Broncos' 2020 Roster Report Card: Grading the Tight Ends
If you thought the Denver Broncos had a logjam at tight end last season, wait til you get a load of the 2020 roster. Replete with a litany of former John Elway draft picks, the Broncos' tight end room has the potential to be one of the team's bright spots this coming season.
One of the challenges of trying to predict which tight ends have a spot on the 2020 roster is the fact that the Broncos hired a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur. Last year, Denver kept four tight ends on the 53-man roster on opening week.
However, Shurmur's scheme is not very tight end-centric. Rarely does he utilize 2-TE sets, like, say, the Gary Kubiaks or Mike Shanahans of yore.
Shurmur runs 11-personnel as his base offense (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). About the only time the coach deploys 2-TE sets or jumbo packages is in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Last year, as head coach of the New York Giants, Shurmur kept just three tight ends on the active roster to open the season. The year prior, he kept four.
While draft pedigree often dictates roster math at a given position, this time around, that strategy won't help every tight end on the roster. Undoubtedly, the Broncos will have to cut at least one recent draft pick at tight end — maybe even more.
Today, I'm breaking down exactly what the Broncos have in their tight ends heading into 2020 and grading the position.
First, the names, which will be split up into three categories: roster locks, viable backups, and bubble guys. Let's get started.
The Names: Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Nick Vannett.
Fant is the former first-rounder and arguably the crown jewel of the room. One year removed from producing franchise-record numbers as a rookie tight end, all eyes are on Fant to take a quantum leap forward in 2020.
As an athletic, dynamic pass-catching tight end that Coach Shurmur craves in his offense, Fant fits the bill to a T. He's also enough of a willing blocker to get the job done and plausibly sell to opposing defenses that the next play could very well be a run. In the same way that WR Courtland Sutton leaped forward in his second year, Fant has the chance to follow suit.
Next is this year's fourth-round draft pick in Okwuegbunam — a college teammate of QB Drew Lock's. That's not the only reason Okwuegbunam landed in Denver.
No, Albert O. (4.49s) has the rare distinction of actually running faster than Fant (4.5s) did at the NFL Combine. Fant's speed translates to the field, as evidenced by a few big plays he produced as a rookie, including a 75-yard catch-and-run for six points in Week 9.
Okwuegbunam still has to prove that his speed can also translate. The rookie arrived in Denver a couple of weeks back and has been pictured in the unofficial workouts organized by Lock, alongside Fant. Albert O. has a lot of upside but unless something befalls Fant on the health front or Okwuegbunam develops lightning-fast into a bonafide blocker, it's hard to see him having much of an impact in 2020, especially considering Coach Shurmur's predilection for having only one tight end on the field at a time.
The other newcomer at the tight end position this year — Vannett — is included as a 'roster lock' but even as I write this I'm having my doubts about the veracity of such an assertion. Ultimately, money talks and Vannett was just signed this past March to a two-year, $5.7 million contract.
Vannett got $2.5M guaranteed, which isn't nothing, but if he fails to impress in training camp, the dead-money hit isn't so prohibitive as to completely paralyze the team from moving on. However, that would only happen if either 1.) Vannett vastly fails to deliver or 2.) a couple of other tight ends clearly out-play him in camp and preseason.
Vannett is pretty much a lock, though. Denver would have to take a $2.5M dead money hit this year and another $875K next year if he were cut.
The Names: Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli, and Andrew Beck.
Heuerman tops this list because of his veteran experience and relative ability to both catch and block. However, the caveat with Heuerman is the fact that, even though he's playing on his second contract with the team, Denver just signed Vannett and drafted another tight end, which is an indictment on the incumbent.
If Heuerman fails to rise to the occasion, the Broncos can release him this summer with only a $500K dead-cap hit while freeing up $3.875M in cap space. That's a healthy incentive to ice him out, especially in light of the Vannett addition. Odds are, Heuerman's days in Denver are numbered.
