ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam didn't have many snaps to learn from in 2020.
After being inactive for the team's first four games, he played just 86 snaps over the following four weeks before his rookie season came to a premature end.
Yet while the Missouri product lost out on a half of a season of reps after tearing his ACL against the Falcons in Week 9, the quality of those 86 snaps was enough to build a foundation for a potential breakthrough Year 2.
In his first game, a Week 6 matchup with the Patriots, he received six targets and caught a pair of passes for 45 yards. Okwuegbunam struggled with drops in that game before recovering a week later, catching all seven of his targets for 60 yards against the Chiefs.
Okwuegbunam played just 25 percent of the team's snaps the next week against the Chargers, but he learned how critical he could be to the team's offense. In a 21-point comeback, Okwuegbunam caught his lone career touchdown and drew a pair of pass-interference penalties on the final drive to set up KJ Hamler's go-ahead score. The last penalty, which occurred in the end zone, moved the ball to the 1-yard line, where Drew Lock found found Hamler for the game-winner.
"That was a big part of last season, too — just being in there in the final moments when the game was on the line to win that game," Okwuegbunam said Thursday. "When we threw that Hail Mary, he threw it up to me and just getting that [pass interference], and then ultimately winning the game, that instilled a lot of confidence in me and let me know that our staff and our coaches here have a lot of trust in me."
The 6-foot-5, 258-pound player is now back from injury, and in his first preseason action, he looked every bit the player he was a year ago.
"He's just picked up from where he left off last year," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Thursday. "If you remember last year, he didn't play much early, then he was starting to play more. [He was] playing [well], having success. He's just picked up right from where he left off there. He's blocking [well]. He's a much better blocker than I think people are aware of. We know he can catch, and he's a good runner after the catch. I'm really excited about him."
In his preseason debut against the Rams, Okwuegbunam caught three passes for 23 yards.
"It was huge," Okwuegbunam said of getting playing time before the season opener. "Practice is obviously extremely beneficial, but it's hard to replicate that in-game feeling as far as the nerves and excitement and all that. I felt like that was good. Also, just to get tackled again — it was good."
Okwuegbunam said he wasn't thinking about his injured knee, and that seemed most evident when he tried to hurdle a Rams defender after making a catch.
"I feel like that's a pretty good example of how I'm not even thinking about it out there," Okwuegbunam said. "The first two times I got tackled, they just dove at my leg. I told myself the next time I catch the ball; I'm jumping, and that's what I did. I'm not thinking about it at all."
Regardless of Noah Fant's availability in Week 1 — Fant has not practiced for nearly two weeks, but Fangio has said he expects him to be ready — Okwuegbunam should play a larger role for the Broncos' offense. Whether in two tight-end sets, as a blocker or in the passing game, Okwuegbunam believes he can make an impact.
"The games that I did play — just my ability to go out there and make plays and be a mismatch out there — that gave me the confidence rolling into this season that I can do those things and I will do those things," Okwuegbunam said. "As far as my ACL rehab has gone, I'm just expressing how I feel out there. It's not on my mind. You take that along with the plays that I made last year, that's what instills the confidence in me this season."