Going into the draft, a lot of folks expected that tight end was one position where the Broncos would stand pat. Before the first pick of the third round, that belief bit the dust. The Broncos shocked many observers by taking on second-round pick Richard Quinn. Having graduated from North Carolina in December of 2008, Quinn has a reputation as a talented blocker whose receiving skills were suspect, due to lack of evidence (12 receptions in his college career, which had several pre-NFL players on the roster). Tony Scheffler was the subject of trade rumors. Was Quinn a replacement? Where were the Broncos going?
That brought a lot of confusion to what had seemed like a simple circumstance. The Broncos had learned to lean on Daniel Graham, steady blocker/receiver and the head of their TE corps and big target Tony Scheffler, one of the players that Jay Cutler looked to in tough situations. Jeb Putzier, a former Bronco returning to the fold, had seemed to be a lock to make the roster this season, but that is currently up in the air. Taking this one player at a time, let's look at why the Broncos may have made this move and what it might mean during the 2009 season.
After five highly productive seasons with New England, Graham was an unrestricted free agent looking to increase his pass receptions. He decided to join Mike Shanahan's high-powered offense and was soon discouraged by the fact that he was still looked at as a blocker/receiver with equal skills at both. However, as a consummate professional, Graham puts the good of the team in front of personal stats and gratification, providing the Broncos' offense with leadership, skill and consistent effort. He averages 25 receptions per season, but his value is incalculable.
Graham's role is unlikely to change in the coming season. The Broncos will use him extensively in single- and double-tight end sets, as both a blocker and a receiver. It's worth considering that a professional football player's average career is just under 4 years, and Graham is coming into his 8th season. He may contribute at a high level for seasons yet to come, but it was time for the Broncos to look at the future as well.
Scheffler's skill set is dominated by his soft hands and talents as a receiver. Scheffler turned down a scholarship to Harvard University to stay close to home and attend Western Michigan. He also turned down situations at Michigan and Michigan State in order to play both baseball and football. WMU wasn't a Division I school; he wasn't used much as a blocker and didn't develop the skill. They also lacked much of a training program and Scheffler had never spent much time in a weight room before training for the Combine. So although he's always been blessed with a tremendous physique, Scheffler lacked both the strength and technique to excel as a blocker. His skills as a receiver have more than made up for that.
Scheffler runs good routes and has good concentration, looking the ball into his hands on most throws. Technically, he's still developing as a receiver as well as a blocker. He was plagued by injuries during his first two years in the league, but stayed generally healthy last season. He's averaged 44.5 receptions for each of the past two seasons and his skill at blocking as well as his strength have continued to improve steadily. To put things in perspective, how many players have caught 107 passes for 1,480 yards and 12 touchdowns while only playing in 40 games over a three-year time frame as a tight end?
Despite vapor-ware rumors of his impending trade, Josh McDaniels met with Scheffler over the late winter and assured him of the role that was waiting in the Broncos' new offense. That began to manifest over the OTAs, and you can look for the Broncos' offense to spend plenty of time making use of a player whose time in the 40-yard dash was only 0.04 seconds off that of Brandon Marshall's, and who is both taller and stronger than the wideout. Marshall may sit out for a while - if Josh McDaniels doesn't look concerned, Tony Scheffler is a big reason why.
Quinn is a player whose frame is still filling out and stands a good chance of adding 10+ lb. of pure muscle during his first few years of NFL life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in December of 2008 with a degree in sports science and stunned more than a few observers by becoming the Broncos' third pick in the second round (64th overall) in the 2009 NFL draft. Stuffed into a box as a 'blocking TE', Quinn only pulled in 12 receptions during games in college, but folks sometimes forget that his team had multiple receivers who would go on to NFL careers. Quinn showed off his receiving chops and sometimes surprising athleticism at the Combine and the Broncos saw the future in those 9.5-inch hands.
"Just give me a chance and I'll get it done for you." That's what Quinn told teams at the Combine and the Broncos are counting on it.
