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'I really felt myself improving every week': TE Albert Okwuegbunam nears next step in rehab from torn ACL, looks ahead to return

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Drew Lock and KJ Hamler got the glory in the Broncos' 21-point comeback win over the Chargers last season, and deservedly so.

Lock played a nearly flawless fourth quarter, and Hamler made a terrific adjustment in the end zone on the final play of the game to haul in the the game-winning score.

The late scoring connection, though, would not have been possible if not for rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam's ability to draw a key pass-interference penalty on a fourth-and-4 from the 18-yard line that pushed the ball to the 1-yard line with one second to play.

Okwuegbunam drew another pass-interference on third down earlier in the drive, and his leaping scoring grab early in the fourth quarter cut the Chargers' lead to seven points.

While he recorded just one catch for nine yards, Okwuegbunam played a crucial role in the final frame in his finest performance of the season.

"That was a really big game I like to look back at, just because I was in there when it was crunch time," Okwuegbunam told this week. "There was a lot of pressure on that last drive and just being able to be a part of that and have a direct impact on that game and that victory feels really good."

One week later, his season came to a screeching halt as he tore his ACL in the third quarter of a Week 9 game against the Falcons. The fourth-round pick finished his rookie season with 11 total catches for 121 yards and a touchdown as he battled for snaps behind Noah Fant and Nick Vannett.

"It was unfortunate, just because I really felt myself improving every week," Okwuegbunam said. "I'm a super positive person, so as soon as it happened I was just super forward-thinking and thinking, 'What are the positives I can take from this and how I can move forward?' That was just kind of reflecting on my rookie season, and I feel like a big takeaway from it was just the confidence it instilled in myself that I have the ability to be a playmaker in this league, and I think that was the silver lining. From that point on it was just, 'How can I get better?'"

Okwuegbunam said he is almost 12 weeks out from the surgery to repair his damaged knee, and he has begun to run on an anti-gravity treadmill. He expects to begin jogging without the assistance of the machine as early as next week.

"Rehab has been a great process for me," Okwuegbunam said. "[I] had a great start and no real problems with rehab. It's been pretty smooth, so just getting better every day. … Surgery was fine. That was my first surgery ever, so I was kind of nervous about that, but that was super smooth, it was good."

Okwuegbunam — a little more than three months removed from his injury — said he and the Broncos plan to take a measured approach with his return. He expects to be back by the time training camp begins with "no issues."

As he continues the rehab process, fourth-year receiver Courtland Sutton has served as a valuable resource and example. Sutton suffered an ACL injury of his own in mid-September and is a few weeks ahead of Okwuegbunam in the recovery process.

"Courtland's been awesome," Okwuegbunam said. "I think that's going to be huge for me and him and other young guys too ... just because he does a really good job of bringing energy into the training room every day. The fact that he's a couple weeks ahead of me, I can use him as a reference [and ask] 'As I'm doing this, is this normal? When you dealt with this, how did you overcome that?' He's been really great. I couldn't ask for a better older guy to help with the process."

When Okwuegbunam returns to the field, he'll aim to build on his performance against the Chargers in Week 8 and a seven-catch day against the Chiefs in Week 7. Both games were significant improvements from Okwuegbunam's first career game, which came in New England in Week 6. Okwuegbunam caught a pair of passes for 45 yards, but he was targeted on four other occasions — including a couple of opportunities for touchdown grabs. In his first NFL action, Okwuegbunam was unable to haul in those passes.

"I left a couple out there in New England, and that really messed with me a lot," Okwuegbunam said. "Like I said, I'm a forward-thinker, so I just said, 'How can I make this better?' That was by never dropping another ball that came my way and just making sure that any ball that was thrown at me was mine. I think I did a pretty good job of that. I don't think I had any more drops the rest of my games and had a pretty good target-to-catch ratio. That's a big thing for me too, is just controlling what you can control. That's just making the most out of your targets. I feel like I did a pretty good job coming back from those mistakes, and like I said, I was improving every week."

The 2020 fourth-round pick still sees plenty of room for improvement. He said he blocked "pretty well" as a rookie, but he wants to advance in that area, as well as several others. He singled out understanding defenses, having more consistent hands and mastering the finer points of route running. At his best, though, Okwuegbunam is another monster target for the Broncos' offense — one with a 6-foot-5, 258-pound frame and 4.49-second 40-yard-dash speed. Whether the Broncos choose to use Fant and Okwuegbunam on the field together or rotate between the two options, defenses will face a major challenge.

"With me and Noah on the field, we both create so many mismatch problems," Okwuegbunam said. "I really look forward to that in the future, just being out there together and giving defenses a hard time.

"I feel like we definitely have the ability to be a real force and real strong duo in this league."

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