In a League known as a 'Passing League' and where speed kills, teams have been chasing the Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl last season with a high octane offense. AFC West conference rivals the Raiders and Broncos both spent first round draft picks on wide receivers from Alabama in Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy respectively. Teams are trying to get as much pace and guile at wide receiver as possible. This is also the case at Tight End where the AFC West has incredible strength.
You have to make some serious moves to keep up with the Joneses when your conference contains three of the premier Tight Ends in the League. Super Bowl Champion Travis Kelce, who has recently signed a four year $57 million dollar contract extension, The Chargers Hunter Henry and The Raiders Darren Waller, who had a breakout 2019 following him overcoming substance abuse issues.
That is exactly what John Elway has done over the last two seasons, after some insipid play from the Tight Ends following the Peyton Manning era. For the first time since the Sheriff left town, I have a genuine sense of excitement to watch how we use our young stable,headed up by Noah Fant.
But how exactly does our roster look heading into the 2020 season?
Here I look at the current depth chart as of August 14th, following Jeff Huerman being cut on July 31st.
Heading into the 2019 NFL draft, I remember entertaining the idea of the Broncos selecting either Fant or his Iowa teammate TJ Hockenson with the 10th pick. I was pleased to see Fant selected with the 20th pick and then became ecstatic when Dalton Risner and then Drew Lock were added in the second round. As I have mentioned in previous articles, Fant seemed to struggle to adjust to Altitude during training camp and he took his time to hit his straps at the start of the season, with Joe Flacco at Quarterback. But Fant came good in week 9, where he caught three passes for 115 yards including a 75 yard touchdown, where he scorched the turf displaying his 4.50second 40 yard dash speed. Fant ended his rookie season with 40 receptions for 562 yards which saw him cross the whitewash 3 times. He ended up with better stats than his former stablemate Hockenson and led rookie Tight Ends for yards in 2019. Fant is the clear #1 heading into the season.
A 3rd round pick for the Seattle Seahawks, the former Ohio State Buckeye measures in at 6ft 6inches and tips the scales at 118kg. He was renowned for his blocking abilities as he headed into the professional ranks. Vanett has served primarily as a back up in both Seattle and Pittsburgh prior to him arriving in Denver. Vanett will make the final roster and adds experience to a young group.
I am really intrigued by the addition of the Springfield Illinois native and former Mizzou Tiger. When you have one Tight End who runs a 4.50 40 in Noah Fant, why not add another one. 'Albert Woah' as Rich Eisen from the NFL network proclaimed during the 2020 NFL combine, as he ran 4.49 followed by 4.50 in Indianapolis. It's not Albert's impressive physical stats that pique my attention, it's the fact that Drew Lock played with Okwuegbunam for three seasons at Missouri in the fabled SEC, facing some of the most revered college teams in Football. He has the trust of Lock as a reliable target, someone who Lock will instinctively know his traits and aim to as a pressure valve in the heat of battle.
' I can't begin to describe how fired up I am'.
Okwuegbunam expressed his pleasure of linking up with Lock again at a Draft press conference featured on Denver Broncos official YouTube channel. Lock had already confirmed that John Elway called him prior to selecting the Missouri man.
' I think what makes Albert so special is how smart he is and how he finds open spots on the field... You can find lots of clips of us at Mizzou on corner routes , putting it up high to him and letting him get it'.
Drew Lock spoke extensively during a zoom conference call, about his friendship and on field relationship with the Broncos third round pick . I am excited by Okwuegbunam's addition to the team and feel the potential for him to feast on Drew Locks passes is easy to get excited over. Okwuegbunam's best season at Missouri with Lock as QB came in 2017, where he claimed 29 receptions for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns, highlighting his red zone potential.
Fant, Vanett and Okwuegbunam seem set to claim the top three roster spots but who else will want a say in these matters?
The former Wisconsin Badger finished 2019 with one touchdown six catches and 38 yards. His career has been interrupted by injuries, particularly his rookie year and he has not developed as expected. I would imagine Fumagalli is left battling for a final place on the roster, but think he may miss out on selection to the final 52 man squad.
Fort has been recovering from a ACL and MCL tear, which he suffered in the pre season game against Seattle last season just as the undrafted Wyoming Cowboy was starting to break out.
Fort discussed last season's pre season performances with Ryan O'Halloran from the Denver Post.
'Every single week felt like a huge stride, the two games I played in felt like big strides. The Seattle game I felt like things were starting to click for me'.
Unfortunately it has been confirmed by Mike Klis that Fort requires an Arthroscopic procedure on his knee, meaning he will be out for an undetermined time. A place on injured reserve will be the initial destination, Fort will then aim to try and gain a place on the extended training squad.
Butt has almost become the forgotten figure in the Tight End, room due to his dreadful luck with injuries. The old adage that the ' best ability is availability' could see Butt fail to make the final 52, as he has never had the chance to fufill his potential due to two serious knee injuries. He has been out of action since 27th September 2018. Butt's initial injury sustained in the Orange Bowl in 2016, saw him suffer nerve damage which immobilised his leg. He has done tremendously well to even feature in the NFL and has undoubted talent. While he had a bright first day at training camp on Friday he will be hoping to continue to maintain his fitness. I really want Butt to stay healthy to do his talent justice, he will want to capitalise on the spot opened up by Fort's injury. Although I fear he may face an uphill battle to secure a space on the final roster.
The Tight End/ Full Back was signed as cover for Andy Janovich last season and he featured at Tight End when Janovich returned, catching his first career Touchdown against the Raiders in December 2019. Beck appeared on special teams regularly, this would seem to be his best chance of making the final 52. Pat Shurmur does not utilise Full backs in his offense and the competition for reps at Tight End is intense.
Overall the position has improved significantly this season, the size and speed added will cause significant match up problems for Linebackers and Defensive Backs. This will see more options for Drew Lock to target, creating more room for the running backs, as teams will not be able to afford to stack the box to stifle the running game. The Broncos will hope that Fant can take another step forward in his second year. I have faith that Okwuegbunam can resume his productive relationship with Lock, which will increase the Broncos Red Zone threat exponentially.