Word on the street is that Russell Wilson doesn't like throwing to tight ends.
While some advanced metrics imply — but don't prove — that Wilson has an ever-so-slight reticence to target the middle of the field, the actual target share his top tight ends have traditionally received is 15.5%, according to this excellent statistical deep-dive by Player Profiler.
Most attribute Wilson's purported middle-of-the-field avoidance to his 5-foot-11 height but it's a negligible inference. Wilson targets the open guy, or, perhaps better said, the best matchup.
Scanning across the Denver Broncos' 2022 roster, there is one weapon that rises to the top as the sleeper most likely to benefit from Wilson's arrival.
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.
Okwuegbunam's security as the Broncos' TE1 was made a bit precarious by the third-round selection of Greg Dulcich, but that storyline will soon fizzle as real football rolls around. That's not to say that Dulcich will be relegated to the bench — far from it. He'll be used.
But Okwuegbunam will be 'the guy' and as 'the guy,' he's this offense's biggest sleeper. Opponents already know what wideouts like Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and even Jerry Jeudy can do.
Sutton has a Pro Bowl on his resume, Patrick forged a reputation as a tenacious possession receiver who absolutely will not drop the ball, and Jeudy has a first-round, former Alabama draft pedigree that proceeds him during the work week. Accounting for this trio will consume the bulk of opponents' game-week preparation.
Okwuegbunam will fly under the radar — at least, initially. It won't last forever because Wilson will use Albert O to loosen defenses vertically.
The Broncos opted to hold onto Okwuegbunam and let Noah Fant go in the trade to Seattle to acquire Wilson. There are reasons for that and not all of them are due to the Seahawks' demands.
Despite being one inch taller than Fant, and nearly 10 pounds heavier, Okwuegbunam is the faster, more explosive player. One could argue that Fant is a smoother athlete but Okwuegbunam has already proven to be more dynamic.
At his height and weight, Okwuegbunam ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Combine, beating Fant by 1/10 of a second. We've seen Okwuegbunam's speed come out in the wash by way of many big plays downfield.
“He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to slowly develop and we’re very excited to see him work," Hackett said of Okwuegbunam earlier this offseason. "I remember watching the tape. He caught a short pass and just took off for a touchdown. I think it was like a 70-yarder or something like that. It was pretty impressive. [I’m] excited to get the ball in his hands.”
As a rookie, Okwuegbunam only appeared in two games before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. But in those two games, he made an impact, though he struggled in his NFL debut (with Fant injured) to hold onto the ball in a hostile environment at Gillette Stadium. Player Profile writes:
In his first game, Albert O commanded a 50.0-percent Target Rate, 25.0-percent Target Share, and 21.9-percent Air Yards Share while playing alongside Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick. He made it hard for Fant to reclaim his role in Week 7 by catching all seven targets at a 43.8-percent Target Rate. With 6.1 Yards After Catch Per Reception, it equates to 13.0 (No. 7) Fantasy Points. With Fant back at full health, Albert O took a backseat in Week 8. He then suffered an ACL tear in Week 9 that ended his rookie season.
The Broncos worked Okwuegbunam back to health and gradually introduced him to the offense in 2021. With Teddy Bridgewater under center for the majority of the season, and Fant still entrenched as the starter, Okwuegbunam still found ways to produce in one of the NFL's most anemic offenses.
Okwuegbunam finished his second year having played in 14 games (six starts), hauling in 33 receptions (on 40 targets) for 330 yards and two touchdowns. The difference between Okwuegbunam and Fant, as pass-catchers, was palpable.
While Fant would run a Pat Shurmur-schemed shallow route, catch the ball, and fall down, Okwuegbunam's results were usually quite different. Okwuegbunam would tenaciously fight for extra yards, using his size and power to bowl over would-be tacklers, and his speed and athletic twitchiness to evade them.
There are more clips of Okwuegbunam leaping over defenders last year than there are of Fant catching touchdowns. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But the ring of truth persists.
Wilson is going to have a heyday with Okwuegbunam. If you're tapping any one Bronco to be this offense's break-out player, look no further than Okwuegbunam.
Okwuegbunam will need to continue honing his craft as a blocker but that's not why the Broncos love him.
“He’s going to be one of those move tight ends," Hackett said of Albert O. “He’s going to be more of a receiver right now."
When it comes to projecting what the 2022 Broncos' offense might look like, whatever you do, be wary of buying into the 'Russ doesn't target tight ends' trope.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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