Friday, October 28, 2016

A.J. Derby Can Boost Passing Game

By Kristopher Knox

October 27, 2016

While the 10-year veteran never got a lot of attention, tight end Owen Daniels was a big part of the Denver Broncos run to the Super Bowl in 2015. The longtime Gary Kubiak disciple was a major component of the passing game, hauling in 48 passes for 517 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season.

The Broncos decided not to bring Daniels back for 2016 and have instead relied on a mixture of Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman and John Phillips at the position. While the trio has been serviceable—and quite good in the blocking department—it hasn’t added a ton of punch to the passing game. Through seven weeks, Broncos tight ends have combined for 17 receptions, 183 yards and one touchdown.

Heuerman is Denver’s highest rated tight end in terms of receiving, per Pro Football Focus, and he’s rated 25th at the position and has seen a mere 85 offensive snaps. For a team looking to make life easier on first-year starter Trevor Siemian, what the team has had at tight end hasn’t realistically been enough.

This is likely why the Broncos decided to make the move to acquire A.J Derby from the New England Patriots earlier this week via trade. Assuming Derby can adjust to Denver’s playbook quickly, he has the potential to add an immediate boost to the team’s passing attack.

The former quarterback-turned-tight-end was originally selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. However, he was placed on injured reserve that summer and didn’t see his first real action until the 2016 preseason.

Derby was magnificent during the preseason, though, proving that he is more than just a 6-5, 255-pound athlete. He finished the 2016 preseason with 15 catches, 189 yards and a touchdown. Pro Football Focus rated Derby as the top receiving tight end in the entire league for the preseason.

Now, it’s worth noting that there’s a big difference between preseason and the real thing. It’s also worth noting that we’re speculating on potential here rather than proven production. But Derby seems to have all the tools to be a quality receiving tight end in Denver’s offense.

“A.J. is a young tight end who can help us immediately,” Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said, via the team’s official website. “He has tremendous upside and will fit in well on our team.”

Acquiring Derby clearly wasn’t a snap decision for the Broncos. According to Michael Lombardi of Fox Sports, the team has had its eye on the Arkansas product for a while:

Now that Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison have their hands on Derby, it will be interesting to see how quickly they can work him into the offense.

At best, Derby can provide Siemian with a dynamic receiving threat at the tight end position almost immediately. This should make the quarterback’s life a lot easier, as quality tight ends are apt to do.

At worst, the Broncos have acquired a developmental prospect with a ton of upside. If Derby isn’t boosting the passing game this season, he could be when, say, Paxton Lynch is the one taking snaps from under center.

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