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'That's just the competitor I am': Paired again with Drew Lock, Albert Okwuegbunam aims to make an impact as a rookie

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —The Broncos' young quarterback surveyed the field, identified his target and launched a pass down the middle of the field.

His target — a charging 6-foot-5, 258-pound player with 4.49-second 40-yard-dash speed — used his quickness to beat one safety down the seam and then reached up to pluck the throw out of the air before a second safety arrived.

Touchdown, Albert Okwuegbunam.

It wasn't the first touchdown pass he'd caught from his former college quarterback, Drew Lock, and based on the Broncos' training camp practices, it likely will not be his last.

Okwuegbunam, the Broncos' 2020 fourth-round draft pick, caught 72 passes for 881 yards and 17 touchdowns from Lock during their two seasons together at the University of Missouri, and he said Monday that it feels like they've picked up where they left off.

"I feel like it's huge just because we know how we are as players, if that makes sense," Okwuegbunam said. "All the chemistry we built up at Mizzou has translated really well. He knows what I'm really good at, I know what he likes to see from a receiving standpoint as far as my routes and my demeanor when the ball's in the air. I feel like that's really where our chemistry really hits off."

The rookie tight end — who led the SEC in receiving touchdowns in 2017 — likely still has work to do before he's a mainstay with the starting offense. The team's first-round pick from 2019, Noah Fant, remains the Broncos' top target at the position, and veteran Nick Vannett seems to have a role carved out, as well.

Okwuegbunam, though, has impressed the two older players with his athleticism and play-making ability during the team's limited training camp practices.

"I don't know where to start," Vannett said of Okwuegbunam on Aug. 25. "I think he's the real monster. He's just so physically gifted. I think the thing with him is he's kind of raw right now, but I don't say that in a bad way. I say that like if he keeps building on it and keeps figuring it out, he's going to be one of the best tight ends in the league. Just how fast he is, how built he is — I really do believe if he can figure it out, he's going to be a scary dude in this league for years to come. I really do believe that."

Okwuegbunam said that praise from Vannett gives him needed confidence, but he knows he must continue to improve to make the impact he'd like to have in Year 1. While Okwuegbunam has been a constant red-zone threat, Head Coach Vic Fangio said in mid-August that he needed to figure out "what kind of blocker he is."

Over the last 10 days, Okwuegbunam has made strides in that part of his game — and Fangio believes that's largely a question of mentality.

"He's improved in that area," Fangio said. "I think the biggest thing or one of the biggest things with a tight end as it relates to blocking is, do they want to do it? Do they have the mentality to block and be prideful in it? He's shown that he does and he's willing. That's a big hurdle to get over for a lot of tight ends, especially the ones coming out of college these days that don't do it much. I think he's making some good progress there."

Okwuegbunam attributed that improvement to his attention to his technique, which he said he's improved every practice. Perhaps, though, it's also related to his toughness. After the first few days of practice, Okwuegbunam was forced to play with a splint-like contraption on his thumb. Instead of making excuses, he continued to make plays.

"That's always good to see that he's not taking the easy way out with a crutch there," Fangio said in mid-August.

If Okwuegbunam continues to improve his run blocking while demonstrating his ability in the passing game, he could push for reps even in a talented position group. He, though, won't try to make that determination for the coaching staff. Instead, he'll embrace whatever role the coaching staff carves out for him — whether that's sitting and learning or making plays on Sundays.

"That's not really for me to say or my role," Okwuegbunam said. "As far as coming out and making plays, I feel like I've done a good job with that. Am I a perfect player to earn that role early on? That's up for them to decide. Obviously, I have some improvements to make for sure.

"But you know, obviously I would love to have an impact early. That's just the competitor I am."

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