Ex-Wolverine Jake Butt shaking off rust, working back from third ACL injury

By Evan Petzold
Special to The Detroit News

Englewood, Colo. –– Strap on the pads, toss on the helmet and get to work.

While most players from all 32 NFL teams suit up for training camp like that each day, Denver Broncos tight end Jake Butt watches from the sidelines, and it’s been that way for the last week of practice at UCHealth Training Center.

Former Michigan tight end Jake Butt has played in just three games since being drafted by the Broncos in 2017 due to injuries.

Since Butt entered the league in 2017, the term “recovering from injury” has seemingly always run alongside his name. Health is a rarity, but that’s not stopping Butt from trying to return yet again.

Keyword: Again.

“It’s going to take some time,” Butt said. “With that being said, it’s still really early. I’m a competitive guy, and I hold myself to a higher standard.”

That’s right. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end tore his ACL as a senior at Michigan in the 2016 Orange Bowl. He suffered nerve damage that completely immobilized his leg before physical therapy.

Butt worked his way back onto the field for the 2018 season, earning the secondary starting tight end role behind primary starter Jeff Heuerman.

Butt only made it three games before tearing his ACL, for a third time, during a non-contact drill in practice, thus missing the remainder of the campaign. His first ACL tear occurred as a sophomore at Michigan, a place he ended up as a two-time second team All-American (2015-16), two-time first team All-Big Ten member (2015-16) and John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end (2016).

He has caught eight receptions for 85 yards in his NFL career after logging 138 receptions for 1,646 yards and 11 touchdowns during four seasons with the Wolverines.

On the first day of training camp on July 18, Butt delivered an update on his health, explaining he was “not quite” 100 percent.

“I know I can win on all these routes and do my job, but you can’t expect to be 100 percent on Day 1 after a nine-month rehab,” Butt added. “It’s going to take some time.

“My knee hasn’t gotten sore, so I’m confident.”

Well, that left knee was sore by the third day of training camp.

Just when it seemed like Butt was rising to new heights, the former fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft fell back down and has missed seven straight practices. Broncos first-year coach Vic Fangio downplayed his concerned.

“He’s hit a little pothole here in his road to recovery, but I don’t think it’s anything too, too serious at this point,” Fangio said. “He got hit and his leg wasn’t feeling right, so we kept him out.”

When Butt is finally to full health, he plans on playing an instrumental role in a new offense under Fangio and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. For the tight ends, the playbook is full of motions and different routes.

“It’s a fun offense for tight ends,” Heuerman said. “The route tree for tight ends is a little bigger, so we get to do more creative routes. It’s fun. We still have a lot to put in and learn.”

The tight end room is expected to include rookie Noah Fant from Iowa, Heuerman and Butt. However, if Butt is unable to be on the active roster due to injury, the other spot could go to former Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli, who spent the entire 2018 season on injured reserve.

Rookie Austin Fort, from Wyoming, is also working from behind the group.

“We have a bunch of great guys that want to help each other get better,” Fant said. “It’s a great room, and I’m happy to be in there.”

The Broncos released their first depth chart of the 2019 season on Monday, and the list of tight ends included, in order, Heuerman, Fant, Fumagalli, Butt, Fort and Bug Howard.

Butt has been on the field without pads on for non-contact drills in recent days, and he hopes to move up the depth chart through getting in “football shape,” which is a complicated process when battling an injury.

“For me, it’s getting out, trying to get in shape and feeling the routes again,” Butt said. “I know I can run one good route in a row, but I need to be where a run a good route every time.

“I’m trying to get back in shape and get the details down.”

Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.