Two-tight end personnel may be Broncos’ best approach early in season

Broncos tight end Nick Vannett couldn’t contain his enthusiasm when asked about “12” personnel potentially being a staple of this year’s offense.

Signed from Pittsburgh in free agency, Vannett had reason to be excited because that package calls for one running back, two receivers and two tight ends on the field. That equals more opportunities for Vannett and Co. to make plays.

“I might be a little biased, but I’ve always been a big fan of it,” he said. “You get more big bodies out there, it creates so many mismatches, especially when you have two big athletes out there. We can just own the middle of the field in the passing game. It makes things more unpredictable.”

As the Broncos prepare for Monday night’s season opener against Tennessee, being unpredictable should be offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s modus operandi.

Using “12” might also be necessary for the Broncos.

Projected third receiver KJ Hamler (hamstring) remains out. The first month of the season presents edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney (Titans), T.J. Watt (Pittsburgh) and Shaq Barrett (Tampa Bay), which means using the tight end in protection. And the best way to ease a young offense into the season is by having an effective running game. The extra tight end helps there, too.

“In general, if you feel your two tight ends are better than the third receiver, I would absolutely advocate using ‘12’,” an NFL offensive assistant said.

The Broncos have the players to roll two tight ends in and out of the game. Vannett and Noah Fant would be the starters in “12.” Jake Butt is healthy and versatile. Rookie Albert Okwuegbunam is a receiving threat. And Andrew Beck can play fullback and tight end.

Many pluses to “12”

Shurmur has been able to get regular production from his tight ends.

In Cleveland (2011-12), Benjamin Watson had seasons of 37 catches-410 yards-two touchdowns and 49-501-3. In Minnesota, Kyle Rudolph had 53 catches and eight touchdowns during the 2017 season. And in the last two years for the Giants, Evan Engram had 99 catches and six touchdowns.

According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos used two-tight end personnel on 23% of their offensive snaps last year (24th in the league). Shurmur’s Giants used it on 21% of their snaps (27th). The Super Bowl teams, Kansas City and San Francisco, used two tight ends on 31% (14th) and 36% (seventh), respectively. The Chiefs, with Travis Kelce, and the 49ers, with George Kittle, have stars at the tight end position.

The Broncos drafted Fant last year and Albert Okwuegbunam this year knowing they could be instant producers as receivers.

As a rookie last year, Fant had 40 catches for 562 yards and three touchdowns.

“I don’t know if it’s a part of the spread offense and guys getting more opportunities in college to run routes, but it’s forced some good matchups for tight ends,” Broncos tight ends coach Wade Harman said. “When you get some of them outside, you usually get some favorable matchups inside. Some teams play more zone vs. two-tight end stuff to adapt because those guys have been hurting the base personnel.”

To Harman’s point …

Pluses of using “12” against a base defense: Line Fant up outside and he could feast on a linebacker. … If a linebacker moves outside to cover Fant, that opens up inside running room. … If a safety replaces the linebacker in run support, that opens the middle of the field for a medium-to-long pass.

The big winner vs. base defense is Fant.

“That’s the biggest advantage,” the NFL assistant said. “Get a linebacker on Fant or the Missouri kid (Okwuegbunam) and it’s a big matchup issue. And the best matchup doesn’t have to be a tight end on a linebacker. It could easily feature your top receiver over a linebacker and a tight end against a corner.”

Said Vannett: “I just think ‘12’ helps the running game so much because with guys like us on the field (together), they don’t know if it’s going to be a run or pass.”

Pluses of using “12” against a sub-package: This is where the Broncos should be able to run it because the defense will take either a lineman or a linebacker off the field and Shurmur can use Vannett (or Butt) as a sixth run blocker.  And using Fant alongside receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy and, if he motions out of the backfield, Phillip Lindsay or Melvin Gordon to spread the field horizontally, could present single matchups, or, as Harman said, force teams to play zone (free releases for the receivers at the snap).

Do play-callers prefer facing a base or nickel defense while in “12”?

“For certain plays, for sure (we want a base defense),” Broncos quarterbacks coach Mike Shula said. “But what happens is, some defenses may go nickel all the time and treat (‘12’) like it’s three receivers or go by down and distance. You have to be prepared for both when you come in with two tight ends. There is an advantage to throwing the ball vs. base and running the ball vs. nickel, but defenses know that, too, so even if they’re in nickel, they’ll find a way to have a good run defense out there.”

Defenses could face a pick-their-poison decision.

“Go nickel and you risk getting run on, especially inside; go base and you risk getting thrown on and not just because you’re playing with three linebackers, but also because your base coverages and pass-rush designs are a lot less multiple than your nickel designs,” NFL analyst Andy Benoit said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Tennessee plays a ‘big nickel,’ and uses a safety instead of a cornerback as the fifth defensive back by sliding Kenny Vaccaro to the slot and bringing in Amani Hooker at safety.”

Utilizing Fant

A look back at some of Fant’s explosive plays last year revealed how he was used in a variety of ways.

His 25-yard touchdown against Jacksonville: Left H-back and motioned across the formation before catching a screen pass.

His 75-yard touchdown against Cleveland: Three-point stance and ran an over route, breaking three tackles.

His 48-yard catch at Houston: Motioned to right H-back and easily out-ran linebacker Benardrick McKinney on a go route.

Often, Fant would benefit from the Broncos using play-action or him giving the impression he was staying in protection by engaging or chipping a pass rusher. If the Broncos feel the best matchup is to use Vannett as a sixth pass protector, that not only frees Fant up to be a receiver, the same goes for using Gordon or Lindsay as a receiver out of the backfield.

“Anytime you get a tight end that runs and can catch the ball the way he does and can run routes the way he does, that’s so rare to come by in the league,” Vannett said.

The NFL assistant is already interested in seeing how Shurmur uses Fant in particular.

“My team should be doing the same thing,” the assistant coach said. “Everything we do in ‘11’, we can do in ‘12’,’ too.”