How good can Albert Okwuegbunam be in 2020 for the Broncos?
The Broncos have a knack for finding talented players in the mid to late rounds of the draft. They’ve done a great job of finding quality players over the last few years in the draft, and the Broncos have found some gems in the mid rounds recently. They may have found another gem of a player in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft when they selected tight end Albert Okwuegbunam out of Missouri.
After the draft, Broncos general manager John Elway revealed why the team was so excited to add Okwuegbunam.
“He was our target in the fourth round and he was still there, and we got him. Plus, to put him on the other side from Noah (Fant), he’s a 4.49 guy that can really run at 258 pounds, and so again was able—and a big target, good in the red zone. He’s another weapon with great speed that we could add,” Elway said.
During training camp so far, Okwuegbunam has been a standout player when the offense gets near pay dirt. He is displaying the skill set that got the Broncos excited about his potential in the pros. Rookie tight ends struggle in the NFL in almost universal fashion, but Okwuegbunam is looking like a player who could buck that trend.
So, how good can Okwuegbunam be as a rookie? Let’s take a look.
The Broncos went out and added veteran tight end Nick Vannett in free agency earlier this year to be the replacement for Jeff Heuerman. The two were teammates in college at Ohio State and are built the same way. They also play the same way and that makes Vannett a “Y” tight end for the Broncos, who will primarily be a blocker on the field during two tight-end sets.
Vannett has bounced around the league for the last few years and the Broncos are the third team he’s been on. He’s seen a lot in a short amount of time, and he’s been around plenty of pro tight ends. Vannett knows what it takes to make plays in the NFL, and when asked on Tuesday about Okwuegbunam his answer was downright scary.
“I don’t know where to start. I think he’s the real monster. He’s just so physically gifted. I think the thing with him is he’s kind of raw right now, but I don’t say that in a bad way. I say that like if he keeps building on it and keeps figuring it out, he’s going to be one of the best tight ends in the league. Just how fast he is, how built he is — I really do believe if he can figure it out, he’s going to be a scary dude in this league for years to come. I really do believe that,” Vannett said.
That’s a bold statement from the veteran tight end. Could “Albert O.” be one of the best in the league? Certainly. Is it going to happen this season? Probably not.
The biggest reason why Okwuegbunam could be more productive than some think is his connection with Broncos quarterback Drew Lock. As everyone knows, the two were college teammates at Missouri and they were a dangerous combination. In two seasons playing together, the duo combined for 17 touchdowns. That’s an amazing number and one they hope to get near now that they’re pro teammates.
All eyes have been on Lock during training camp, and he has eyes for Okwuegbunam. During red-zone drills, the two are showing off that their chemistry is set. They’ve picked up where they left off in college, and there are even times I’ve seen when Lock will, well, lock onto Okwuegbunam so much that defenders are tipped off an end zone pass is coming to the big tight end.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is never one to throw out a bunch of compliments at his players, so when he spoke about Lock on Tuesday you have some important information to parse through.
“He’s in a much better spot than he was last year at this time. He’s still a guy that’s only played five games. He’s into his second training camp. Last year’s got cut short. I like where he’s at, but he still has a lot of improvement to make I believe,” Fangio said.
Lock has the makings of a franchise quarterback in the NFL. We don’t yet know if he’s going to play up to his potential, but the signs are there that he could do just that. If Lock is playing like we all think he can, then that’s good news for all of the targets in the offense. That’s really good news for a guy he has incredible chemistry with like Okwuegbunam.
There is no doubt that the Broncos will use 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant as their starter and primary tight end. Fant is having a strong camp and showcasing why he was a first-round pick. That speed and run-after-the-catch ability are his strong suits, and it seems like this tight-end friendly offense of Pat Shurmur’s is a great fit.
Vannett had great things to say about Okwuegbunam and he also did about the Broncos starter in Fant. However, Vannett was able to speak on Fant’s struggles from last year and what he wants to change (and has changed) for this year.
“Anytime you get a tight end that runs a 4.5, who can catch the ball the way he does and can run the routes the way he does, that’s so rare to come by in the league. Last year, he might have struggled a little bit blocking. This year, he put on the weight. He took the offseason seriously. You can tell that this is his coming-out party this year. He’s taking everything seriously. He’s competing. He’s running every play as fast as he can. He’s giving great effort in the run game blocking-wise. I think that’s one thing he wants to improve on. He wants to be more of a complete tight end,” Vannett said.
If Fant becomes a complete tight end, opposing defenses are in serious trouble. Fant should lead the position with the most targets, receptions and receiving yards. Okwuegbunam is a talented backup who could make an impact in the red zone. While Fant is going to lead in the major categories, I would not be surprised to see Okwuegbunam have more touchdowns. We’ll see what happens this year, but there is no doubt that the Broncos have zero depth problems at the tight end position.