ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ahead of the Broncos' Week 4 game against the Jaguars, Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello offered an assessment of Denver's 2019 first-round pick.
Through three games, tight end Noah Fant had tallied nine catches for 99 receiving yards and no touchdowns. His former Iowa teammate, meanwhile, had excelled in Detroit. T.J. Hockenson, whom the Lions drafted with the eighth-overall pick, caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in Week 1.
Fant, the 20th-overall pick, had yet to turn in a breakout performance in the face of high expectations.
"Honestly, he's probably performed exactly about the what I would have expected," Scangarello said on Sept. 26. "Flashes of greatness, flashes of good and flashes of bad. I've said this a few times: I don't want to make it sound like they're same player, but it reminds me of [San Francisco 49ers TE George] Kittle. George's first year in the league, I think he led the NFL in drops. He was a liability in the run game at times. He would break the huddle and be unsure. We ask more of our tight ends than any other position outside of the quarterback. They need to know the run game, pass protection and they have to be route runners. And when they practice, that means they fatigue because they run routes and they block like a lineman. All that adds up and accumulates on a guy when he plays a lot of reps, especially when they're rookies and they're learning the league. That's the trickle-down effect, that's what happens when a guy gets loose with the ball or tries to do too much. The finer things aren't there.
"A year from now, he'll be a completely different player and you hope that he is like Kittle and he's confident and he breaks down. Could that happen next week and get better and better? Absolutely and that is the goal."
Scangarello's comments proved prescient.
In the Broncos' Week 4 loss to the Jaguars, Fant recorded the first touchdown of his career as he caught a screen pass and avoided three defenders before he broke free for a 25-yard score.
Another player, Scangarello said the following week, would have been tackled after a 10-yard gain. Fant's athleticism, though, allowed him to turn a positive gain into a touchdown.
That potential led the Broncos to keep Fant on the field as he worked through his rookie struggles.
"He just brings so much good to the table, too," Scangarello said before the Jacksonville game. "You want that out there."
The Broncos were rewarded, as Fant followed his slow start to the season with a pair of 100-yard games down the stretch. Only two tight ends in NFL history recorded more 100-yard receiving games as rookies.
In a Week 9 game against the Browns, Fant again showed his big-play ability as caught a pass on a crossing pattern, turned upfield and broke three tackles as he sprinted away for a 75-yard touchdown. The play was the fifth-longest reception by a rookie tight end since the 1970 NFL merger.
He finished the game with three catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Five weeks later, Fant was Drew Lock's favorite target in a 38-24 win over the Texans, who won the AFC South and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs.
On the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, Fant fended off a defender and turned a routine comeback route into a 48-yard gain. On the same drive, Fant caught a 14-yard third-down pass for a touchdown.
The 6-foot-4, 249-pound player's combination of size and athleticism made him a mismatch against the Texans — and many of the Broncos' other opponents.
Fant finished the season with the most catches and receiving yards by a rookie tight end in Denver's history, as he caught 40 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns. He also showed a knack for moving the chains; twenty-three of those catches resulted in first downs. Fant was also available, as he appeared in all 16 games and caught at least one pass each week.
"I'm my biggest critic," Fant said after the win over Cleveland. "I hold myself to a very high standard and it's nice to have that rookie record, but I'm trying to attain a lot bigger goals and try to do a lot better. It's always good to attain certain milestones like that, but I'm looking to keep pushing forward."
While Fant didn't have the same fast start as Hockenson, he finished the 2019 season as the top rookie tight end in targets, receptions and receiving yards. His three touchdowns ranked second to Oakland's Foster Moreau.
Fant also fared well in comparison to tight ends league-wide, including veterans. Fant's 14.1 yards per catch ranked second among all tight ends with at least two catches per game played.
As for Scangarello's comparison to Kittle? That remains to be seen.
The 49ers' All-Pro tight end caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie season in 2017. He followed up that campaign with 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns in 2018 and 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns in 2019.
If Fant is indeed following Kittle's path, the 2020 season can't arrive soon enough.