training camp as a Bronco, in some ways Thomas is a rookie. He had never taken part in a team-organized offseason practice until May, since his rookie work was canceled by a lockout and he missed 2012's OTAs following ankle surgery. "I always tease (Tight Ends Coach) Clancy (Barone) and say, 'I feel like I'm out here on two good ankles now,'" Thomas said. "It definitely doesn't hinder me. I don't even think about it anymore."
Lucas Reed: The only rookie in the position group, Reed's stock dropped as a senior thanks to New Mexico's change in offense. The Lobos converted to the triple option, and Reed's catch total plummeted. After logging 17, 33 and 22 receptions in 2009, 2010 and 2011, he finished 2012 with just five catches. Reed has the bloodlines -- his older brother is Texans linebacker Brooks Reed -- and also the athleticism to earn some notice; he was a multi-discipline track star at Sabino H.S. in Tucson, Ariz. before accepting a scholarship to New Mexico.