ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --All that was missing from Jeff Heuerman's rookie season was practice and playing time.
From the outsider's perspective, that's like saying that it was a great four-course dinner except for the lack of a main entree and dessert; on the surface, these are the central tenets of the experience.
So scant was Heuerman's visibility that he said when he would go through the security checkpoint at home games, staff would ask him for his identification to see if he was really a Bronco.
"They were like, 'You've got to show me something that you're on the team.' I'd have to show them my key card to get in," Heuerman recalled. "[The security staffer] was like, 'All right, all right, you can go.'
"I dealt with that a good amount. People asking, 'Are you really on the Broncos?' ... 'Yeah, I swear.' It was a whirlwind."
What they didn't know was the truth of Heuerman's rookie season. Even though he wasn't in a jersey, he was very much a Bronco, very much a part of a world championship team.
No one outside of teammates and coaches saw the work that Heuerman was putting in as he rehabilitated from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered during last year's rookie minicamp. But unlike with most injured players who are out for the season, Heuerman continued to have a role in meetings and was in the traveling party for all road games.
This came at the coaches' request.
"As soon as the injury happened, one of the things is when we kind of sat down and talked about just staying involved in everything," Heuerman recalled. "That's kind of where going to all the meetings, traveling, being on the sidelines and traveling to the games and stuff [came about].
"They told me right away that they wanted me to stay involved. That's what I did. I appreciated that because they [could have] easily said 'Whatever, go do what you've got to do, get your knee right. I appreciate them having me involved in everything and giving me the opportunity to learn. It was good."
Heuerman settled into a daily routine.
"I would just work out while they were at practice, and then go to meetings before practice, and go to meetings after practice, and travel to all the games, so I kind of got the feel for that," Heuerman said.
If he couldn't get physical repetitions, he would get all the mental ones he could find so he could be better prepared for his return. Occasionally there was the opportunity for physical work, when he caught passes from Peyton Manning last December as he worked his way back from the foot injury that cost him six games.
"Working with Peyton when he had his injury, just picking up little things and obviously everything you can pick up from him is good," Heuerman said. "[I was] just learning as much as I could from him, too, and just trying to take everything in that I could."
The result is clear now: When Heuerman goes about the daily paces of offseason work, he is clearly not a rookie.
"It kind of goes with the rookie emotions. I feel like those are gone," Heuerman said. "Going into install[ation], it's not the first time you're hearing it. You kind of know a lot of it.
"There are obviously little things that you're picking up here and there every day. For the most part, I know the offense pretty well. You know it in the classroom, but you also have to go out and know it on the field. That's kind of where I'm at now: just getting out there and putting the paper to the field."
His teammates have noticed his progress.
""He looks good," said fellow tight end Virgil Green. "He's running [well], catching balls and [is] a strong guy in the weight room. He's definitely moving a lot of weight around."
"He's out there running hard. He has nice routes," added tight end Garrett Graham. "He's catching the ball well. I like the way he looks."
And most importantly, Heuerman's knee is "great" through four-plus weeks of offseason work.
"I'm back to 100 percent, doing everything like normal," Heuerman said. "It feels good."
He was healthy by the time the Broncos played in Super Bowl 50. A month later, he was back to "hard training days" on the knee, and wasn't favoring it.
"Coming back here, I've been doing everything normal," he said.
Before a downpour hit Broncos headquarters, the team started a new week of Phase II practices of the offseason program. (photos by Ben Swanson
After a rookie season that was anything but normal, the work is exactly what Heuerman needed. But he emerged from the 2015 campaign with the study habits of a veteran and a Super Bowl ring -- something he will treasure, even though he didn't log an on-field snap to earn it.
It took him time to appreciate the moment.
"I was a little bit bummed, like, 'Man, we're in the Super Bowl and I can't play,'" Heuerman recalled.
Then DeMarcus Ware came up to him. Ware had waited 11 seasons for the opportunity he had last February. In those years, he'd only experienced one playoff win, let alone a conference championship or a Super Bowl.
Ware's perspective altered Heuerman's.
"It kind of hit me and he was like, 'You can't think like that. You have to go like you're playing and enjoy it like you are,'" Heuerman recalled. "He was like, 'Look how long I've played and I've never won one.'"
With that, Heuerman was able to spend the week enjoying the fruits of his labor as a rookie. He'd certainly earned them the hard way through a season that lacked the emotional highs of playing on Sunday afternoons in front of 76,000 fans.
Now he's ready to show what he's learned in the simplest way possible:
"Make plays," he said. "I've just got to go out and do what you're supposed to do and compete every day.
"There is a lot of talk, but you've got to go out there and do it. There is Peyton, there [are others signing praise], but you've got to go out there and perform. You've got to go out there and make the plays. That's what I'm looking forward to and most excited for."