Fumagalli was a 2018 fifth-round pick who medically red-shirted his rookie year (sports hernia). Last year, he made the roster out of camp and stuck all season long but he was far from impressive, despite catching his first and only NFL touchdown pass.
The previous Broncos coaching regime got to handle Fumagalli at the 2018 Senior Bowl, which no doubt played a big role in the team drafting him out of Wisconsin later that spring. Unfortunately for him, that regime is gone and with two full years in the Broncos' system, he's yet to impress anyone.
Beck, meanwhile, was claimed off waivers on the doorstep of the season-opener last year and went on to carve himself out a nice role on the Broncos offense as a backup tight end and fill-in fullback. Beck earned a lot of admirers along the way, including TEs Coach Wade Harman.
Of all the tight ends listed in this category and the one I'll get to next, Beck is the one I see as being most likely to force the Broncos hand in carrying four tight ends on the 53-man roster. Then again, with the new CBA, the Broncos can activate two players off the practice squad on each gameday (only to have to send them back down the next day) and it would be a shock if the team didn't use this new loophole to manage its logjam at tight end.
The Names: Jake Butt and Austin Fort.
Butt is the guy to watch here. If he can prove his health and stay on the field, Butt will leapfrog everyone on the 'viable backup' list and vie for a 53-man roster spot. For those of you shaking your head as you read this, remember, the Broncos have kept Butt around for a reason.
Elway loves him. The Broncos have been exceedingly long-suffering with regard to Butt, who was a Day 2-caliber prospect in the 2017 draft but fell to Day 3 because of a torn ACL suffered in Michigan's bowl game. Denver took a chance on him knowing he'd have to red-shirt his rookie year in the belief that he'd be the team's future at the position.
The injury bug had different designs, alas. Butt appeared in the first three games of his second season, which was encouraging, before promptly suffering yet another ACL tear — this time in practice. The Broncos' Week 3 loss to Baltimore in 2018 (remember, the one where Phillip Lindsay was ejected for throwing a punch in a pile?) was Butt's last regular-season appearance.
Butt tried to get rehabbed and up to speed in time to make the 2019 roster, and even appeared in Game 3 of the preseason where he looked solid, but his knee swole up on him the next day and the Broncos shut him down for the year — ending his third year before it even began.
All-in, Butt is entering the fourth and final year of his contract and has only appeared in those three 2018 games. So why have the Broncos bothered to keep him around, in the system, nurturing him and committing resources to rehab him? Because they love him.
If he can stay on the field this summer, the Broncos will find a way to keep him around. But let's face it. That's a big, ginormous, gargantuan 'if'.
Meanwhile, there's Fort — who went undrafted out of Wyoming last year and really impressed as a college free agent in training camp. But the injury bug jumped up and bit him in the preseason, putting the kybosh on the momentum his underdog NFL career had built up.
If Fort is healthy, he'll find a way to flash. But he's the type of player, due to a lack of draft pedigree, that would have to basically double the production, or play twice as well as a Okwuegbunam, Fumagalli, or Butt, in order to leapfrog any of them in the pecking order. That doesn't mean it can't happen but it's very unlikely.
This group could end up making an A+ impact because there's so much talent here and so many team resources invested in it. The tight ends ultimately get a B because the two most 'proven' players (Vannett/Heuerman) are average at best.
Potential is the name of the game for the Broncos' tight ends. Fant's first year was absolutely encouraging but there were enough valleys in between the peaks to warrant at least a few misgivings.
Vannett and/or Heuerman can get the job done as the veteran to be rostered that can wear either the receiver or the blocker hat. But neither moves the needle in terms of expecting a dynamic contribution.
That element lies in the likes of Okwuegbunam and Butt, and to a lesser degree, maybe Beck and Fumagalli. Like their wideout brethren, the onus is on the young tight ends and Coach Harman to convert this unit's potential into production on the field.
There's enough talent here to make up mostly for the tight ends' relative lack of NFL experience. Thanks to the presence of Fant, this group stays in the plus-column by way of a positional grade.
What is your grade for the Broncos tight ends? Sound off in the comment section below!