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The answer to the Broncos' red zone woes may be in their own back pocket

Zac Stevens Avatar
October 18, 2017

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s not every day that a team has the answer to their biggest problem just sitting in their facility. But the Denver Broncos may just be the exception to the rule.

Through nearly the first third of the season, specifically the last three games, the Broncos have been haunted by a terrible red zone offense. Lucky enough, they may just have a straight flush, or at least a three of a kind, that they are ready to show their hand to shortly—rookie tight end Jake Butt.

Recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in his final collegiate game at Michigan, the Broncos’ fifth-round pick has been sidelined the first six weeks due to rehab. Wednesday, however, he participated in his first practice with the team after being medically cleared to play.

“Jake Butt looked great. He looked tall. He looked fast. He caught the ball well,” Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph said when evaluating Butt’s first practice with the team. “Obviously he hadn’t played football, so he’s out of shape, but he’s definitely getting better every day as far as getting into football shape.”

Butt’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time as the Broncos desperately need help in the red zone, specifically on offense. After the first six weeks of the year, Denver ranks as the sixth-worst red zone team, only converting touchdowns on 45 percent of the trips they make into their opponents 20-yard line.

After Denver’s embarrassing 23-10 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday night, in which the team went 1-for-4 in the red zone, running back C.J. Anderson said the team’s red zone execution is “pathetic right now.”

“We’re just not executing. Myself, us playmakers, we’re not making plays. It’s on us. We’ve got to find a way to put the ball in the box,” he vented, holding nothing back. “We can’t go too many series and not put the ball in the box. We’re relying on the defense to make a play, and that’s just terrible. It’s terrible football, and we’re not helping our team that way.”

Denver’s last three games have flat out been a disaster, even compared to their season average—greatly contributing to the Broncos going 1-2 in that stretch. Against the Buffalo Bills, the Oakland Raiders, and the Giants, the Broncos went 2-for-11 in the red zone—a league-worst 18 percent.

Fortunately, Butt’s arrival could cure, or at least help fix, this area that has plagued Denver’s offense. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Butt was an exceptional receiving tight end during his four-year career in Ann Arbor, hauling in 97 catches for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns in his final two seasons and winning the John Mackey Award, given to the nations top tight end.

The last time the Broncos had a receiving threat at tight end, the offense flourished in the red zone. In 2013 and 2014, tight end Julius Thomas was nearly an unstoppable weapon for Peyton Manning near the end zone.

In each season, Thomas had 12 receiving touchdowns, the majority coming within the opponents 20-yard line, which helped Denver be atop the league in red zone efficiency. In 2013, the Broncos had the league’s best red zone offense at 72 percent touchdown conversion, and in 2014 they had the fourth-best at 63 percent.

Broncos’ pass-rushing specialist Shane Ray—whose been rehabbing alongside Butt since July—had the utmost praise for the rookie tight end saying, “He’s a tight end, but he moves like a wide receiver. He’s a Travis-Kelce type.”

With Butt being a rookie, and simply practicing for the first time on Wednesday, it would be unfair, and unrealistic, to expect Julius Thomas-type production from him this year. However, if Butt is able to be even somewhat of a threat in the red zone, specifically in the middle of the field, that would help the league’s most struggling red zone offense.

“He’s different,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said with a jolt of energy when asked about his rookie tight end. “The way he works and the way he prepares, I can’t wait for him to get out here. We understood when we drafted him it was going to take some time for him to get out here. He lives here.”

Even though Butt has yet to see the practice field, McCoy put his confidence in the rookie, saying, “We’ll find a role for him.”

Although Butt is back to practicing and medically cleared, he is still not on the Broncos 53-man roster. There is a three-week window when Denver either needs to activate him to the active roster or put him back on IR, thus ending his season. All indications are it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll be added to the roster.

“Butt’s timeframe is any day. When he’s ready, he can come up,” Joseph explained. “Probably not this week to be honest, but moving forward any day. That’s the rule… Hopefully, we can get him up soon.”

The sooner Butt is available for game day, the better as the Broncos start a three-week road trip on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers before playing the two teams with the best records in the NFL—the 5-1 Kansas City Chiefs and the 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles.

When it comes to the unknown of Jake Butt, signs point the Broncos are sitting on a gold mine, it’s just uncertain how much gold they can dig up this year.

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