The Broncos' 2020 season is almost here, and as training camp approaches, we're taking a look at each of the Broncos' position groups. In this set of previews, we'll take a deep dive into what we know about the given position group and what we still need to learn. We'll also identify a player to watch and choose a battle that bears watching. At the end of the series, we'll provide an overarching look at the best training camp battles and which players have the most to prove.
We continue the series with a look at the tight end position.
What we know:
The Broncos swung big at the position in the 2019 NFL Draft when they traded down in the first round to select Noah Fant with the 20th-overall pick. The early returns were positive, as Fant led all rookie tight ends in nearly every statistical category and set a slew of franchise rookie tight end records. The Iowa product started 11 games while appearing in all 16 contests and caught 40 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns. Fant's production improved as the year continued, as his two 100-yard efforts came in the final eight weeks of the season.
While Fant will continue to lead the group, the position will look different behind him. The Broncos signed veteran tight end Nick Vannett to a two-year deal in March. The former Seahawk and Steeler has been utilized largely as a run blocker, and he could potentially take reps from his former college teammate Jeff Heuerman.
Denver also added to the group when they used a fourth-round pick on Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound player ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, which is one hundredth of a second faster than Fant's timed 40.
Heuerman, a sixth-year player, could provide depth as a run blocker, and Jake Butt will aim to push for a roster spot after an injury-riddled start to his career. Former fifth-round pick Troy Fumagalli and second-year player Austin Fort also figure into the equation.
Andrew Beck, listed as a fullback and tight end, provides positional versatility in Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur's new system.
What we need to learn:
In his rookie season, 49ers tight end George Kittle posted 43 catches for 515 yards and two touchdowns. A year later, the now All-Pro player caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five scores. Rob Gronkowski enjoyed a similar jump in yards and receptions from Year 1 to Year 2.
It may be unrealistic to expect Fant to cross the 1,300-yard mark, but the second-year player seems poised for a breakout 2020 season. As training camp begins, we'll need to see how Fant fits into Shurmur's offense. While Shurmur was the head coach of the Giants, Evan Engram posted 89 catches for 1,044 yards and six touchdowns across two seasons. Fant, though, could be a larger focal point and post a season similar to Kyle Rudolph's 2016 campaign. Shurmur, then Minnesota's offensive coordinator, helped Rudolph to a Pro Bowl and an 83-catch, 840-yard season. Rudolph also added seven touchdowns.
If Fant continues to develop his chemistry with Drew Lock — he caught four passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in a Week 14 win over the Texans — then he should be poised for a season worthy of a first-round pick.
Player to watch:
The Broncos spent their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on skill players and then opened Day 3 of the draft by selecting the talented tight end. Okwuegbunam — or Albert O., as he was called in college — spent a pair of seasons with Lock at Missouri, and he caught 17 touchdowns from Lock during their time together.
When camp begins, we'll get a chance to see if Okwuegbunam can carve out a role as a rookie and earn playing time in a crowded position group. Pairing Okwuegbunam's speed with Fant's creates some intriguing options for the Broncos, as Denver could gain an edge by having both Fant and Okwuegbunam on the field in two-tight-end sets. If Okwuegbunam's game is pro-ready, he could have an immediate impact — but it's too early to project if that will be the case. Regardless, though, Okwuegbunam should make his share of highlight plays in camp.
Battle to watch:
Heading into camp, it seems Fant, Vannett and Okwuegbunam are locks to make the roster. If the Broncos choose to carry a fourth tight end — and that would make sense given Okwuegbunam's youth — five players could compete for a single spot.
Butt showed promise in 2018 in limited action, but he's struggled to stay on the field. He may also face an uphill battle as a pass-catching tight end, given that Fant and Okwuegbunam's strengths lie in the same area. Heuerman, a veteran player whose strength is run blocking, saw a diminished role in 2019 but could still push for a roster spot. Fumagalli, meanwhile, showed a bit ofpromise before Beck ultimately took on some of his reps later in the year.
Beck may have the best chance to make the roster because of his positional versatility. In fact, it's possible the Broncos keep Beck as a fullback and special teams contributor. If Denver does that — and still keeps four tight ends — Butt, Heuerman and Fumagalli should have a better chance to make the roster.
Fort also impressed during training camp last season before tearing his ACL in the preseason. He could be a good candidate for the practice squad.