ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The Denver Broncos are in such a tight spot at tight end they’re converting offensive linemen.
Only to be used in a pinch, of course, and mostly in blocking situations.
After all, the last thing quarterback Kyle Orton wants to do is rifle a pass downfield to tackle Chris Clark or guard Russ Hochstein. Orton has seen their pass-catching skills in practice and even if they’re clearly wide open, he’ll think twice about letting it fly.
“And I’ll never throw the ball to Russ,” Orton chuckled.
At this rate, Orton may not have a choice.
The Broncos had two healthy tight ends Thursday at practice with rookie Julius Thomas (ankle) out and Daniel Fells (knee) only participating on a limited basis. That left just Virgil Green, a rookie out of Nevada, and Dante Rosario, a player just signed by the Broncos last month.
Not that the Broncos are fretting.
“They’re all trained the same. They all do the same drills. They run the same plays. They’re all prepared,” tight ends coach Clancy Barone said. “We have a very diverse and very athletic group of tight ends.”
These days, that’s the norm around the league. The trend is to have that go-to guy over the middle to provide a safety valve for the quarterback. Tony Romo has that luxury with Jason Witten, who’s leading the NFC in receptions, and Drew Brees with Jimmy Graham, a budding star in New Orleans.
“It’s a comfort level” for the quarterback, Barone explained.
And Barone is attempting to cultivate that same kind of security blanket for the quarterbacks in Denver. He’s the guru of tight ends, too, having worked with Antonio Gates in San Diego and Alge Crumpler with Atlanta.
Those two Pro Bowlers have spoiled him on the difference a tight end can make for an offense.
“With Antonio and Alge, I learned a lot. I really did,” Barone said. “Once you see the game through their eyes, you can help them see the game through your eyes as well.”
Barone clearly sees this: the promise of rookies Green and Thomas, along with the flaws that come with coaching greenhorns.
Green is already a solid blocker but is working on improving his receiving skills.
Thomas brings loads of athleticism to the field. Like Gates, he’s a converted basketball player. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Thomas only gave football a try when his basketball eligibility ran out at Portland State.
His progress was interrupted when he turned his right ankle awkwardly after hauling in his one and only catch of the season in Week 2 against Cincinnati. Thomas is hoping to return after the bye next week.
“I’ve made up a lot of ground,” said Thomas, who was taken in the fourth round last April. “People probably didn’t expect me to have the impact that I have. So I can’t let this discourage me. I’m having an opportunity now to sit back and learn and watch the game from a different perspective.”
Rosario is quite familiar with this offensive scheme, especially after playing for coach John Fox in Carolina last season. And Barone knows all about Fells, whom he was with in Atlanta.
Still, all four Broncos tight ends have combined for just 11 catches so far — 16 fewer than Witten.
“They’ve been dinged from time-to-time,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy explained. “It’ll be nice to have (Thomas) back with his speed, letting him run down the field and doing some things to stretch the defense like he did during training camp.”
It never hurts to groom a few more, just in case of an emergency. That’s why Clark and Hochstein have been learning the position in case they’re needed.
It’s already happened once.
The Broncos went into the Bengals contest with only three healthy receivers after Brandon Lloyd was a late scratch. Eddie Royal then pulled a groin in the first half and the team’s emergency receiver, Thomas, left on Denver’s first drive with a high ankle sprain.
So the team inserted quarterback Tim Tebow at receiver, mostly as a decoy.
Might the former Heisman Trophy winner be used as an emergency tight end as well?
“I can’t answer anything like that,” Barone said, laughing.
For now, it’s just Clark and Hochstein in a pinch.
“Russ has to know center, guard, tackle and tight end, sometimes even fullback,” Barone said. “He’s a pro.”
Notes: Broncos DBs Rahim Moore and Jonathan Wilhite missed practice because of an illness. … S Brian Dawkins sat out a second straight day with a balky ankle. Asked how it’s feeling, the Pro Bowler said, “It’s coming along.” … CB Champ Bailey (hamstring) said he will be ready to go Sunday.
By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)