BRONCOS

In pass catching, Broncos tight ends were the NFL’s least productive in 2023

Jan 26, 2024, 1:10 AM | Updated: 1:13 am

The Broncos tight ends saw their complement shrink when Greg Dulcich re-injured his hamstring in the second quarter of the team’s Week 1 loss to Las Vegas. And like Dulcich himself, the group could never really get back to its optimal level from that point forward.

STATE OF THE ROSTER: TIGHT END

When Dulcich succumbed — and with Albert Okwuegbunam off to Philadelphia via a cut-deadline trade — the Broncos’ receiving production from the tight-end position cratered.

Consider these numbers for the position group this season compared with other tight-end rooms from around the NFL:

  • Times targeted: 62 – Rank: 30
  • Receptions: 39 – Rank: 32
  • Receiving yardage: 362 – Rank: 32
  • First downs via reception: 19 – Rank: 32
  • Touchdown catches: 4 – Rank: T-19
  • Percentage of passes targeted to TEs: 13.0% – Rank: 30
  • Percentage of receptions made by TEs: 11.6% – Rank: 30
  • Percentage of receiving yards made by TEs: 10.2% – Rank: 31
  • Percentage of passing first downs by TEs: 12.3% – Rank: 30
  • Percentage of passing touchdowns scored by TEs: 14.3% – Rank: T-23

The average team got 82 receptions, 836 yards, 5.3 touchdowns and 42 first downs from its tight ends. The Broncos got less than half of that tally in receptions (39), yardage (362) and first downs (19).

Certainly, quarterback play and field of vision did have an impact. But with that same quarterback for most of 2022, Greg Dulcich alone had more receiving yards (411) and nearly as many first downs (18) — and did so in just 10 games played. Pro-rating those numbers over 17 games, he would have shattered the Broncos’ collective 2023 production from their tight ends.

The Broncos could use some pass-catching punch, no doubt.

But on the team’s lengthy list of needs, finding a better receiving tight end might fall short of some other priorities — especially if they truly believe that Dulcich can make it all the way back from his injuries.

THE VETERANS IN THE GROUP

Adam Trautman led the position group in offensive snaps. And he was exactly what he had been in New Orleans before the Saints traded him to Denver on draft day — balanced, dependable, sturdy.

In each of the last three seasons, he has finished between 18 and 28 receptions and with anywhere from 200 to 270 receiving yards. With Trautman, you generally know what you’re going to get: solid play and leadership in the position group. It might not set the tight-end market aflame in March, but it has value.

Leadership in particular is something that could always come in handy.

“I think that’s one of the biggest areas I’ve improved in,” Trautman said earlier this month. “And then, I think every year, you get a little smarter and you make things a lot easier. Like, when you can trim down that time from, all right, you hear the play in the huddle, you get to the line, you see the defense’s personnel. You see who you’re going against. You see where you need to [be]. Everything speeds up, and when you have about three, four seconds before a snap and you already know what you’re doing, that’s when things start to click.

“People talk about all the time, ‘Oh, the game slows down because I’m just playing.’ That doesn’t happen unless you figure out little tricks and things to speed it up in your mind. It doesn’t just happen from just playing. So, I’d say that part I’ve improved in, as well.”

Chris Manhertz is another player in whom you can say that you know what you’ll get. He was as advertised: the primary blocking threat in the group. He played 367 snaps this season; according to Pro Football Focus, some 300 of them saw him working as a blocker.

As for Greg Dulcich, it’s all about hope. Hope that he can finally stay healthy after a series of hamstring injuries and then a “weird” foot problem that cost him 22 of the 34 games over the last two seasons.

“Of course, it had to happen the week that I was coming back to practice. Just some weird swelling,” Dulcich said on Jan. 8. “I just have unfortunately, some bony feet, and my cleat just kind of irritated it in a really kind of freaky way.

He didn’t offer a timetable for his recovery.

“The trainers say that some of the stuff he’s been dealing with is new, so, you’re kind of hoping it was just bad luck,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said earlier this month. “But he’s got a great skill set, and it’s something that if — and we expect he — can stay healthy, he’ll be a big part of what we do. He can run, he can catch, and he can be a valuable piece for us when he’s playing.”

The key word is “if.” It’s doubtful the Broncos will go into the 2024 season with Dulcich as “Plan A” at tight end.

THE YOUNG PAIR OF BRONCOS TIGHT ENDS

Undrafted rookie Nate Adkins is an interesting case, because his future may rest as much at fullback as it does at tight end. And with a salary-cap crunch and fullback Michael Burton set to become an unrestricted free agent, Adkins may have a future working as a hybrid player who shuffles among fullback, H-back and tight end with a substantial special-teams role.

Lucas Krull, who came aboard after the Saints waived him following training camp, is a more traditional pass-catching tight end who saw his opportunities increase over the course of the season. And if not for an extraordinary play by Las Vegas’ Jack Jones, Krull would have had a splash play to carry into the offseason. Only Jones, lunging deflection of a deep Jarrett Stidham pass prevented Krull from a 57-yard touchdown on which to end the campaign.

“When I got to the top of the route, I knew I was going to be open, and Stiddy threw an unbelievable ball, couldn’t have put it better, and I’m tracking it,” Krull said, “and the next thing I see is a hand hit the ball and I was just in awe, I was just, ‘Where did this come from?’”

That — along with the potential game-winning touchdown catch that ended in an interception in Houston five weeks earlier — served as a reminder of the thin line that exists between success and frustration. But there were flashes of explosiveness. And consider this: Had Jones not swatted away Stidham’s deep pass to Krull, the Broncos wouldn’t have finished last in the league in receiving yardage from the tight-end position.

“I think this journey is just beginning for me,” Krull said on Jan. 8. “Last year, being a great learning year, coming in this year, starting to get my feet a little wet, getting in the action, doing things to help this team in any way possible. I’m just super excited for the future. I know I’m just breaking the ice. I have full confidence in my ability and my potential, and I can’t wait for this offseason to get back to work and get ready for this next season.”

CONTRACTUALLY SPEAKING

ADAM TRAUTMAN: Unrestricted free agent.

When asked about wanting to come back to the Broncos, Trautman made clear his enthusiasm.

“I’d love to,” Trautman said earlier this month. “Obviously, all that stuff will take care of itself. I can’t really — I control some of it. Obviously, with my play, I control all of THAT. But I don’t control what they’re ultimately going to do with me.

“But, no, I’d love to be back here. That’s why I came here. I took the pay cut to come here. To play for Sean (Payton), to play in this offense. To play for Declan (Doyle), our tight ends coach who I was with for three years in New Orleans. So, I would love to be back.”

CHRIS MANHERTZ: Under contract through the 2024 season.

Manhertz has a $3.245 million salary-cap figure on the second year of his deal. The Broncos could save $2.12 million of cap space by releasing him, per OvertheCap.com.

GREG DULCICH: Under contract through 2025.

Dulcich has two years remaining on his rookie deal. His cap figure rises to $1.434 million this year.

LUCAS KRULL: Under contract through 2024.

Krull is slated to become an exclusive-rights free agent in the 2025 offseason.

NATE ADKINS: Under contract through 2025.

As an undrafted signee who made the team as a rookie, Adkins would become a restricted free agent in March 2026.

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In pass catching, Broncos tight ends were the NFL’s least productive in 2023