When last Denver Broncos fans saw tight end Jake Butt in action, it was in the 'dress rehearsal' preseason game last summer. Since preseason Game 3, however, fans have ne'er seen hide nor hair of the Broncos' 2017 fifth-round pick.
The Broncos had drafted Butt despite knowing that he'd blown out his knee in Michigan's bowl game just a few months prior and that his rookie season would have to be a medical red-shirt of sorts. The kid rehabbed hard and worked to get back in time to make an impact in Year 2.
2018 started off encouragingly, as the Broncos slow-rolled him onto the field in the preseason and played it safe. He debuted on the 53-man roster and as the regular season began, the team began to collectively exhale.
Then, the injury bug struck. Butt reaggravated his knee during a practice ahead of Week 4 and was placed on injured reserve. It was early enough in the season that relative hope existed that Butt could rehab and be back in time for 2019. Alas, it wasn't meant to be.
Butt did not see any meaningful reps until that third preseason game last summer. He went out and played against the L.A. Rams and caught a couple of passes for 17 yards. But coming out of even that brief action, his knee flared up and while he didn't suffer any further damage, per se, the team ultimately chose to scope his knee and place him on IR in hopes that next year the Football Gods would finally smile upon him.
With a pandemic slamming the door on the Broncos' ability to hold Phase 1 and 2 of OTAs at the UC Health Training Center, we haven't been able to get a look at Butt's recovery as he enters the final year of his contract. However, thanks to a sit-down with Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post, we received an update on the state of that knee.
"My knee's good," Butt told the Denver Post. "Doing everything running and lifting. This offseason has been a little bit weird for everybody, having to bounce around and train anywhere you can, but I've still been getting good work in, feel good about things and excited about playing ball again."
That's encouraging, no doubt, but fans heard similar sentiments from Butt one year ago and got their hopes up that he'd finally passed through the trials and tribulations of his knee injury. Alas, despite an encouraging discovery during his last surgery, wherein his surgeon corrected a unique knee condition was making him more susceptible to torn ligaments, he still couldn't quite make it out of the starting gates.
The ACL tear he's technically still recovering from, which he sustained in between Weeks 3 and 4 of the 2018 season, was the third of his football career and second within about an 18-month window. After all that strain and frustration to begin his NFL career, compounded by the setbacks in his recovery, Butt has had to cultivate a tough mindset while the Broncos have stood by him and have shown exceeding patience.
"I don't know a lot of people that have been through my situation and the team would still be hanging there with them in Year 4," Butt told O'Halloran. "It really speaks a lot for the organization and what they think of me and I'm very appreciative. It's not a guarantee—they're not telling me I'm making the team by any stretch or rolling out the red carpet. I still have to go out there and work and earn it."
Butt continued, "But the fact they're standing by me and giving me an opportunity, it obviously means the world to me and I'm going to try and go out there and prove them right and prove myself right."
The Broncos have supported Butt, however, they've had to move on in building a contingency plan around him. In 2019, the Broncos drafted TE Noah Fant in the first round, who went on to have a record-breaking rookie campaign.
This past spring, the Broncos signed free-agent TE Nick Vannett to a two-year deal before drafting Missouri's Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round. Combined with the veteran of the group — Jeff Heuerman — and 2018 fifth-rounder Troy Fumagalli, plus waiver-wire pickup Andrew Beck and 2019 undrafted rookie Austin Fort, the Broncos now have a veritable logjam at tight end.
In order for Butt to make the cut in 2020, he won't have to just stay healthy. He'll have to compete and make a difference. My fingers are crossed, no doubt, but at this stage, it would be remiss to count those chickens before they've hatched.
The Broncos still plan to open training camp on July 28 or 29. That might be the first opportunity for fans to get a bead on Butt's progress in the flesh.