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Future Broncos: Outlining the 2019 NFL Draft’s tight end prospects

The Denver Broncos suffered a serious loss yesterday when Jake Butt tore his ACL. The current state of the Broncos’ depth chart at the position is a significant cause for concern and the team lacks a long-term difference maker at the position. Here are some prospects eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft who could help bolster the franchise’s group of tight ends.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Given the issues the Denver Broncos have had on defense early on this season, I had originally planned on an installment of this series focusing on defensive prospects that would help several of the franchise’s long-term needs on that side of the ball. However, yesterday’s news regarding tight end Jake Butt prompted interest in going another direction by focusing on the top prospects who are eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft at tight end.

Over the past four drafts, the Broncos have utilized a selection on a tight end in three of them. In 2015, they snagged Jeff Heuerman out of Ohio State. Two years later they selected Jake Butt out of Michigan. This past draft Denver opted for Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli. All three of them were highly-regarded players for their respective collegiate teams, but all had injury concerns which caused them to slide in the draft.

Unfortunately, those concerns followed them to the professional ranks, with each of them missing their rookie campaigns to recover from injury — and with Butt essentially missing two full seasons in the row due to ACL injuries. With that in mind, it’s obvious to observe that the current state of the Broncos’ tight end is a significant cause for concern. Jeff Heuerman and Matt LaCosse are currently the only two active tight ends on the roster, with Brian Parker residing on the team’s practice squad.

That may arguably be the least talented group in the entire league, so an infusion of talent whether through free agency or next year’s draft is paramount. Since Future Broncos is solely dedicated to draft prospects, I will keep my analysis to outlining some of the best prospects in the nation at the position from the collegiate ranks.

Noah Fant (Junior) — Iowa

As illustrated above, the Broncos have made the Big Ten Conference their recent pipeline for tight end prospects over the past several drafts. Coincidentally, the consensus number one prospect eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft is from the same conference. Who is that you ask? It is Noah Fant out of Iowa.

Playing primarily as a backup to George Kittle as a freshman in 2016, Fant impressed scouts during his sophomore season by reeling in 30 receptions for 494 and 11 touchdowns. His play earned him third-team All-Big Ten honors by the coaches and media. After a slow start to begin the year and issues with drops, Fant has started to pick up steam over the past two weeks. In four games, he has 15 catches for 169 yards and 4 touchdowns. With the 2019 NFL Draft lacking proven senior commodities at the position, Fant is regarded as the top underclassmen available and it’s easy to see why.

Experience as an in-line tight end? Check. Experience as a move tight end? Check. Showcasing his premier athleticism by lining up outside as a receiver? You bet. Not to mention, he is touted as the best tight end prospect Kirk Ferentz has ever coached. Now that’s saying something, especially when you realize how many former Iowa tight ends have been drafted in the nearly two decades he has been their head coach.

According to reports, Fant has broken a handful of drill records in his time with the Hawkeyes — most notably a 42 inch vertical leap that would have been best in that category at the NFL Combine over the past seven years. By all accounts, Fant has the potential to be a true difference maker and a match-up nightmare in the National Football League. That’s something you can’t say about anyone currently on the Broncos’ roster.

If Fant declares, he is a sure-fire bet to find a home somewhere in the first round. It may not be the “popular” choice for most fans, but he certainly merits consideration and would provide the franchise with an All-Pro caliber talent at the position. With significant upgrades at running back and wide receiver, adding a blue-chip prospect like Fant to the offense would open up a whole new dimension to their game that has been missing for years. What’s not to like about that?

If you want to take a closer look at Fant, you can see him in action a week from tomorrow against the Minnesota Gophers on October 6.

Albert Okwuegbunam (RS Sophomore) — Missouri

For as impressive as Fant was last season with the Hawkeyes, another young tight end was equally as productive in his first year on the field. Enter Missouri redshirt sophomore Albert Okwuegbunam, who became a red zone and third-down favorite of quarterback Drew Lock in his first campaign. He amassed 29 catches for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference, proving that despite his youth — he was ready to play at a high level.

His big play ability hasn’t been on display as much in four games this year, with his yard per reception average nearly half of what it was in 2017. Nevertheless, he has been a reliable target and consistent chain-mover for the Tigers racking up 23 catches, 181 yards and 2 touchdowns to date. At 6’5 and 250 pounds, Okwuegbunam has the size to create problems at the next level and offers top-tier athletic traits, but isn’t nearly as refined as Fant is as a prospect. A weak crop of senior talent at the position, as well as Lock’s entrance into this year’s draft may signal an early declaration from the talented player.

You can see him in action this Saturday morning when the Tigers take on the South Carolina Gamecocks.

You Can’t Forget About

Caleb Wilson (Junior) — UCLA

A favorite of current Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen, Wilson was on pace for a larger impact in respect to yardage and receptions than either Fant or Okwuegbunam in 2017. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken foot in his fifth game of the year against Colorado and missed the rest of the season. But in those five games, Wilson was dominant and hauled in 38 receptions for 490 yards and a touchdown. Wilson has good athletic traits and a knack for getting open, but leaves a lot to be desired as a blocker. Playing in only two games this year, he has 8 receptions for 128 yards.

C.J. Conrad (Senior) — Kentucky

Like Wilson, Conrad’s 2017 campaign ended early due to a foot injury. In only seven games he had 16 receptions for 286 yards and four touchdowns. Fans of the Wildcat senior praise him often, referencing his top-notch blocking skills and big-play ability as a receiver. Conrad is known for his versatility and ability to play as an in-line and move tight end. In four games this year, Conrad hasn’t had much of an impact and has been underutilized with just 10 receptions for 58 yards. However, he has played a key role in springing big runs for Benny Snell Jr., Terry Wilson and Asim Rose.

Honorable Mention

Logan Parker (Senior) — Southern Utah

Kaden Smith (Junior) — Stanford

Tommy Sweeney (Senior) — Boston College


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