Originally drafted by the Broncos with a 6th-round pick (191st overall) back in 2002, Jeb has returned to the Broncos on what appears to be the downside of a good career. At 6'4" and 256 lbs., Putzier was never a very strong blocker, but pulled in 36 and 37 passes respectively, in 2004 and 2005. However, over the past 3 seasons he's only garnered 19 total passes and since his blocking skills are not his strongest suit, it's likely that Putzier is only camp fodder this year. Broncos fans will wish him well - he was well liked by fans and teammates alike.
An undrafted college free agent who is listed at 6'3" 248 pounds out of Central Arkansas, Branson is slightly undersized for the pro game. But his production, receiving skills and Pro Day times, which included a run timed at 4.55 (his average was 4.71 at Combine but he had little training at running an unequipped 40) had him rated above Richard Quinn by ESPN Insider
. SI.com rated Branson at 3.35 and Quinn at 3.55 (higher numbers are better in that system, based on BLESTO's 1-5 rating). Branson caught 18 TD passes in his last two years of college (he transferred from junior college in 2006) which lead his team. He caught 45 balls in his senior season alone. Branson also boasted a 35-inch vertical leap at the Combine, unusual for TEs. His Pro Day numbers are remarkable in that he ran even better at the UCA Pro Day than at the Combine, with times of 4.55, 4.67 and 4.66. He also posted a 36" vertical, a 4.40 short shuttle and a 7.29 3-cone.
He is tenacious, if raw, as a blocker. His ten-inch hands are made for receiving, and with his other abilities, a place on the practice squad, if not the regular team, is likely for the Mississippi native. He's as quick as he is fast and agile. He is still gaining in height and has the frame to fill out and increase his weight if he can find the right situation with an NFL team. Given his receiving production and athletic skills, that seems likely. He could even develop as a pass-catching fullback if he can improve his blocking skills.
Looking Ahead to 2009
One source that wasn't surprised by the Broncos' choice of Richard Quinn was Rivals.com. They considered him to be a second-round pick - third round at the worst, which matched what the Broncos saw in him. This is what they had to say:
"Is big, strong and physical and could turn out to be a better pro than college player. Would be a great fit for a run-first offense such as that of the Dolphins, 49ers or Patriots."
That brought up an interesting question - Will the Broncos be a run-first offense this year? Some observers are starting to think so. While it's probable to me that 'run-first' is an overstatement, with power options like Peyton Hillis, whose receiving skills are inarguable and the power/skill pairing of Knowshon Moreno the Broncos have the players to move the ball with their backs either rushing or receiving. That makes the need for two good tight ends to be ready to take the field even more imperative (especially against the 3-4 defenses fielded by San Diego and Kansas City). Since Scheffler is still proving to be a better receiver than blocker, Quinn's slot is ready-made.
If you simply consider the importance the TE position has in defeating the 3-4 defense, factor in the receiving possibilities with Scheffler and Branson (much less Graham and Quinn) and look at the fact that McDaniels has played with the 3-TE option in the past, it's hard not to see why Xanders and McDaniels wanted an upgrade at the position. Now they have three unusually talented TEs, each with a unique skill set and an interesting project in Marquez Branson. This is a big strength to a team that will need production from the position to be successful in 2009.
Tight end is a position often doomed to being ignored, more interesting to the casual observer in its lack than its predominance. But the Broncos are a team with great depth on offense and their TE corps is an unusually good example. They are looking to the present and the future, filling out the position before the need is desperate and now have the players to play a pass- or run-heavy approach to the position, permitting them great flexibility to their game plans. Those who enjoy the position as much as I do will take pleasure in how the McDaniels offense uses the players that it has amassed. Those who await the beginnings of a 3-TE formation becoming accepted have to be interested in the Broncos due to their rare combination of players and a coach who has experimented with the 3-TE set in the past. Regardless of how the pieces are used, 2009 will be a good year for TEs.