ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — 2022 was a difficult year for the Broncos, but for tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, the season presented a unique challenge.
Okwuegbunam was a top-five receiver for the Broncos in 2021, totaling 33 receptions for 330 yards and two touchdowns. After tight end Noah Fant was traded to the Seahawks in March, it seemed as though Okwuegbunam would get the chance to establish himself as a focal point in Denver's offense.
The events that followed, however, were not what Okwuegbunam had in mind.
After catching five of six targets for 33 yards in the Broncos' narrow loss to Seattle in Week 1, the third-year tight end saw a total of just five targets until Week 17. Inactive for seven consecutive games, Okwuegbunam watched from the sidelines as Denver's offense worked to find a rhythm.
Not having an opportunity to take the field with your team is difficult for any player — particularly one who had a significant role the year before — but throughout the season, Okwuegbunam kept an optimistic outlook on his situation.
"It was out of my control," Okwuegbunam said. "I didn't agree with it, but as a player, I had to make a decision: I could either pout about it and be upset about it, or make the decision to come in every day and work hard and try to improve, and just try to practice to the best of my ability, and that's what I did. I knew another opportunity would come eventually, and it did, thankfully, in the last two weeks of the season. Obviously it's not ideal, but ... I just tried to come into work every day with a positive mindset, and that's what I did."
When rookie tight end Greg Dulcich was placed on injured reserve following the Broncos' matchup with the Rams in Week 16, Okwuegbunam was finally called upon — and he took advantage of his opportunity.
Okwuegbunam made his first start of the season in Week 17 against the Chiefs, and after a couple of early drops, the tight end quickly settled in. Trailing by three points in the third quarter, quarterback Russell Wilson faked a handoff to running back Chase Edmonds and found Okwuegbunam wide open in the end zone, giving the Broncos the lead.
Not only was it a game-changing play for Denver, but it was Okwuegbunam's first catch since Week 5 and his first touchdown since Dec. 12, 2021. He finished the game with three receptions for 45 yards and a score, and following Okwuegbunam's performance, Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten had nothing but praise for the tight end's contributions.
"Albert did a really good job of stretching the field for us," Outten said. "He had the big touchdown for us. He's a bigger-type receiver, very similar body type and position as Dulcich, so he's a guy that you can put out there in a position where he's the receiver, and then they have to account for him. If they don't, just like they did in the red zone, he can create explosive plays and touchdowns."
Okwuegbunam did not have quite the same impact in Denver's final game of the season against the Chargers, but he was on the field for 45 percent of the team's offensive snaps — a considerable improvement from much of the season. In the end, though, the tight end was just happy to contribute to a win.
"It was great to get an opportunity, a couple opportunities, at the back end of the season," Okwuegbunam said. "Thankful we got a win. My first game back, [Week 17], I capitalized on some opportunities, but we didn't get the win. We fought hard, but it was good coming into this next week to get the win."
Upon the players' return in the spring, they will begin working with a new coaching staff. Learning a different playbook and forming new relationships can be demanding tasks for the team, but for Okwuegbunam, it will offer a chance to start over and prove himself to whoever takes over.
When the new staff comes in, Okwuegbunam plans to show them that he is willing to put in the work to reach his highest potential as a player.
"[I want them to see] my work ethic and how hard I am going to work during this offseason, and how hard I am going to work all year," Okwuegbunam said. "Just how willing I am to help this team win. Unfortunately, some things happened this season that were out of my control. I didn't really get to contribute the way I wanted to. Moving into this next season, I want to do everything I can to prove myself as a player, showcase my abilities and be able to contribute. That's the main thing."
The current coaching staff has pointed to the similar skill sets between Dulcich and Okwuegbunam as a reason for the latter's lack of playing time, but Okwuegbunam noted that he would welcome an offensive scheme that utilizes both their strengths simultaneously.
"Greg's a great dude," Okwuegbunam said. "Since [the] day he came in here, I did everything in my power to help him be a great tight end. ... He's a super positive guy, and we have a great relationship, so there's no [bad] feelings there or anything like that. I look forward to playing with Greg and creating some mismatches together. I'm excited about that, honestly."
The idea of two-tight end sets with Okwuegbunam appeals to Dulcich, as well.
"I think that would be really cool," Dulcich said. "Me and Albert on the field at the same time, you could do a lot of cool stuff with that, so I'd love that."
As the search for the franchise's next head coach continues, Okwuegbunam said that whoever takes over should be encouraged by the players' relentless effort and commitment to winning. While the results may not have shown this season, the tight end noted that the best is yet to come for this group.
"We've got a team full of guys who want to win," Okwuegbunam said. "That's been evident every Sunday, a win or a loss. I don't think you can ever turn on the tape and say there's a lack of effort on either side of the ball. So, I think that's the biggest thing to be optimistic about. I feel like, when we get a new staff in here, once we put the pieces together and get everything jelling, we have a lot to look forward to."