ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Tight ends are no longer an afterthought in Denver's passing game.
In 2009, they had all of 27 catches.
Last year, that number was just 30 - not a single one of them in the end zone - as they were basically used as big bruising blockers in Tim Tebow's read-option offense.
Enter Peyton Manning and exit the notion of such paltry production from the Broncos tight ends, who are oftentimes more of a slot receiver than a run-blocker in the four-time MVP's world.
``Last year we had to de-emphasize the tight end's role in the offense because of the style that we had to evolve to. And we were running the ball a heck of a lot more, so we spent the bulk of our time doing that,'' tight ends coach Tony Barone said. ``The focus this year shifted back to getting the tight ends more involved and being more of a focal point in the passing game.''
Fellow free agents Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen lead a new group of Broncos tight ends that has collected 70 catches for 657 yards and six touchdowns so far.
That's the kind of production Barone was accustomed to seeing in a full season from two Pro Bowlers - Atlanta's Alge Crumpler and San Diego's Antonio Gates - that he tutored before coming to Denver.
``This collection's already surpassed that after 11 weeks,'' Barone said. ``And so I think that speaks volumes to their talents and Peyton's being able to spread the ball around.''
Tamme and Dreessen signed with the Broncos after Manning picked Denver for his comeback, and they're a big part of Manning's re-emergence. With Tamme and Dreessen, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has two transposable tight ends to move around inside and out to create mismatches.
``It's a credit to them because they can run some of those same types of option routes or whatever with good speed and good hands,'' Manning said. ``Those guys have made a lot of plays for us this year.''
After signing Manning, front office boss John Elway went looking for the tight ends to provide the Broncos with the kind of flexibility and production Manning enjoyed in Indianapolis, where he worked with the likes of Dallas Clark, Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Bryan Fletcher and, oh yes, Tamme.
They targeted Dreessen, a seventh-year pro who had all the ingredients and who really hit his stride over the last two seasons in Houston, ranking second in the NFL in percentage (15.6) of catches resulting in touchdowns - 10 of 64.
``Joel was a guy that went to Colorado State, was from the area, was a free agent, was available, we liked him, he had the opportunity to be the No. 1 tight end here, been with a winning organization,'' coach John Fox said, rattling off the attributes.
To really capitalize on Dreessen's skills, the Broncos needed another equally adept and experienced tight end to produce now and also bring along raw second-year hoopsters-turned-tight ends Virgil Green and Julius Thomas. And they needed one with the smarts and flexibility to line up on either side of the line, out wide or in tight, because in the no-huddle or hurry-up offense teams don't have the luxury of swapping tight ends during the drive.
Tamme was their guy. He could be Dreessen's twin. Same size, same build, same skills, same speed, same hands.
A fifth-year pro, Tamme had one thing Dreessen didn't: experience catching passes from Manning. He played his first four seasons in Indianapolis, where he converted to tight end after playing wide receiver at Kentucky, and he collected 67 catches for 631 yards and four TDs in 2010, the last season Manning played for the Colts.
The Broncos considered themselves lucky to land him.
``Jacob was a guy that happened to be available, a guy Peyton had a great comfort zone with,'' Fox said.
Both signed on March 29, eight days after Manning's arrival.
``Not that Joel and Jacob have 8,000 years in the league, but they have had experience in a similar offense that we were building,'' Fox said.
They've provided both the progress and production the Broncos needed from their tight ends this year.
``When I came in for a visit and sat down and talked with everybody, it felt like the right place,'' Tamme said. ``It felt like a place where we had a chance to do something big, and we do.''
Dreessen said he wanted to be more of a factor, regardless of stats. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight with Tamme, either.
``I've seen it best when it's kind of tight end by committee,'' Dreessen said. ``You stay fresher, you're more effective for the plays you are in there for. Coming here, I knew it was going to take both of us to get the job done and be special.''
Tamme loved the idea of teaming up with Dreessen to create one of the NFL's best tight end duos.
``I'm not really a guy that's been concerned about getting X amount of catches,'' Tamme said. ``Maybe we give up a little bit as individuals, but if you put the numbers together, it's great. I think it's good for our team and it's definitely been good for both of us, maybe not in the way of getting the best statistics that you could ever have, but in the end that's not what it's about.''
Notes: DE Robert Ayers missed practice all week following the unexpected death of his father last weekend and he's questionable Sunday when the Broncos (8-3) host Tampa Bay (6-5). ... Manning's former tight end target, Clark, has 31 catches for 320 yards and three TDs for the Buccaneers this season. ... After Friday's practice, Manning met his namesake, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Littleton who's the captain of his hockey team. The QB signed a football for him that read: ``To Peyton, great name. All my best, your friend, Peyton Manning, 18.'' ... The Broncos hosted the St Kilda Saints of the Australian Football League at practice. The St Kilda Football Club is doing high altitude training at the University of Colorado in preparation for the 2013 season.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton