If it wasn’t obvious before, one of the main storylines emerging out of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis is that the Denver Broncos are hungry for offensive difference-makers. Having been linked to many of the top wide receivers in the 2020 draft class, such as Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and CeeDee Lamb, as well as some of the top tackles such as Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs, the scoop from the bars and loose lips (all too common in Indianapolis surrounding this event) is that the Broncos have the mandate to surround Drew Lock with better offensive talent heading into the NFL season.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a Broncos game over the last half-decade. With Denver’s offense ranked as the fifth-worst offense in the NFL in 2019 at 17.5 points per game and ranked as Football Outsiders’ seventh-worst offense in DVOA (with the 27th-ranked passing offense and 19th-ranked rushing offense) it is high time to turn the ship around.
It is only natural that in what is considered to be one of the most talented offensive draft classes in years, Denver seems to be zeroing in on prospects that can help the team put up points.
While the Broncos' offense has been rather abysmal over recent seasons, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Also coming out of Indianapolis is that folks around the league are mighty impressed with Lock and that Denver may have somewhat ‘lucked’ into a franchise quarterback with him falling all the way to pick 42.
Lock is also surrounded by a fairly exciting young core accumulated over the past few seasons such as emerging star Courtland Sutton, solid rookie OG Dalton Risner, and eye-popping TE Noah Fant. The NFL Combine is about the prospects at the event but at Vic Fangio’s annual presser, the Broncos’ head coach fielded a number of questions about the future in regards to the team's 2019 first-round pick.
Despite the hoopla surrounding rookies entering the league, the truth is the learning curve coming from the college game to the NFL is extremely difficult. What players are asked to do from a mental standpoint, on top of the massive jump in competition in their first professional year in playing the sport, often comes with a myriad of ups and downs.
This was no exception for Fant who had his own roller coaster of a rookie season. Despite some rookie mistakes both as a blocker and a receiver, Fant was able to accumulate 40 receptions for 562 yards and three touchdowns. While he may not have been a high-volume passing target, 25% of Fant’s receptions went for 15-plus yards showing the tantalizing big-play threat and matchup nightmare he can be at the NFL level.
As was often on display during his career as an Iowa Hawkeye, Fant is simply too much of an athletic freak for linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks to match up with on many snaps.
Almost one year ago to the day, Fant was putting on a show at Indianapolis. While not an absolute size freak such as Rob Gronkowski, Fant came in with average size at just over 6-foot-4 and just under 250 pounds. However, once the athletic tests were underway, jaws hit the ground as Fant checked in as an elite or better athlete at almost every single turn, coming in as a top-10 athlete for his ‘Relative Athletic Score’ or RAS.
While that athleticism did not always manifest itself on Sunday, the flashes were alluring, offering glimpses of insane athletic potential in today’s pass-heavy league.
It wasn’t always easy for Fant his rookie season, as is typical for rookie tight ends but Fangio offered words of optimism in his press conference in regards to Fant’s play his rookie season and going forward. When asked about the tight end’s season, Fangio was impressed by Fant's mental and physical mettle.
“He had his ups and downs," Fangio said on Tuesday from Indianapolis. "Some of those downs you didn’t see on the field. We saw them in meeting rooms and we saw them on the practice field. They never manifested themselves during a game. He just kept going. He never, ever got discouraged."
Fangio went on.
"When we had the illness going through the team last in the year, the trainers came up during lunch and said 'Noah isn’t able to go today we are going to keep him in.' Then I went out to practice and there he is. He just decided he was going to go out and do it. He got discouraged but never lost his fight.”
Fangio was also pressed on what Fant's role will be in the Broncos’ new offensive system. As it was reported that former OC Rich Scangarello pushed hard for Fant in the last draft cycle, how the player fits and is viewed by new OC Pat Shurmur could have major ramifications on his role and impact going forward.
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This may be a concern for some as the Kyle Shanahan offense run by (or attempted to be run by) Scangarello heavily features the tight end. Fangio was less than concerned, though, about Fant being integrated into the new system.
“Noah’s a good fit in anybody’s offense," Fangio said. "I think the biggest thing with Noah that we’ll see is I think he’ll make great improvements from year one to year two. He had a good season for us last year, but I expect him to even be better just from himself being more comfortable, more confident. He did get better as the season went on. I expect that to continue because he’s got the right mindset. The guy’s a worker, prideful. I think he would improve no matter what offense we have.”
The destiny of Lock and the Broncos’ offense likely depend on Fant taking that next step that Fangio alluded. Fortunately, this isn’t just a hypothetical ‘next step’ but something that is a very real phenomenon in the NFL for tight ends.
In a study conducted by Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske, breaking down the learning curve for all positions as they transition from college ball to the pros, one of the main findings was that tight ends indeed tend to struggle in their rookie seasons.
Tight ends apparently need a year to acclimate to the NFL, with tight ends struggling just a bit more in the first year. It's important to note we shouldn't read too much into the efficiency (the WAR per 100 snaps chart) — when there is such a huge discrepancy in snaps between the first and second year — because this indicates that tight ends who aren't yet ready to produce at a high level don't see the field. If these players received more snaps, the production per snap would most likely see a drop.
There are no guarantees in the National Football League. However, the data does seem to align with what Fangio and the Broncos are currently projecting — Fant is in line to breakout in his sophomore season and become a week-by-week problem for opposing defenses.
Yes, the Broncos need to find another wide receiver to partner with Sutton and yes, there is a need to scour the NFL free agency and the college ranks to help solidify the offensive line. However, depending on pricy free agents is always risky (see Ja’Wuan James) and just like Fant, depending on a rookie is often unrealistic given the amount of time it takes for them to catch up to the NFL game.
Instead, the Broncos’ biggest strides on offense will come from players already on the roster. Having one of the better young offensive cores in football, this isn’t as dreary as it may sound on the surface based on last year's statistical rankings.
Just as Sutton took a massive leap forward from his rookie-to-second-year campaigns, the Broncos are relying on Fant to do the same. If Fant can live up to (or perhaps even surpass) expectations, the Broncos’ offense may finally climb out of the muck and rise above their disparaging level of play over the past few seasons.
By all indication, 2020 is set to be the breakout year for Fant.