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Broncos roster review: tight end Albert Okwuegbunam

The Broncos’ “other” freaky tight end.

NFL: OCT 18 Broncos at Patriots
If Albert O can return to form, the Broncos’ tight ends are going to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s typically wise to approach players without a whole lot of tape with a healthy degree of skepticism, but I’m going to make an exception for Albert Okwuegbunam. If he can get back to healthy, I believe the second year tight end from Missouri is going to be a “secret” star this year.

Albert Okwuegbunam’s profile

Height: 6’5”
Weight: 258 lbs
Age: 23
Experience: 2

Lost amidst the plague of injuries that haunted the 2020 Broncos, Okwuegbunam only suited up for four games last season. With a tight end room that included Noah Fant, Nick Vannet, Andrew Beck, and Jake Butt, Albert O was a healthy scratch early in the year. The lack of OTAs and a missing preseason played into this, as it offered the rookie few opportunities to prove he’d grown enough as a blocker to alleviate Fangio’s concerns from training camp.

“Obviously, he’s got some good receiving abilities. We have to find out what kind of blocker he is. A big part of being a competent blocker is a mentality to want to block. As a tight end, a lot of times when you do block you’re having to block good players. A good bit of that is want to and toughness. We’re trying to figure that out with him to see if he has that part of his game.”

When an ankle injury forced Fant to miss the Broncos’ game against the New England Patriots, it opened the door for Okwuegbunam to prove himself. While the box score doesn’t do him many favors, he created a stir that day in Foxboro. He played 38 snaps and caught two of the six passes in his direction for 45 yards, but the two missed touchdown grabs really hit home how big of a mismatch factor he could become.

The Good

A very good athlete with good agility, quickness, explosiveness, and balance, Okwuegbunam’s too big for most defensive backs and too fast for the most linebackers. That he combines this with very good play strength makes him a load to bring down and a promising blocker. In short, he’s got tantalizing potential. Capable of lining up along the line of scrimmage or off it, in the slot, or split out wide Okweugbunam can create conflicts for a defense regardless of where he lines up.

It seems easy to overlook because it isn’t the flashy part of a tight end’s job description, but blocking will be a vital component to Okwuegbunam’s future. The Broncos’ offense will utilize three receiver sets on roughly two thirds of their snaps. With Fant locked into the top spot on the depth chart, he isn’t going to cede snaps if he’s healthy, so the vast majority of Albert O’s reps will come out of heavier personnel groups. He needs to be a viable blocker for Pat Shurmur to justify taking that third receiver off the field.

If the limited tape from his rookie season is any hint, Okwuegbunam’s provided a startling level of growth in this area since his collegiate days. I suspect time under Mike Munchak has played a role, and it leaves me excited to see how he continues to improve.

As a receiver, the big knock on Okwuegbunam coming out of college was that he didn’t do enough to create separation in his routes. Shurmur didn’t ask a ton from him in this area across the four games he played, but I found the improvement he showed in this area encouraging. The rookie clearly took NFL coaching to heart last season.

The Bad

Beyond Fangio’s comments, the way Okwuegbunam was used once he found his way to the field suggests the Broncos’ coaching staff believed blocking was a real work in progress as he was rotated out of the more obvious run situations in the first game. While part of this may be due to Shurmur’s faith Vannett to block, it also hints that there was concern about how the rookie would hold up. Once Fant returned for the game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Okwuegbunam was relegated to the third tight end spot. He rotated in for passing downs and when the Broncos went with 13 personnel.

Due to the torn ACL four games into his time on the gameday roster, we’ve only seen Okwuegbunam play 86 NFL snaps. For comparison’s sake, Fant missed the Pats’ game and rotated more than planned because of nagging injuries and still logged 733 snaps last year.

The lack of reps doesn’t just mean I’m writing Okwuegbunam’s evaluation off of limited exposure to his tape, it also means he didn’t have a real chance to learn from a wide variety of matchups or any sort of extensive study on his own performance. To continue on the early trajectory he hinted at, he’ll need to regain his pre-injury form and continue to iron out the less heralded nuances to his position while the coaching staff keeps him on a pitch count. It’s a tough ask.

Outside of the Pats’ game, Okwuegbunam caught 100% of his targets, but his first action also stands out as the one game where he was really asked to make his quarterback right in contested situations. I believe his hands are good and he has the hand-eye coordination to adjust to scattershot accuracy, but want to see more.

Albert Okwuegbunam’s roster status with the Broncos

I would be floored if Albert O doesn’t make the roster as it suggests a complete failure during his rehabilitation. Barring something like that, Okwuegbunam looks like a hard lock for the second tight end spot behind Noah Fant. From there it’s up to him to prove he’s too good to take off the field. For all of Shurmur’s affinity for three receiver sets, he also likes two tight end sets. 12 personnel was the Broncos’ second most utilized personnel grouping a year ago, so he should have opportunities.

While his small resume so far creates enough unknown to warrant reasonable caution, there aren’t many young Broncos I’m more excited about than Albert Okwuegbunam. If he and Fant can continue to ascend from what we last saw of them, the Broncos may soon have the best tight end tandem in the NFL.