Our film rooms this offseason have been focused on the new additions to the Denver Broncos thus far. One such player, who's essentially a new addition but was acquired last offseason, is tight end Jake Butt out of Michigan, who the Broncos selected at the top of the fifth round back in 2017.
As some anticipated, Butt’s true rookie season turned into a redshirt year, as he recovered from ACL surgery that he had to undergo after a brutal injury suffered in his final bowl game.
Despite his draft status, a lot is expected of the second-year player who racked up 1200 yards on 97 receptions in his final two seasons at Michigan. Few unknown commodities on the roster will be counted on more this season, as Butt blossoming into a quality tight end could upgrade the Broncos passing offense in a significant way.
With the franchise on break until the beginning of training camp in late July, we went back to the tape to see what a healthy Jake Butt can bring to the table for the Broncos offense.
This film room will focus on the areas in which Butt can contribute immediately, and address the biggest question surrounding the young tight end’s future—what’s his ultimate ceiling if we assume a return to full health?
Butt has a big frame at 6-foot-5 and 246 pounds, with 10-inch hands. Those measurables make him an ideal target in the red zone, where he can come down with tough grabs in traffic.
Butt is also strong when it comes to establishing position and boxing out defenders with his body. All aspects that make him a very promising red zone target. While he won’t jump out of the building, he can make tough grabs and high-point the football.
Kyle Rudolph was essential for new Broncos quarterback, Case Keenum, scoring eight touchdowns last season with the Minnesota Vikings. If Denver’s shiny new tight end could put up production that’s anywhere close to that, a big part of the offense's problems in the red zone could already be solved.
More so than in the red zone, Butt has shown himself to be a really solid weapon on third down, particularly third-and-short situations. This is because he’s crafty getting open and finding soft spots in coverage.
He really stood out for how often he was targeted—especially in the games I watched in 2015—on third down. He’s talented at finding openings in coverage underneath and creating space for himself.
Butt can set up defenders masterfully, getting open with subtle body fakes. He has a knack for flipping his hips quickly to come back inside and run towards the ball—watch how he sets up this safety against Indiana, scoring a huge overtime touchdown in the process.
His ability as a route runner, combined with his decent athleticism for his size and the ability to make tough grabs with defenders draped over him, make Denver's No. 80 a very tough cover on third-and-short. Due to all these factors, the young TE has the potential to be a really nice security blanket for Keenum.
When down in the red zone or on short down-and-distance Butt isn’t just a receiving threat, he’ll also be a factor as a run blocker. He plays low, with good leverage, and can churn out crucial yards. The former Michigan man is talented in sealing off running lanes to seal the edge, especially on key runs to the strong side, which can be crucial in converting third downs on the ground.
In the big rivalry matchup against Ohio State, Butt was fairly impressive as a run blocker against one of the most talented lines in the country.
He’s also a quality blocker when put on the move and can really push around smaller defenders in the back-seven.
This dual-threat ability gives the Broncos offense a multiplicity they were desperately lacking the last few seasons.
What’s the ceiling for a healthy Butt?
This is the million dollar question here and will establish whether Butt is simply a solid contributor or one of the better tight ends in the league, giving the Broncos a high-end starter for the foreseeable future.
One of the big questions with Butt is his ability to consistently get open against NFL level defenders. He’s not a dynamic athlete and will struggle as a runner with the ball in his hands to run away from second level defenders. Which is especially true when he’s targeted underneath when catching the ball short of the sticks.
Because of this, he doesn’t seem like a true mismatch threat, meaning that he won’t be a huge factor flexed out wide or in the slot like other more prominent NFL tight ends can be. It’s a good thing he’s a quality run blocker and accomplished in-line TE, or this would be much more of a concern.
He also doesn’t have the softest hands and will have a few grabs where he has to double clutch the ball.
However, there’s room for him to stretch the seam and run better routes. If he can eliminate drops, Butt could be a really good receiving tight end. As a receiver, he could project to be similar to Hunter Henry, with a bit more ready-made blocking skills entering the league, especially if he can make a few more high-level of difficulty grabs.
Due to his craftiness as a route runner, he has a little bit of Jason Witten to his game as well.
To truly achieve his full ceiling, Butt needs to feast on linebackers when he has favorable matchups and be more physically imposing against defensive backs.
Butt’s true upside as a blocker is also a bit of a question mark. On film, he was far from perfect in pass protection against bigger lineman who could overpower him, while he also struggled with more athletic edge rushers, as well.
The big selling point for Butt is that he was used in a multitude of roles already at Michigan—the fact that he comes from a pro-style offense is huge in lessening his learning curve. Whether as an H-back coming out the backfield, in line where he played a large number of snaps, or flexed out wide or in the slot, he's versatile and can be impactful.
That versatility and experience gives him a really high floor, and should be huge in allowing him to be an immediate contributor—assuming full health.
Butt feels like more of a contributor with solid projection to be an every-down starter rather than a star at his position. Henry or Witten seem like realistic ceilings for him, rather than being a primary go-to offensive weapon in the passing game like a Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.
Denver hasn’t had a tight end with Butt’s combination of size and receiving skills since Julius Thomas. Furthermore, Butt’s well-rounded skill set and potential to be an immediate contributor is even more rare, as you’d be hard-pressed to think of a TE with his complete ability in the post-Shannon Sharpe era.
Expectations should be realistic though, as Butt doesn’t have many holes in his game but isn't an otherworldly talent, either.
He was at his best in 2015 where he was more impactful than in 2016 in the receiving game, which makes you wonder, but if he can get back to his pre-injury form, Butt will be a solid starter who can be very effective in two crucial areas—third down and the red zone—while also being an impactful run blocker.
All that should get the Broncos excited, as the young tight end could be the missing piece to a passing offense that’s added some very intriguing young targets that should start contributing already in 2018.