The Denver Broncos drafted Noah Fant with the 20th-overall pick in the NFL Draft in April with expectations of influencing its offense, which has struggled since the retirement of Peyton Manning in 2016.
Denver has not found that franchise tight end since Julius Thomas in 2014 and Owen Daniels in 2015. Thomas combined for 24 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, and Daniels is the last tight end for the Broncos to collect 500 receiving yards. No Broncos tight end has caught more than two touchdowns in a season and had more than 300 yards receiving.
But don’t get your hopes up for Fant to have a breakout rookie season.
Tight ends drafted in the first round have not traditionally panned out well in their first seasons. Since 2000 first-round tight ends have averaged 336.5 yards and 2.36 touchdown receptions in their first season. Only three tight ends have gone over the 500-yards-receiving mark, and only three tight ends have scored six touchdowns, which is the most among first-round draft picks. The most touchdowns caught by a tight end in his rookie year is 10 by Rob Gronkowski in 2010, who might go down as the greatest tight end ever. In 2002, Jeremy Shockey finished his rookie campaign with 894 yards, which is the most since 2000.
One would think tight ends drafted in the first round each year would end up leading their peers in receiving, but that hasn’t been the case. Only five first-round tight ends have led all rookie tight ends in receiving yards in the past 19 seasons.
Let’s look at Joe Flacco, who apparently loves throwing to his tight ends.
Flacco has played with seven rookie tight ends over his career in Baltimore and has never had one go for more than 300 yards in his rookie season. The 6-foot-6 gunslinger doesn’t target his young tight ends very often. Flacco has averaged only 21.8 targets per season to his rookie tight ends and only two have been targeted more than 30 times in a season. Only Maxx Williams has caught 30 or more passes in his first season, back in 2015. Of the seven tight ends Flacco has been with in their rookie seasons, only Mark Andrews has caught multiple touchdowns (two). The average number of receiving yards for Flacco’s seven rookie tight ends is 138.5 yards per season.
What about the offense that Rich Scangarello will be running this year in Denver? The first time playcaller, which is a huge red flag, will be running an offense more skewed around Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which has been effective over the years except for rookie tight ends. Of the years that Shanahan has been the offensive coordinator, only one rookie tight end has caught more than 500 yards, George Kittle in 2017. Kittle has now emerged as one of, if not the best, tight ends in all of football. Shanahan has had five tight ends in their rookie seasons, and none has caught more than three touchdown passes in that first year. The average receptions for a first-year tight end in the Shanahan offense is 22.8 per season along with only 271.6 yards and only 1.6 touchdowns.
Shanahan’s offense and Flacco are influenced by the tight end, with both averaging out to over 75 targets, 50 receptions, and between 530-640 yards per season with, at most, four touchdowns. But rookie tight ends don’t have the success fans are looking for right away in the NFL.
Also, realize that Noah Fant might not be the No. 1 tight end heading into the regular season, with Jeff Heuerman signing a two-year extension. Troy Fumagalli was a favorite target for Flacco in OTAs, and the return of Jake Butt from injury could impact Fant’s playing time.
My prediction for Fant in his rookie season: 28 receptions, 321 yards, and three touchdowns.