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Broncos' draft needs include a third weapon in passing game

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Posted at 11:59 AM, Feb 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-14 14:23:42-05

DENVER -- Disappointing seasons unearth head-shaking statistics. The Broncos' offense needs a boost. Denver's 56 three-and-out drives a year ago ranked fourth worst. It can be traced to fractures in the passing game. The Broncos completed 65 passes of six yards or less, 31st in the NFL. 

The dump off pass. The safety valve. It's about as sexy as Docker's slacks, but it becomes vital in the development of young quarterbacks. When Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch look across the line of scrimmage and, in some cases, don't recognize a formation or blitz, they need help. This is where a tight end sitting in the middle of the field or a slot receiver stopping underneath can bail them out. 

The Broncos lacked it last year. Denver's tight ends totaled 47 catches, and one touchdown. Virgil Green (60 percent), A.J. Derby (46 percent) and Jeff Heuerman (29 percent) (pictured above) divided the playing time. The Broncos acquired Derby from the Patriots, and see him as a pass-catching threat. Same goes for Heuerman, though he has yet to gain traction because of multiple injuries. 

I made the case for taking Stanford's Christian McCaffey 20th overall if he can be used in the slot, at running back and on special teams. Is that a reach? Perhaps. There are tight ends in the first round that could fit. Let's examine some of the choices:

O.J. Howard, Alabama, 6-6, 249 pounds

Howard played his best in the biggest games. He starred in the National Championship in back-to-back seasons, including a 208-yard performance two years ago. The Alabama offense featured plenty of mouths to feed, and Howard suffered. He has the hands and length to be a weapon in an NFL passing game. His blocking requires work, but could be less of an issue in a Mike McCoy offense that incorporated Arkansas rookie Hunter Henry last season. The fact Howard didn't dominant consistently creates some concerns when transitioning to the pros. 

David Njoku, Miami, 6-4, 245 pounds

Njoku requires vision. He did not post big numbers at Miami, though he became a reliable scoring threat with eight touchdowns last season. He has eye-opening athleticism, and the type of speed to run seam routes. The Broncos have been searching for this type of player as evidenced by their trades for Vernon Davis and Derby in back-to-back years. Njoku needs polishing on route running, but his potential is enticing. Njoku and Howard rank, by most projections, as the only tight ends worthy of a first-round pick.

Evan Engram, Mississippi, 6-3, 236 pounds

Mississippi recognized Engram as a walking mismatch. The Rebels leaned on him in the passing game. He earned All-American honors, catching 65 passes for 926 yards. While not as big as Howard and Njoku, he's more NFL-ready as a receiver. His speed forces defenses to make difficult choices. Could he be a fit in second round? 

Gerald Everett, South Alabama, 6-3, 227 pounds

Because of Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Julius Thomas, intrigue remains at tight end. Gerald Everett comes out of that mold as a terrific athlete who played only one year of high school football. Everett is built more like a big receiver than a tight end. It gives him advantages in routes, but he needs polishing. As a second-round pick with upside, he makes some sense. But is he worth taking over giving Heuerman one last chance? The Broncos need to answer these type of questions entering the draft. If Denver wants a player with huge upside, Michigan's Jake Butt could be a steal if still available in the third round with a compensatory pick. Butt tore his ACL in the bowl game, so he would likely have to sit out this season.

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Want Broncos news? Denver7 Broncos insider Troy E. Renck is your source. He talks to the players, covers the games and reports scoops on Denver7 and the Denver7 app. He is a CU grad who has covered pro sports in Colorado since 1996, including 14 years at The Denver Post. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and TheDenverChannel.com’s Broncos page. Troy welcomes most of your emails at Troy.Renck@kmgh.com.