Broncography: Virgil Green

Like the oil stains on a driveway in which people claim to see the face of the Virgin Mary, or the mold on the front of a refrigerator that others say shows the face of Jesus, Virgil Green seems to be the kind of young player that scouts and pundits can see in whatever they want to. From the performance that he’d given at Nevada, scouting reports ranked him anywhere from a third-round pick to an undrafted free agent. Depending on the source, he’s either a tough blocker with substantial receiving skills, or a half-baked blocker who rounds off his routes, has tight hips and won’t be able to make the jump to the NFL. As is often the case, there are reasons for each of those interpretations. Statistics only tell a limited version of the truth, but looking at Green’s does explain some of the width of the spectrum of opinion on him. I also had some Nevada full game film on hand to watch, and it was revealing.

After redshirting his freshman year, Green became a favorite target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He also spent long hours in the weight room, building his body from the 210-pound frame that he took onto the Wolf Pack’s 2007 team into the 250-pound force that head coach Chris Ault trusted to pave the way for his rushing game. Meanwhile, Green's timely receptions helped the Wolf Pack win the WAC and claim their first victory over Boise State in 10 years.

“Virgil has developed into a consistent and dominant player, not just in the passing game, but also in the rushing game,” said Ault. How much did that growth in blocking matter? Enough that Nevada became the first NCAA school to ever boast three 1,000-yard rushers in a single season - in 2009, Kaepernick gained 1,183 yards rushing, while running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott compiled 1,345 yards and 1,034 yards, respectively. Complementing his blocking ability is Green’s straight-line speed, which should allow him to split Cover-2 defenses by flashing up the seam (Matt Bowen's analysis of a Peyton Manning TD pass to Pierre Garcon is a fine example of how Green can also be used as a wing receiver to beat a Cover-1). The leadership that he showed earned him one of four captaincies at Nevada. His ability to block on the line and to hit again at the second level convinced the Broncos to use the first of their two seventh-round picks to obtain him.

Green was born Virgil Leo Green, one of two sons of Sharon and Virgil Green, who make their home in Tulare, California. He attended Tulare Union High School, where he lettered in football (three years), basketball (four years) and for one year in track and field. He was a two-time All-County team selection and a first-team All-East Yosemite League selection who had 61 catches for 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns in his high school career, including 13 catches for 245 yards and four touchdowns in a single game. He’s always been an outstanding athlete.

Virgil’s younger brother, Jeremiah, was also on the Nevada team last season, playing as a reserve linebacker. He’s hoping to follow in the steps of his older brother and to build himself from a reserve to a starting role. Since Virgil earned the 2009 Nevada Strength and Conditioning Athlete of the Year honors at their school in his attempt to develop into a top TE, Jeremiah’s got a solid role model to follow. The kind of dedication that gave Virgil that title also won him a place on the Mackey Award Watch List and the Lombardi Award Watch List, in addition to being named All-Western Athletic Conference first team in 2010. Now, it’s going to be up to Virgil to cement a place on the Denver Broncos’ roster when the new season opens.

As a junior at Nevada Virgil gave out 13 touchdown-resulting blocks and continued that dominating performance in 2010, as he registered TD-resulting blocks on 13 of the team’s 52 rushing touchdowns, adding six more touchdown-resulting blocks on pass plays. But, there is much more to Green’s game than just clearing out rush lanes. In his last 40 games, 48 of 72 receptions by the tight end have produced first downs (66.7%), converting 22 third-down tosses and once more on fourth down in the process.

Green also became a favorite target of Colin Kaepernick in the red zone. Of his 23 catches he made in the 2009 season, (after which he was named to the All-WAC second team) five of them went for TDs. It’s a percentage that the Broncos should be envious of. Last season - 2010 - he had 35 receptions for 515 yards (14.7 per) with five touchdowns. Teams were starting to key on him in the red zone, but he remained productive and raised his average catch from 11.3 yards to 14.7 - a big improvement, mostly by running stretch routes up the seam. Green was selected All-WAC First Team for the 2010 college football season by the WAC’s nine head coaches. The coaches who went up against him had a lot of respect for the player, and that’s always something that catches my eye. If a player is tough to defend against, the opposing coaches know it and he’s the kind of guy I want on my team.

