When the Denver Broncos drafted tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round last year, there was a perception that his selection was a result of his collegiate friendship with quarterback Drew Lock. But as soon as the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Illinois native arrived in training camp, it became glaringly obvious that he has significant playmaking potential.
Okwuegbunam saw his first significant playing time in Week 6 on the road at New England but it was during the Broncos' 21-point comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers that the rookie made his first big-game impact. Fans remember Lock delivering a dime in the end zone to rookie wideout KJ Hamler on the final play of the game for the win.
But it was Okwuegbunam's presence of mind that ultimately drew a pass interference penalty during the previous fourth-down play that put the ball on the 1-yard line, giving Denver new life. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the big tight end drew another PI penalty that ultimately led to a defensive collapse for Los Angeles.
Just as Okwuegbunam was gaining momentum, everything came screeching to a halt when he suffered a torn ACL in a Week 9 game against the Atlanta Falcons, derailing the 22-year-old's rookie season. All in, he appeared in four games and logged 11 receptions on 15 targets for 121 yards, six first downs, and one touchdown.
Last week, Okwuegbunam shared his initial reaction to the devastating injury with the team website.
"It was unfortunate, just because I really felt myself improving every week," Okwuegbunam told Aric DiLalla. "I'm a super positive person, so as soon as it happened, I was just super forward-thinking and thinking, 'What are the positives I can take from this and how I can move forward?' That was just kind of reflecting on my rookie season, and I feel like a big takeaway from it was just the confidence it instilled in myself that I have the ability to be a playmaker in this league, and I think that was the silver lining. From that point on it was just, 'How can I get better?'"
Albert O revealed that he’s approximately 12 weeks removed from his knee surgery and is currently progressing. "Rehab has been a great process for me," Okwuegbunam told DiLalla. “I had a great start and no real problems with rehab. It's been pretty smooth, so just getting better every day. … Surgery was fine. That was my first surgery ever, so I was kind of nervous about that, but that was super smooth, it was good."
Okwuegbunam shared that he’s even started running on an anti-gravity treadmill. Paired with a treatment plan from Broncos’ trainers and physicians, he feels that he’s on track to return for training camp.
Nicknamed ‘Albert O’ by his friends and teammates, the 2-time All-SEC second-team tight end showed flashes of surreal athleticism and route running in college. Although his exceptional speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash) and impressive receiving ability, his raw skill-set and blocking inconsistencies revealed the glaring need for improvement as a prospect.
However, some NFL people, like former Broncos tight end Byron Chamberlain, feel that a healthy combination of Noah Fant and Okwuegbunam can be a top duo in the league. Last summer, Chamberlain — a two-time Super Bowl Champion and teammate of Shannon Sharpe — said, “These guys have as much ability as Kittle and Kelce have."
With surgery in the books and rehab well underway, there should be an expectation for Okwuegbunam to have a comeback year in 2021.
"With me and Noah on the field, we both create so many mismatch problems," Okwuegbunam told the team site. "I really look forward to that in the future, just being out there together and giving defenses a hard time. I feel like we definitely have the ability to be a real force and real strong duo in this league."
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