BRONCOS

State of the Broncos: Can Noah Fant turn into a premier NFL tight end?

Jan 21, 2022, 7:18 AM
(Graphic by Johnny Hart/Bonneville Denver)...
State of the Broncos

The Broncos finished the 2021 season with a 7-10 record. It was the team’s fifth-straight losing season. It also marked the sixth-consecutive year in which the franchise failed to make the playoffs.

As a result, Vic Fangio was shown the door. The head coach was 19-30 during his three seasons in Denver. A coaching change is on the way.

What will the new head coach inherit? What will his new staff have to work with in Denver?

The “State of the Broncos” series is a position-by-position look at what went well in 2021, what didn’t and what needs to change for ’22 and beyond. In this installment, it’s time to take a look at a position that provided a big of encouragement in 2021 – tight end.

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Pro Football Focus Grades
Eric Saubert – 67.8
Albert Okwuegbunam – 67.3
Noah Fant – 61.6

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2021 Review

Every Sunday, Broncos Country turns on NFL Red Zone and sees another team’s tight end putting up huge numbers. It’s Travis Kelce in Kansas City, Darren Waller in Las Vegas, George Kittle in San Francisco, Mark Andrews in Baltimore or some other matchup nightmare that is torching defenses.

It always leads to the same question: Why can’t Noah Fant do that?

It’s a fair thing to ask. After all, the third-year tight end was taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to be that kind of player. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, with 4.5 speed in the 40, he’s supposed to be too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. He’s supposed to be impossible to cover.

For whatever reason, however, it hasn’t materialized. Fant has shown flashes during his first three seasons in Denver, but the week-in, week-out production hasn’t been there.

Perhaps that’s a quarterback issue. During his time with the Broncos, Fant has played with Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, Drew Lock, Kendall Hinton, Brett Rypien and Teddy Bridgewater. That’s a lot of different QBs, none of whom are elite.

It could also be an offensive coordinator issue. First, Fant played under Rich Scangarello, a guy who gave him the ball on a tight-end end-around on his first play as a pro. Then, he spent two seasons in Pat Shurmur’s offense, an OC who showed no ability to create mismatches.

Those aren’t excuses. They’re just facts.

Speaking of which, Fant actually had decent numbers in 2021. Despite playing with Bridgewater and Lock, in Shurmur’s system, he had his best year as a pro.

On the season, the tight end had a team-high 68 catches, for 670 yards. He also scored four touchdowns.

Those aren’t Kelce, Waller, Kittle or Andrews numbers, but they’re a start. When a tight end is a team’s leading receiver, it shows that he has some skills.

The Broncos also found a second option at that position in Albert Okwuegbunam. The second-year tight end bounced back from a knee injury to have 33 receptions for 330 yards and two touchdowns. That’s solid from a backup.

All told, Denver’s top two tight ends combined for 101 grabs, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Imagine what they’ll do in a better situation.

It’s reason to be encouraged moving forward. The 2021 season had a bright spot after all.

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A Look Ahead

Don’t look for much to change at this position in 2022. It’ll be Fant and Albert O again.

And that’s a good thing. It should be exciting to see what this duo can produce when given more opportunities.

Yes, there are things they need to improve upon. Okwuegbunam had a couple of critical drops during the season. Fant needs to be more consistent in run blocking. But the skills are there. They just need to have the right QB and OC to bring them out.

For Fant, his future in Denver depends on what he does in 2022. Heading into his fourth season, the Broncos will have to decide what to do with the former first-round pick. Have they seen enough to give him a fifth-year option? Or are they going to make him play a “prove-it” season, which could lead to Fant being a hot commodity on the 2023 free-agent market?

Given the flashes that Fant has shown, coupled with his unique physical abilities, the Broncos would be wise to retain the tight end. He has star potential. It’d be a shame to see that realized somewhere else.

Albert O will be back again, providing a nice one-two punch at the position. If he blossoms, that could change Denver’s plans on Fant.

The Broncos do have to make a decision on Eric Saubert. He was a nice surprise as a free agent in 2021, showing an ability to run block, which is why he was brought in, and catch the ball. But he’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason; Denver will have to decided if they want him back.

All in all, things are good at the tight-end position. The Broncos have a potential star, plus a solid backup. It’ll be fascinating to see how they develop.

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State of the Broncos: Can Noah Fant turn into a premier NFL tight end?