ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tight end Jake Butt moves through Denver Broncos‘ training camp these days snaring catches and generally running better and faster than he has at any time during his three years with the team. It’s a major step from where he was last season, recovering from yet another procedure on his knees while coping with the emptiness of being separated from his teammates yet again.
“I wanted to quit,” Butt said.
He didn’t, but the challenges continue this training camp with Sept. 5 cuts looming and a loaded tight end room for the Broncos. Butt will be in the mix and it can be difficult to crystallize how much hope the Broncos’ decision-makers, the coaches and his teammates have for his success.
“There is nobody in our locker room that doesn’t want to see Jake Butt succeed,” Broncos quarterback Drew Lock said. “One of the best teammates that we have in this locker room. For him to push and grind through all the injuries he’s had. … The guy is playing some really good ball. He’s super smart and little more athletic than people give him credit for.”
It has been a 40-month road for Butt, who has suffered an inordinate amount of trouble with his knees. An All-American in college at Michigan, he officially has been in the NFL since the Broncos made him a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft, but his résumé is only three games — all in 2018. He has eight catches for 85 yards.
Butt was coming off a torn ACL, suffered in his final college game, when the Broncos selected him. That was already the second time he had torn his right ACL. He then tore his left ACL in a Broncos’ practice in Week 4 of the 2018 season.
John Elway once described Butt as “a steal” in the hours after the Broncos selected him as well as a “top two-round guy” with “great ball skills” and a “great route runner.” Last summer Butt hoped, finally, to fulfill those expectations. But pain in his left knee throughout camp eventually led to having his meniscus repaired, resulting in yet another lost season.
“Guys have seen what I’ve been through, and if you’ve been through an ACL, you know how hard one is,” Butt said. “When you go through three, it means a lot to get that recognition from your comrades, your teammates and your coaches. For me, I’m healthy. It’s a part of my story, but I’m out there playing ball. I’m not looking back, and I don’t have any excuses for myself. For me, I’ve got to play better and I’ve got to elevate my game. I’ve got to go out there and compete every single day. The goal for me now is to make the team.”
While Butt was grinding away to get back on the field, the Broncos went all-in at the tight end position. They now have four former draft picks in the tight end meeting room, including last year’s first-round pick — Noah Fant — who also happens to be TE1. Then this past March, the team signed Nick Vannett, who — along with Fant — has lined up with the starters the most during training camp.
The position is the most competitive on the team’s current depth chart and the choices about who gets a roster spot will be difficult ones.
“This is my fifth [NFL] training camp and I can honestly say from top to bottom this is the most competitive room I’ve ever been in,” Vannett said. “You’ve got guys that can do it all. Not to mention they’re great football players, but they’re some of the best guys I’ve been around. … I’m going to be anxious to see what’s going to happen for our room and for this team because the things I’m seeing right now I’m getting pretty excited just to think about what’s going to happen down the road.”
Right now Butt said he’s happy to simply toil away in camp. Going through ACL rehab can be a lonely and difficult place. In fact, a paper published during 2016 in the World Journal of Orthopedics described the potential for “ACL depression syndrome” among athletes. That is something Butt has seen firsthand.
“That’s probably the hardest thing that nobody really talks about and it’s hard for people to understand,” Butt said. “When you grow up around football and you grow up in sports, you’re constantly a part of a team and you’re constantly a part of something bigger than yourself. Then when you get hurt, you’re still a part of the team, but it’s this weird thing where you are but you aren’t … there were a lot of days that I wanted to quit. There were a lot of days that I was really down on myself, questioning myself, questioning why I’m even doing this kind of thing.”
He credits his family, his teammates and Broncos strength and conditioning coach Loren Landow, who Butt said encouraged him to keep manageable expectations of progress each day with the message of “chop wood and carry water.”
“When you’re tired, fight that mental battle with that person that’s inside of you telling you to quit,” Butt said. “I’m tired after six reps and I have to get to eight, but I’m going to do 10 or 12 today. I’m going to do a little bit extra to completely prove to myself that I can do this, and in fact, I can do more. It shows up every day and it’s something everybody has to do, especially in camp. You’re sore, you’re tired and you’re fatigued, but you have to go out there and keep continuing to do the little things and continue to practice and try to get better.”