ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The forgotten member of last year’s deep tight end class makes his NFL debut Saturday night, and Jake Butt is fired up to show he’s just as good as O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku.
Butt was considered as talented as that trio of first-rounders last year but he slipped all the way to the fifth round, where Denver grabbed him with the 145th overall pick after he tore his right ACL in Michigan’s 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 2016 season.
He was the eighth tight end taken overall, one spot ahead of Iowa’s George Kittle, who caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two TDs in San Francisco.
While Butt was missing his rookie season and focusing on getting healthy for 2018, he couldn’t help but keep tabs on his fellow rookie tight ends as they piled up 230 catches and 26 touchdowns last season.
“Some were arguing it was the best tight end class ever. Yeah, I kept up with them,” Butt said Thursday. “Obviously, a lot of those guys did some great things. Evan Engram stands out. I got to see him live in our stadium, he was making some big plays. O.J. Howard, I’ve known him since high school, just an absolute beast. David Njoku, Adam Shaheen, they did well.
“And now it’s my turn to go out there and compete with them and get the right to earn (the title of) who’s the best out of that class,” Butt said. “Man, that’ll be fun. We’ll all be pushing each other.”
The Broncos host the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night, and Butt will line up with the starters.
“He’ll be with the first group probably for two series and maybe a little bit afterward, but not much more than that,” coach Vance Joseph said.
Butt can’t wait.
“I’m just ready to go out there and start playing some real football again,” said Butt.
He acknowledged feeling like a wide-eyed rookie.
“This will be my first NFL game, so what my class went through last season this is what I’m going through right now. So, just to get in that stadium, in front of our fans, with my team and being out there actually participating, it’s going to be a fun time,” Butt said.
Butt is pain-free and has had a solid training camp so far as veteran Jeff Heuerman sits out with a sore knee. “But it’s a whole different beast when you get out there and do it live against another team,” Butt said. “So, I want to go out there and continue to be technique sound, work my fundamentals, block well.”
The Broncos lost their best blocking tight end when Virgil Green signed with the AFC West-rival Los Angeles Chargers this spring, and Butt knows blocking is what’s going to keep him on the field and allow him the chance to catch up to the rest of the 2017 tight ends class.
“We’ve got some talented receivers on the outside, so if you can have a tight end that they can’t key on whether it’s a run or a pass, that’s going to put some pressure on that defense,” Butt said. “And if you’re able to execute, that could translate into some big plays for our offense.”
Butt and general manager John Elway were hopeful that Butt would only miss half of his rookie season last year, but it quickly became apparent during the one week he was allowed to practice that he’d be better off waiting until 2018.
“The hardest part about last year was not knowing,” Butt said. “Being on PUP, you’re waiting, you’re waiting, you’re waiting and you don’t know if you’re going to have to wait longer. But once they shut me down for the year, it just became a focus of let me get as healthy as possible for 2018.”
Butt was one of several members of the Broncos’ 2017 draft class who played very little (DeMarcus Walker, De’Angelo Henderson) or not at all (Chad Kelly, Carlos Henderson) last season.
There’s been a lot of buzz about this year’s loaded draft class . If Butt can return to form, though, he’ll give a boost to the 2017 class that’s taken heat for its many mistakes and immaturity.
“I think our story’s still being written,” Butt said.
And he could be the lead author.
Notes: Unlike last year, Von Miller will play in the preseason opener. “He’s totally healthy, he’s had a great camp and we have no reason not to play Von,” Joseph said. “Von’s in great health and good spirits, so why not?” … Heuerman, S Su’a Cravens (knee) and OL Menelik Watson (chest) won’t play.