There wasn’t much to go on when the Denver Broncos acquired AJ Derby on Oct. 25, 2016.
When it came to the former backup quarterback by way of Iowa, Coffeyville Community College and Arkansas, it was mostly projection. And in fairness, the same could be said of when the New England Patriots invested pick No. 202 overall in the 2015 draft on him as a tight end.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Derby went 19-of-36 passing for 178 yards and one touchdown as a Razorbacks redshirt junior in 2013. Then, he caught 22 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns during his final year of college eligibility before a knee injury finished with two games to go in 2014.
“I think he’s got a lot of good football ahead of him,” Bill Belichick said of Derby in his post-draft press conference, via Patriots.com. “He’s transitioning from kind of the linebacker-quarterback high school deal to quarterback to tight end. I think he’s a tight end. He thinks he’s a tight end. In the meantime, he’s got a lot of playing experience, just not at the position that he’ll be playing for us.”
Derby’s rookie year in Foxborough came and went without him being able to add to that on-field experience. After missing all but the opening day of training camp, the QB convert was waived-injured and subsequently reverted to injured reserve.
The summer of 2016 took a different course.
Derby secured 15 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown over the course of New England’s preseason slate. And from the hybrid, off-line mold, he showed room for growth in the open field, in blocking assignments, and in the kicking game, claiming spot on the 53-man roster alongside Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor.
It just wouldn’t be for long.
Derby appeared in four games while logging 35 snaps on offense, 32 snaps on special teams, and zero receptions before being traded to John Elway’s Broncos leading up to the 2016 deadline.
The trade, like most, arrived out of left field. There was reason to be surprised by it, given that Derby had fetched draft value superior to his own. There was reason to call it a shrewd accrual, too, even if was by way of a fellow AFC contender.
“We're trying to make our team better,” Belichick said at the time. “That's what we're trying to do. I mean, I can't worry about what everybody else is doing or not doing. I'm trying to make our team better.”
A 2017 fifth-round pick, at No. 163 overall, was the Patriots’ return for Derby.
But that selection would not be made by New England, per se. Instead it went to the Buffalo Bills as compensation for signing restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee, and wound up being Boston College linebacker Matt Milano.
Derby went on his way to the Broncos at any rate.
“We think he has a chance to help us really quickly,” then-Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said of Derby the next day, per DenverBroncos.com.
“It’s really quick,” Derby told reporters of the trade upon landing. “Everything happens fast, but it’s part of the business. It’s really exciting to come here.”
The 26-year-old has since played 14 games for Denver on a depth chart currently consisting of Virgil Green and Jeff Heuerman. From Kubiak’s tenure to Vance Joseph’s, he’s snared 34 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns. And he’ll revisit the Patriots for a second time this Sunday, having caught four for 35 against them in a 16-3 loss last December.
Could that have been Derby’s future in New England? Might he have presented the war room with an alternative to trading for James O’Shaughnessy last spring? Hindsight is 20-20. Circumstances change. But New England’s 2017 depth behind Gronkowski – ex-Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen and undrafted Wyoming product Jacob Hollister – has accounted for three catches for 37 yards this campaign. Derby, meanwhile, ranks fourth on the struggling 3-5 Broncos in receptions, third in receiving yards, and is tied for first in receiving touchdowns.
And good for him.
Derby has met the cost of what Denver spent to get him. After a quiet one-catch week versus the Philadelphia Eagles, he’ll get another chance as the 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff gets underway Sunday at Sports Authority Field.