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Breaking down the Broncos’ tight end room

Can Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam become the best TE duo in the NFL?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos
Can Fant reach the next level in year 3?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This time last year the Broncos’ TE room was very crowded. With Noah Fant coming off what was a promising albeit bumpy rookie season, the Broncos carried eight TEs into camp after cutting Jeff Heuerman after the draft. Five made the final roster - Noah Fant, rookie Albert Okwuegbunam, Jake Butt, Nick Vannett, and Andrew Beck.

This year things are a little less crowded, though there’s certainly a few questions to answer. One we don’t need to wonder about is if Pat Shurmur will utilize his tight ends. He will.

In the three years before he joined the Broncos, Shurmur’s TEs averaged 4.97 receptions a game for 51.3 yards. They averaged 821.33 yards and 7 TDs a season. This production occurred across two teams and four different starting quarterbacks.

Last year Broncos’ tight ends finished the season with 97 receptions for 974 yards, and six touchdowns. Fant led the team in receptions despite fighting through pain for most of the year. He finished with 62 receptions for 673 yards and three touchdowns while missing all but five plays in two games and spending three contests with Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien.

The 2019 first-round pick is clearly the top dog on the depth chart. An elite athlete with good play strength, natural hands, and the kind of explosiveness to make him a monster after the catch, Fant looks set to blossom into one of the best tight ends in the league this season if health, luck and quarterback play work in his favor.

Can Albert O return to health?

Arguably the biggest question facing this group in 2021 is the status of Albert Okwuegbunam. A college teammate of Drew Lock’s at Missouri, Albert O was a fourth round pick last season after finishing his college career with 23 touchdown receptions. It took him time to get to the field, and an early injury limited him to just four games, but his play exceeds the modest box score numbers. He was very, very promising.

Standing 6-foot-5 and almost 260 pounds, Okwuegbunam is an inch taller and roughly 10 pounds heavier than Fant, but every bit the freak athlete. He combines very good play strength with the kind of agility, explosiveness, and balance to make him a potential nightmare for defenders. In limited action last season he showed promising growth as a blocker and route runner. If he can step back in and continue his development, Shurmur will have a ton of flexibility with his young tight ends because both can play all across the formation and create mismatch issues.

Fangio was asked if he expected rehabbing players to be ready for camp and it sounds like Albert O will need a ramp-up period, which isn’t a big surprise.

“I think most everybody will be ready by the start of camp. Some guys will have to curtail their work such as ‘Albert O’ (TE Albert Okwuegbunam). Probably [CB Essang] Bassey will not be working by the start of camp. When I say working, [I mean] working in team drills and those types of things. [WR] Courtland [Sutton] will be working. He won’t be on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) [list], but we’ll be managing him. [CB] Duke [Dawson Jr.] will probably not be working by then yet. Other than those two, everybody will be working and ready to go.”

New faces

Eric Saubert

The first player drafted from Drake since Pat Dunsmore in 1983, Saubert entered the NFL as a 2017 fifth round pick by the Atlanta Falcons before he bounced around the league. He was traded to the New England Patriots for a conditional seventh rounder in 2019, but didn’t make the final roster. After making it through waivers, he signed with the Oakland Raiders practice squad before the Chicago Bears added him to their active roster in November. His time in the Windy City came to an end last September when he was cut and eventually found his way to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Saubert signed with the Broncos shortly after the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s played in 40 NFL games to date with five starts. He’s logged 1,011 snaps in games so far, with roughly a third of them coming on offense and the rest on special teams. Across his professional career to date, the 6-foot-5, 253-pound tight end has 10 receptions for 85 yards. His next NFL touchdown will be his first.

Shaun Beyer

A 24-year old undrafted free agent rookie from Iowa, Beyer became a reliable blocker for the Hawkeyes after making the change from high school receiver to tight end during his redshirt year. A four-sport standout in high school who participated in basketball, wrestling, track, and football, Beyer brings solid athletic tools to the room despite his very limited collegiate production.

When the Broncos gave Beyer the second-highest guarantees of any UDFA from the 2021 class, it signaled they see him as the replacement for the since departed Nick Vannett. A good blocker who needs to answer questions about his route running ability and hands, the rookie looks like a realistic competitor for the active roster and could contribute as an inline blocker and special teamer. In time he could develop into a flexible tight end who can contribute on the line of scrimmage or in the backfield and serve as a reliable outlet receiver.

How will the depth battle play out?

Albert O’s surgically repaired knee could change things if there are any setbacks in his recovery during camp, but a look back at Shurmur’s rosters since 2017 suggests the Broncos will carry three “true” tight ends on the final roster. Fant is a lock and it’s hard to imagine Okwuegbunam doesn’t make the final roster barring some sort of disaster. A preseason battle between Saubert, Beyer, and Austin Fort looks like it will determine who the third tight end is.

Fort is a former QB who converted to a TE in 2017. A UDFA out of Wyoming in 2019, Fort impressed during camp and had a really nice preseason game against the Seahawks, but wound up tearing his ACL. He’s spent the last two seasons on Injured Reserve. He’s a receiving tight end who needs to improve as a blocker. Already 26. He’s at the mercy of what Shurmur wants from his TE room this year. I’m dubious about his chances because he’s not a true inline TE.

Whether Shurmur considers him a tight end or not, the other spot in this room looks like it will come down to Andrew Beck or undrafted free agent rookie Adam Prentice. Regardless of the fact he rarely uses a traditional fullback on offense, Shurmur has carried one onto his final roster two of the last three years. The fact Beck brings the versatility to play off the line of scrimmage or in the backfield seems to give him an advantage over the competition.