The knocks on Green include the complaints that he shows tight hips and rounds off his routes, as well as the scouting reports that claim he is inconsistent in his blocking and struggles against press coverage. These reports always need a grain of salt - as I’ve noted before, they aren’t updated when a player conquers a certain weakness. If you look at game film from late last season, which I was lucky enough to have on hand, Green showed tenacity in his blocking, an explosive first step, and excellent hands, looking the ball into them and tucking it carefully and showing no fear of catching the ball in traffic. It’s true that he’s best suited on the wing right now, and will need to develop even more to handle in-line NFL blocking. Right now, he may be best suited for the role of a seam-running receiver who can also block well at need.

The question is - is that enough? Time will tell, but so far Green has showed diligence and determination in the weight and film rooms as well as on the field. He’s probably best suited for a team that wants to develop him over time, teaching him the NFL game and playing to his strengths. He’s frequently mentioned as a natural leader, a player who wants to improve and will do whatever it takes to accomplish it, and one who has improved each year. Taken in that context, Green may be a keeper.

Green reminds me in several ways of former Bronco Marquez Branson, who I felt could develop into a solid weapon in the NFL, given time. He has much the same kind of talent, same size, and both have a history of medical issues, although Green’s is minimal to me. Both were underestimated because their competition level wasn’t elite. Both have the potential to be used as a WR as much as a TE. If Virgil does stay healthy (and he never missed a game or practice over three seasons) and continues to improve, he’s a steal. If he doesn’t, he’s a seventh-round pick - no worries. As a late-round pick, he is more than worth the flyer they’re taking on him.

About his medical issues: He was a durable three-year starter at Nevada, although he developed some injury issues early on.  He had a microfracture knee surgery in 2007 that apparently scared a lot of teams away from him (Consider how much Da’Quan Bowers dropped after his more recent surgery). The fact is, with no CBA in place, teams are extremely concerned with what they consider a medical concern. Medically speaking, I don’t get this one at all - perhaps something showed up with the Cybex machine at Combine, but it was never reported and Virgil never missed a practice or a game due to injury while at Nevada: he came all the way back after that surgery four years ago. It’s a fine line between caution and foolishness, and I’m more on the side of the latter in his case. But that could be good news - the Broncos may yet reap the benefits of the situation.

You know what's weird with the whole injury thing? It's everywhere - on all his scouting reports, every writeup - and rumors abound that teams have claimed that his 'history of injury' scared them away. What, I wondered, is that veritable plethora of potential health problems that makes him so undesirable? So, anal-retentive as always, I looked it up.

He had the one knee surgery, in February of 2007. Yes, it was a microfracture procedure, but a successful one. He didn't miss a single practice, much less a game. He played his best ball after the injury, improving his stats each year as you'd expect. And that's it.

I felt let down - yet another tempest in the teapot. I should be used to it by now, but this one was even stranger than usual. I've often carped on the issue of the scouting reports listing a 'weakness' that a scout saw once in a game three years ago and you still find it on the report, leading the pundits who don't bother with that film-watching stuff preaching knowledgeably about the evils of that player. This one was a doozy though - one successful knee surgery, in the offseason, four full years ago, and he's 'injury-prone'? Granted, lots of college players who go on to battle the bigger, stronger, faster players in the NFL do get injured, but why this guy? Did he diddle one of the scouts' wives? Break wind in their general direction? Claim that their mother was a hamster and their fathers smelt of elderberries? Danged if I know.

At the East-West Shrine game, Green was said to just constantly soak up the coaching of TE coach Jimmie Johnson. It was also where he had his first chance at playing against elite talent, and he did well. But it was at the Combine where Virgil really hit the national radar - he just blew people away. One knock on him was that he didn’t go up against top competition while in the WAC, but when he went head to head against the rest of the nation’s TEs, he put in an outstanding performance.

