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Training Camp 2020: Previewing the Broncos tight ends

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Is this the season the Broncos get back to their winning ways? Last year, in the first season with Vic Fangio as their head coach, the Broncos finished one game below .500 with a 7-9 record. They did finish the season strong, going 4-1 over the final five games of the regular season. That finish has given fans hope that this team is finally on the right track and can perhaps even make a postseason run – especially with the league expanding the playoffs by one team in each conference.

During the last three years, the Broncos have drafted well, and this roster has talented players on both sides of the ball. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.

This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the tight end position.

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Starter: Noah Fant

Noah Fant was the Broncos first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he produced an up-and-down rookie season in Denver. Fant did flash big-time ability as a receiving threat, but there were games where his concentration seemed to be off. Add in the fact that his blocking is a work in progress, and you can see how Fant is far from a finished product.

Tight ends usually take time to get going in the NFL, but Fant put up some solid numbers for a rookie at the position. He played a full 16-game season, was targeted 66 times, snaring 40 passes for 562 receiving yards and three touchdowns. As a rookie, Fant had two 100-yard games and went over 50 yards receiving on four occasions. It was feast-or-famine with Fant’s production, but one can project that his consistency will be better as his career continues.

Fant does a great job of getting to top speed in a hurry. This makes him a seam-ripper down the middle of the field, but it also benefits him when he snares a short catch that he can turn into a long gain. Linebackers are too slow to hang with Fant down the field, and safeties are too small to cover him with any sort of consistency when Fant is playing at the top of his game.

With the tight end position becoming more of a receiving weapon than ever before, it’s important for quarterback Drew Lock to get Fant jumpstarted early in a game. If Fant is dialed in, then it’s incredibly difficult to cover him based on his natural skill set.

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Reserves: Nick Vannett, Albert Okwuegbunam, Andrew Beck, Troy Fumagalli, Jake Butt, Austin Fort

The Broncos went out in free agency to add veteran tight end Nick Vannett. He was a third-round pick out of Ohio State in the 2016 NFL Draft, and he was a college teammate (and essentially a clone) of former Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman. I believed Vannett had more upside as a pass-catcher than Heuerman did for the Buckeyes, but Vannett has done little as a pro when it comes to catching the ball.

He’s played for the Seahawks (the team that drafted him) and last year spent about half the season with the Steelers. In four seasons as a pro, Vannett only has 61 catches for 591 yards and four touchdowns. As you can see, Vannett has not developed into the receiving weapon that some (myself included) thought he might be.

Vannett is huge, measuring in at 6-foot-6, and he should be more of a threat because of that size. Instead, Vannett has been used more as a blocking tight end during his pro career. It pains me to write this, but Vannett is basically the new version of Heuerman – a big-bodied blocker who won’t do much as a receiver.

The Broncos did quarterback Drew Lock a solid when they selected his former college teammate, Albert Okwuegbunam, in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In two seasons at Missouri playing together, Lock and Okwuegbunam hooked up for a whopping 17 touchdowns. He is a big target who is faster and stronger than Fant. Okwuegbunam can work well as a blocker, but he’s most dangerous as a receiving threat – especially with that nose for the end zone. Some scouts I talk to feel that Okwuegbunam would have been a top-50 pick had he come out with Lock in 2019. He’s a value pick for the Broncos who could rise up the depth chart as his pro career develops.

Andrew Beck was picked up as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2019. The Patriots added him after the draft, but he failed to make the team and was released at final cuts. The Broncos picked him up off waivers and soon Beck found himself on the field for the team. He played primarily as a blocking tight end and H-back for the Broncos, catching nine passes for 90 yards and one touchdown on the season (in nine games). With the team trading fullback Andy Janovich away, Beck should make the final roster this year as a fullback, H-back and blocking tight end.

A fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin in the 2018 NFL Draft, Troy Fumagalli has done little in his pro career. He missed his entire rookie season in 2018, but was able to get on the field for six games in 2019. Fumagalli has strong hands and is mostly a receiving option as he’s not yet much of a blocker. In those six contests last year, Fumagalli was targeted just nine times and had only six catches for 38 yards and one touchdown. With the addition of Vannett in free agency and the selection of Okwuegbunam in the 2020 NFL Draft, the chances of Fumagalli making the 53-man roster this season is slim.

The story about Jake Butt will always be “what might have been?” He was an incredible talent in college at Michigan, but a knee injury suffered in his last collegiate game has robbed him of his effectiveness in the NFL. Butt had first-round talent, but he fell to round five in 2017 due to this knee injury. He missed his entire rookie season, but was able to see the field in 2018. Butt caught eight passes for 85 yards that season in three games before getting hurt again. He was on his way back (again) last year when another knee injury knocked him out for the entire 2019 season. Butt is unlikely to make the 53-man roster in 2020 as the team may finally cut ties.

Austin Fort was invited to the local pro day in 2019. He played his college football at the University of Wyoming and was able to latch on with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent. He looked good in training camp and the preseason as an undrafted rookie, but a knee injury towards the end of August ended his season. If he can rebound and showcase his talent like he did in 2019, then Fort is likely bound for the practice squad.

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Summary

The Broncos have turned their tight end room around in just a couple of seasons. Not since the early days of Julius Thomas and Virgil Green have the Broncos had a pair of exciting young tight ends – and this new duo of Fant and Okwuegbunam has much more upside.

Fant will be the top target at the position but perhaps Okwuegbunam can carve out an early role as a red-zone threat. Either way, the Broncos have dangerous pass-catching weapons with these two and the veteran Vannett will work as the blocking tight end.