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GIF Horse: Fact, Fiction, and Noah Fant

Digging into the narratives around the Broncos’ tight end.

It isn’t difficult to make an argument that Noah Fant was among the Broncos’ most polarizing players in 2019. He was acquired after John Elway traded down from 10th overall, which all but handed Devin Bush to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first play of his NFL career was a five-yard loss on a TE end around. At points during his rookie campaign the “B” word was thrown around, so it seemed like a good time to dig into some of the prevalent narratives and if there’s anything we can glean as Broncos’ Country looks forward to Fant’s second season.

To call Fant's rookie season a roller coaster ride would be a massive understatement.
To call Fant’s rookie season a roller coaster ride would be a massive understatement.

“Noah Fant can’t catch.”

I’ve heard variations of this since the beginning of the season. The murmurs reached a fever pitch around the Week 6 game against the Tennessee Titans when Fant missed a throw that was intercepted. I mentioned at the time and since that by failing to step into his throw and open his hips, Joe Flacco short-armed the ball and that it’d be extremely difficult for any receiver to A) sense that and B) slowdown midstride in time to be able to haul in the pass.

Joe Flacco didn't make Fant's life easier in 2019.
Joe Flacco didn’t make Fant’s life easier in 2019.

This isn’t meant as an excuse for the rookie so much as a glaring example of the kind of quarterback play Fant and the Broncos’ receivers had to deal with for the vast majority of 2019. Not only did Flacco routinely shirk from pressure, but time and again he was late to anticipate his receivers breaking open. If the veteran found them at all, he often put them in situations where Fant (and others) were forced to make tougher catches than necessary.

Joe Flacco gave way to Brandon Allen, who’s viability as a starting NFL quarterback can best be described “unlikely.” The former Ram locked onto his primary read, fluttered under pressure, and lacked the arm strength to beat breaking defensive backs if he was late to rip the cord. Fant’s targets against the Minnesota Vikings highlight what life was like with a career 46.4% completion passer.

Fant hauled in just 57.7% of his targets during the first 12 weeks of 2019. Even while dealing with hip, foot, and shoulder injuries, he upped that total to 71% after Lock made his first start.

While I believe he can improve his concentration when there are bodies around him in order to better maximize the issues his size and speed create, the tape didn’t reveal to me an athlete who’s anything less than a natural hands catcher.

“Fant was bad in the redzone”

Over 16 games, Fant caught just one of nine targets inside opposing 20-yard lines in 2019. That’s abysmal, but the stat doesn’t tell the full story. Flacco threw to Fant just twice inside the 20 over the first eight games of the season, and one of them was a deflection.

Hard to catch a pass if it never reaches you.
Hard to catch a pass if it never reaches you.

Another iffy target happened in the Vikings game when Brandon Allen threw across his body rolling left, which caused the ball to be off target and late.

Can't catch targets that hit the ground first.
Can’t catch targets that hit the ground first.

Even Drew Lock got in on the bad target action as he was forcing the ball to Fant on his horrific interception against the Kansas City Chiefs.

This is an inexcusable throw.
This is an inexcusable throw.

Receivers can only do so much when they’re given bad looks, which isn’t to excuse Fant altogether. It is notable that Scangarello and the Broncos’ coaching staff didn’t make him a featured weapon near the goal line. I suspect part of this is tied to concerns over his ability to play “bully ball” or box out defenders to bring in passes in tight quarters. The Vikings game provides a clear example of this:

Fant needs to do a better job of using his physicality to win when he's isolated on an overmatched opponent.
Fant needs to do a better job of using his physicality when he’s isolated on a smaller opponent.

I hate fade routes more than your average NFL film nerd because they’re such a low percentage pass, but the 6-foot-4 250-pound Fant should be able to put up more of a fight at the catch point on third and goal with the game on the line. This is an area where Fant needs to improve in his second season, but he’s almost to post better numbers if only because he’ll receive better looks.

Noah Fant had a disappointing rookie season.”

Jeffrey Essary and I discussed this on this week’s Cover 2 Broncos . There are just 35 tight ends all-time who have 500 or more receiving yards in their first season. Mike Ditka is the only to ever exceed 1,000 receiving yards. While I believe he should have had one or even two more, Fant’s three TDs are tied for 9th best all-time for rookie tight ends.

“Noah Fant will break out under Pat Shurmur.”

There may not be a player on the Broncos’ offense who benefited from the offensive coordinator change more than Noah Fant. Under Rich Scangarello, Fant moved around some but found himself spending a ton of time inline.

While he’s a better blocker than generally given credit for, asking him to down block an Edge player is not the best use of his skill set. Asking him to pass block that same Edge player is a recipe for disaster, something Broncos’ Country saw firsthand in Week 2.

It’s a bit simplistic, but Fant played the George Kittle type of role last season and going forward he’ll do a mean Evan Engram impression for Pat Shurmur. While both are tight ends, they’re very different players and the switch makes a ton of sense. Kittle is a traditional inline tight end, or Y. He blocks like a tackle and is burly enough in his routes to haul in passes even when there isn’t more than a sliver of separation. Under Shurmur, Engram was an F, what some call a flex, joker, or move tight end.

Already an elite athlete, Fant displayed game-breaking speed and explosiveness last year. Two of his touchdowns were simply monster plays after the catch where he ran by or through defenders to reach the end zone. Shurmur’s role for Engram hints that Fant will see more snaps as a detached receiver in passing sets, and play off the line of scrimmage more often when the Broncos come out in more traditional looking two tight end personnel packages.

I also expect Fant to see a huge uptick in his snaps on the backside of 3X1 sets, similar to how Andy Reid uses Travis Kelce with the Chiefs. Having Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler to one side with Noah Fant alone on the other forces defenses to make a choice with how they defend the Broncos’ targets and make disguises harder to pull off, making Drew Lock’s job that much easier.

Shurmur likes to utilize three receiver sets. Sometimes with his tight end attached to the backside, sometimes flexed out.
Shurmur likes to utilize three receiver sets. Sometimes with his tight end attached to the backside, sometimes flexed out.

All in all, Shurmur should better utilize Fant’s strengths in space, and I can’t wait to see it in action. The 22-year-old needs to continue getting stronger and tie his hands and feet together more consistently to hold up as a blocker, but his athleticism and route running should help him explode in the new offense.