Green’s broad jump and vertical leap numbers were the second-best combine numbers among tight ends since 2000 - he had a vertical leap of 42.5 inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 10 inches. He also posted the third-best 40-yard dash time (4.54 seconds) among tight ends who ran and put up 23 reps on the bench press. Heads started turning his way. Mike Mayock had rated him as the fifth-best TE in the draft. But Scott Wright, who I’ve often found to be accurate on his analysis, listed Green as the best TE prospect in the 2011 Draft. Green runs well after the catch, has quick, nimble feet and is noted for making difficult catches. He doesn’t show any hesitation in making the catch when he’s going to get hit, and his hands are excellent.

Even then - observers were also split on how effective he could be in the NFL. Some rated him as a third-round pick, while others had him as a seventh-rounder or free agent. It all depended on how you viewed him. To me - he’s been a durable, productive player, a hard-working leader, and a constant threat in the red zone who can also stretch the field as a ‘move’ TE. His blocking is a work in progress, but he’s come a long way there and the results at Nevada show it. He’s a player who, like many, needs good coaching and time to develop. And we know that from all reports he takes coaching very well, which is another plus.

When play resumes, he’s going to get a chance to show the Broncos that he’s more than a quick seam receiver. Given the quality of blocking that he did for the Wolf Pack, he’s got potential there, but is going to have to improve to the NFL level.  That’s not anything new - Head Coach John Fox has already noted that to him, learning NFL-level blocking for a rookie TE is the toughest challenge that they will face. Richard Quinn was considered the best blocking TE in his draft class, and it took him into his second season before he showed that level of ability consistently on the field. Virgil will face that same challenge, as will fourth-rounder Julius Thomas. Dan Gronkowski is already showing flashes of talent in that area as he prepares for his second season with Denver. For the first time in my memory - probably since Shannon Sharpe was a Bronco - Denver is looking at a stable of young talent that has the potential to become an excellent group on the field.

Green could be a solid part of that. Every TE coming into the league is raw in some degree. Green will have to develop the aspects of his game that need work - flipping his hips, finishing his blocks, blocking on the second level (which he’s done well at times) and continuing getting stronger in order to be more effective at in-line blocking. That’s not his forte right now. He’s had a tendency to round off his routes at times, and can sometimes be inconsistent coming out of his breaks. However - he’s also fast, athletic, talented and listens well to coaching, something that is essential for a player who wants to make the leap to the next level. He has excellent hands, catches the ball well in traffic, seals off the lanes for the running backs (consider Nevada’s run production, of which he was a part) and plucks the ball well when at full speed and over his shoulder, something that you don’t always get even with wide receiver prospects. In short - he’s got a ton of talent, and a lot of skills, with the normal weaknesses that you’d expect from a smaller rookie TE.

While it’s been talked about, I don’t think that Denver is going to practice squad this young man, although it’s always possible. I suspect that other teams will be looking carefully at whoever hits the PS, and exposing Green early in his career is an approach fraught with danger: You can lose him to anyone who places him on their active roster. Of course, the upside if Denver is able to stash him there is simple - it would give him a year to develop his body and his technique.

Denver’s TE coach, Clancy Barone, is one of the best. He first coached TEs for Atlanta in 2005-2006, tutoring Pro Bowl TE Alge Crumpler, and then went to the Chargers where he continued training their star TE Antonio Gates. Both Julius Thomas and Virgil Green have substantial upside that will require a steady hand from the coach. Barone was the TE coach in 2009 in Denver, before moving to coaching the OL. Barone also helped develop the blocking of Atlanta’s tight ends and helped the club average an NFL-best 171.4 rushing yards per game from 2005-06 and lead the league in rushing during each of those two seasons. He is probably as good a coaching option as a young TE player could have, and he personally worked out both Green and Thomas. Green takes coaching well, and Barone is one of the best. Perhaps that’s why Denver let Daniel Graham go even though all the remaining TEs are young players - Quinn will be seeing his third NFL season, Gronkowski his second and both Thomas and Green their first. But the talent is there to be polished and developed.

