George Kittle's Example Could Set Broncos TE Noah Fant up for Success in Shurmur’s New Offense
As well-respected offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur touches down in the Mile High City following his failed second stint as an NFL head coach, hopes are high that he can further develop the young core of emerging talent on the Denver Broncos' roster. Clearly, the name that tops that list of priorities for Shurmur is quarterback Drew Lock.
"Obviously, the development of our young quarterback is going to be critical as we move forward," Shurmur told the team site last week. "And really, all of our players need to improve individually and then certainly do it as a group so that we can score points and help us win games.”
Vic Fangio’s fateful coaching decision was made with Lock in mind, as well as the team's wealth of young offensive talent.
Second on the list of young Broncos for Shurmur to improve will be tight end Noah Fant, who is poised to build on his record-setting rookie season. Fant’s new OC has plenty of past history coaching tight ends, both in the college ranks with Michigan State and in the NFL during his stops with Philadelphia and Minnesota.
Anyone associated with the Andy Reid coaching tree is in high-demand, due to his huge success with the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles before that. Shurmur served as an assistant to Reid during their days together with the Eagles and he is a student of Reid’s West Coast/power spread concepts, which he will now introduce to the Broncos' offense.
Shurmur was also a key figure during his time with the Minnesota Vikings by developing the young Kyle Rudolph into an elite-level NFL tight end. Under his tutelage in 2016, Rudolph posted a career-high 83 catches and became an integral part of the Vikings' offense.
Shurmur is likely to approach the development of a big athletic tight end such as Fant in exactly the same way. By working him into his multiple receiver sets and hoping he can break big plays in space and utilize his elite tackle-breaking skills and burst of speed.
This would offer a refreshing change from Rich Scangarello’s passive offensive mindset and justify Fangio’s change of play-caller, should Shurmur deliver positive results.
Fant is a product of the fertile NFL breeding grounds at the University of Iowa where tight ends have flourished in recent years, with San Francisco 49ers superstar George Kittle being the cream of the crop. Kittle’s rookie numbers are similar to what Fant produced — Kittle caught 43 balls for 515 yards compared to Fant’s 40 catches for 562 yards.
To carry on making easy comparisons of the pair from Iowa would be doing them a disservice as both entered the league with different expectations. Kittle fell to the fifth round in 2017, whereas Fant was taken at pick No. 20 in the first round last year.
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As a result, Kittle was allowed to develop without the added pressure and expectations that come with being a first-rounder, which was something Fant may have struggled with early in his rookie year. Tight end is a notoriously difficult position to pick up due to the role they have to play in both the blocking and route running aspects of the game, but as the 2019 season progressed, the rookie began to find his feet and his confidence grew.
It sets Fant up to make a bigger leap in the Broncos' new, more advanced system that will be run by Shurmur. If Fant can approach Kittle’s second-year quantum leap in production it would be a huge bonus for Shurmur’s offense.
Kittle saw his reception totals rocket from 43 to 88 and his yardage mark leap up to 1,377 from 515. Beyond his elite ability to catch the ball and screen defenders, he became, undoubtedly, the NFL’s premier blocking tight end.
There is no better player to mold oneself after than Kittle if you are an aspiring tight end, so if Fant is going to take the next step in his learning curve towards being an elite NFL player, he will be all-ears when his fellow Iowa alum touches base with him. Fant's relationship with Kittle is arguably stronger than just their Hawkeye ties.
“It’s almost like a big brother figure almost," Fant told NBC Sports last spring. "He does a great job of just staying in touch with me and I can tell he genuinely cares about how I’m doing."
That sharing of information and experiences will only benefit the younger tight end as he comes to terms with his expanding role in Denver and becomes a more established figure on the Broncos' roster. Pushing himself to reach the same exalted standards as his old College teammate is certainly a goal that’s worth continuing to pursue Fant.
“Been talking to George Kittle all the time and he’s a great guy," Fant told NBC. "I look up to him. He’s done a lot for me, keeping in touch and giving me advice. It inspires me, getting the opportunity to get into the NFL and do the same thing hopefully."
There is little doubt that Fant has the size and natural talent to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Kittle. With a new offense to learn in his all-important year two, it will require soaking up all the advice from as many knowledgeable sources as possible to maximize his huge potential.
If Fant can deliver on the promise shown as a rookie and keep learning from the best, the sky is the limit, especially in the Shurmur offense where athletic pass-catching tight ends can produce at a prolific rate.