ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —When the Broncos drafted Albert Okwuegbunam in 2020 and Greg Dulcich in 2022, the Broncos hailed their athleticism and ability to create mismatches.
"From a tight end standpoint, those guys are always the most unique, dynamic guys out on the field because they can do so many different things," Paton said in late April of Dulcich. "When you have a guy that can stretch the field like he can, it's really exciting. … It's not just the intermediate stuff — but the [impact he makes] truly down the field. At the same time, [he has] the ability to strain and block in the run game. I think he showed a lot of stuff."
Following Tim Patrick's season-ending knee injury, both Okwuegbunam and Dulcich may need to quickly live up to their potential.
Over the past three seasons, the Broncos have totaled 43 passing touchdowns in the red zone. Patrick is tied for the team lead — with former Broncos tight end Noah Fant — with eight touchdowns. Courtland Sutton ranks third with four scores, and Albert Okwuegbunam, Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams are tied with three scores apiece. No other current Broncos has more than red-zone touchdown over the past three seasons.
The Broncos will naturally need a player or two to step up in Patrick's absence, and it could fall on the bigger-bodied Sutton, Okwuegbunam and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich.
"[They're] going to have to be," said Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett when asked if Sutton, Okwuegbunam and Dulcich would be the players who could step up. "Flipping it, obviously very upset [Patrick's] not here, but now here's an opportunity for somebody to step up. Especially in the red zone, to have the opportunity to make some touchdowns, utilize some different people, that's what we're going to have to do. And in that area, you always want everybody to have to cover the whole field … and all the skill guys. It'll be exciting to see who is going to step up. Somebody's going to have to."
The Broncos' tight ends may also need to step up in the middle of the field to replace Patrick's sizable frame. The 6-foot-4 Patrick was able to haul in 50-50 passes and box out smaller cornerbacks. Okwuegbunam (6-foot-5, 258 pounds) and Dulcich (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) may be bigger than an average receiver, but they both have impressive speed and quickness for tight ends. Both players could serve as an advantageous piece if they are split out from the line of scrimmage.
Flip through exclusive photos from Broncos team photographers Gabriel Christus and Ben Swanson from the seventh day of training camp.
Asked Wednesday about increased tight end usage, Hackett said he was excited for the offensive possibilities with the Broncos' tight end group.
"There's a lot of guys, and not only are they big bodies, but those dudes can run," Hackett said. "You saw it a couple times already watching all those guys — … getting Dulcich back, [him] being slowly worked back in, watching Albert run, [Eric] Saubert run, [Andrew] Beck's run well. Whenever you have that kind of a fluid player that can be on the line and block to take advantage of matchups there and at the same time stretch the field vertically, you're really excited."
Okwuegbunam, who could be counted on to have a big year as he looks to improve upon a 33-catch, 330-yard season, said the team's offense allows tight ends to move around the formation.
"I think … one of the beauties of this offense, especially at the tight end position, is just the ability to put us anywhere," Okwuegbunam said. "When you put me against a linebacker, I'm going to be faster than him. When you put me against a DB, I'm going to be bigger than him. I think that's where it directly creates that mismatch."
The Broncos will need someone to increase their production in 2022. It's entirely possible Okwuegbunam and Dulcich could shoulder that load.
ON THE EDGE
The Broncos have a bevy of talent at edge rusher, as Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory, Malik Reed, Nik Bonitto, Baron Browning and Jonathon Cooper are all talented options. Even undrafted free agent Christopher Allen, who was recently activated off the Non-Football Injury list, has intriguing talented.
Yet while Reed has not drawn as much offseason attention as some of his teammates, no Broncos outside linebacker has more sacks over the last three seasons than Reed's 15.0. Von Miller, who departed midway through the 2021 season, posted 12.5 during that span, while Chubb and former Bronco Jeremiah Attaochu have each posted 8.5. In Dallas, Gregory posted 9.5 sacks since the start of the 2019 season.
Reed has made 34 starts during that time, including 13 in each of the last two years. His consistency guided him to record a career-high eight sacks in 2020, and he believes his game has improved entering Year 4.
"I just feel like even though it's a new defense, my understanding of the game is at an all-time high," Reed said. "I feel like right now it's just being able to anticipate, being comfortable in the scheme and being able to take chances and attack more in certain situations. My IQ of the game, I feel like, is what's at the next level."
The competition will be stiff at the position, and not every player will start, play a major role — or even make the 53-man roster. Reed, though, said he'd focus on working to improve while others wonder what each player's role will be in 2022.
"Only the coaches and front office can answer," said Reed when asked about his potential role. "I'm just taking it one day at a time, focusing on what I can control."