Looking at the TEs overall, it’s hard not to be impressed with the potential that Denver has accumulated. Quinn is 6’4 and 255 lb, came out as the best blocking TE in his draft class and is coming on nicely entering his third year. Gronkowski and Thomas are 6’5” and while Thomas will need to put on muscle mass (he’s only at 246 currently, but is already physically and mentally tough and will be adding weight), his potential may be up there with Gates - Thomas is consistently described as a physical freak, has the heart of a lion and works incessantly in the film and weight rooms. Gronkowski matches Quinn at 255 lb and developed visibly over last season. Daniel Coats was brought in as insurance in December of 2010, but I don’t see him making the team over the other players. I could be wrong, but I haven’t seen the same kind of potential in him, although he’s a talented blocker, which may go in his favor.

Green is a different somatype - he’s only 6’3”, but is up to 249 lb and has burner top-end speed. He’s explosive off the line, and playing from the wing will give him a quick moment to make his read and chose his gap. Green probably needs to develop better lower body strength to anchor better as an in-line blocker, but he’s already shown talent in sealing the lane in the run game. His hand placement in blocking is very good already, but he needs more ‘sand in the pants’ to hold up as an NFL blocking TE. However, he could contribute immediately as a counter to Cover-1, Cover-2 and Cover-3 schemes with his agility, quickness, straight-route technique and excellent hands when going up the seam. Denver may decide to bring him along faster by starting him in that role:  It’s one that he’s well suited for. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve really felt any excitement about the TEs for Denver. Sharpe was mistakenly allowed to leave for two seasons, and the position after him fell into disrepair. I rooted for Tony Scheffler, who seemed to have potential (he placed fourth among league tight ends in yards per reception at 13.4 ypc in his first year under Barone), but he never really panned out due to inconsistent play. Jeb Putzier was just a journeyman player - I rooted for him, but never thought that he was going to be a top player. Josh McDaniels started out using three TEs in various ways with some success - the three-TE set that freed up Scheffler for an end zone pass from Kyle Orton in that first season sticks in my mind as a thing of beauty - but that seemed to quickly fade to the three-TE set being used on predictable power running plays, with little or no use of the package on passing downs. Denver hasn’t really had anyone at TE that the other teams needed to prepare for - someone to change the game. In the past, Mike McCoy and John Fox haven’t been that big on using the position in multiple ways, but given their TE choices so far, I think that it’s fair to say that they’re looking at new ways to move the ball. More power to them.

Julius Thomas is the Broncos' biggest hope for the future, but he may also have the longest way to go, given the years that he spent out of football. Dan Gronkowski may not have the talent of his brother Rob, but he showed rapid development in the 2010 season, following his being a part of a trade with Detroit that sent them the disappointing Alphonso Smith. Richard Quinn is anything but the disappointing bust that some media and fans have tried to paint him as. It just takes time to learn NFL blocking, as Coach Fox said. With Quinn at 6’4 and both Thomas and Gronk at 6’5”, Denver now has some big targets for the QB to use, whether as primary receivers or as check-down outlets. With the addition of a fast, tough TE with good hands and more speed than you usually see at the position in Virgil Green, Denver has covered all the bases that the position can provide.

The legendary Sid Gillman said that with two talented TEs you can control the middle of the field. Decades have passed since then, offenses and defenses have changed, but his statement is still true. The Broncos now have four solid TE prospects, and they need to develop all of them. They have top TE coach Clancy Barone to make sure that the players do develop, and that’s no small thing. It’s the way that you build a team from a very weak club to one that wins regularly. It isn’t an instant fix, but it’s a solid approach that should bear fruit early on and lead to increasing numbers of victories as the players develop. I have to give the Broncos a lot of credit on this - it’s a piece that’s been missing for a long time, and they’re putting it together well.

Virgil Green has shown himself to be a gutsy, determined player, a young man with a resolute strength of purpose who isn’t satisfied with anything but his best. He’s a natural leader, and a man who understands that he needs top coaching to succeed, and who consumes knowledge with a fervor that you don’t always see. I look forward to seeing how soon he can contribute to the Broncos' offense - a lot of people saw him as the most NFL-ready TE from the 2011 Draft. Now it’s up to him to prove it.

Great late-round pick, Denver. Go Broncos!

Follow Virgil Green on Twitter @vgreen85

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