One of the biggest blessings to come out of the Denver Broncos' preseason was the fact that the team avoided any major injuries. That being said, the ongoing absence of starting tight end Noah Fant has raised some concerns in recent days.
With the regular-season opener only days away, head coach Vic Fangio has been played down Fant’s absence from practice. Should the third-year tight end's injury prove to be more severe, Fangio was quick to extend a timely vote of confidence towards his potential replacement — Albert Okwuegbunam.
The Broncos drafted Okwuegbunam in the fourth round out of Missouri last year — after the front office checked with his college teammate Drew Lock and received an effusive recommendation — the tight end debuted for Denver in Week 6 on the road, helping lead the team to a win over the New England Patriots. Lock looked his way early and often once the rookie hit the field.
Okwuegbunam now has to overcome the dramatic demotion of his old college buddy and the tricky transition to holding a clipboard that might involve for Lock. But the second-year tight end expressed how excited he is to continue developing some chemistry with Lock’s replacement Teddy Bridgewater, and the opportunities that presents.
“I think it’s going to be—obviously it’s different just because I’ve had Drew as a quarterback since college, but I love Teddy as a quarterback,” Okwuegbunam enthused. “He’s thrown me a lot of good passes and I’m really excited to be catching hopefully a lot of touchdowns this season from him.”
When former GM John Elway drafted Okwuegbunam, the Broncos were already sold on the pass-catching chemistry he had enjoyed in college with Lock. At the NFL level, though, a tight end's willingness to put his hand in the dirt and do the dirty work counts as much as snagging passes.
Only a couple of weeks after his Week 6 debut, 'Albert O.' suffered an ACL tear and was lost for the year. How is the tight end's recovery looking and will he be ready to answer the bell in Fant's stead if the Broncos call on him?
“He’s ready, definitely ready," Fangio said after Thursday's practice. "He’s just picked up from where he left off last year. If you remember last year, he didn’t play much early, then he was starting to play more. [He was] playing [well], having success. He’s just picked up right from where he left off there.”
Fangio was quick to note that Okwuegbunam has already established a good grounding in what it takes to lock horns in blocking assignments and win the rep.
“He’s a much better blocker than I think people are aware of,” Fangio said. “We know he can catch, and he’s a good runner after the catch. I’m really excited about him.”
Final roster cuts saw the Broncos opt to keep four tight ends, with experienced blockers Eric Saubert and Andrew Beck providing invaluable depth. That’s probably a wise contingency plan should Fant indeed miss any time, but Albert O. feels the improvements he’s made have equipped him well to roll up his sleeves as a point-of-attack blocker.
“Well last year, I was able to block pretty well, especially a big improvement from college,” Okwuegbunam said on Thursday. “I was a little inconsistent in college, but last year I blocked well, and then this offseason, I’ve improved my technique and got even better.”
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