ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —Over the past several years, the Broncos have looked for a difference-maker at tight end.
In 2020, they could have several.
Noah Fant returns as the team's starter after a rookie season in which he set a slew of franchise records and led all rookie tight ends in nearly every statistical category. The Broncos also added Nick Vannett in free agency to aid the team's run game and drafted Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Add in Troy Fumagalli, Jake Butt and hybrid tight end/fullback Andrew Beck, and the Broncos could boast a versatile position group,depending upon who they select to make the roster. On game days, that versatility could become an advantage if the Broncos choose to attack opponents with two tight ends on the field at the same time.
The Broncos ran 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends — on 16 percent of their snaps in 2019, which was their third most-used grouping behind 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end), according to Sharp Football Stats. The league average in 12 personnel was 20 percent of the snaps, so the Broncos were slightly behind that pace.
As the Broncos prepare for 2020, though, perhaps it's better to look at the Giants' offense, where Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur was the head coach in 2019.
The Giants largely operated out of three-receiver sets — their 74 percent of snaps out of 11 personnel was second only to the Bengals' 76 percent — but they operated out of 12 personnel on 17 percent of the snaps. Shurmur's Giants largely ran out of that personnel grouping, but they also found some success passing the football.
Of course, in Denver, there are certain to be differences. Shurmur has spoken on several occasions about the need to base the Broncos' offense on the skill set of his new players. It would be naïve to expect the percentages from Shurmur's offense in New York to be replicated in Denver. Whether that means more or less 12 personnel remains to be seen, but Vannett does see the value of operating with two tight ends on the field.
"I've always been a big fan of 12 personnel," Vannett said Tuesday. "I always think, man, [if] you get more big bodies out there, it creates so many mismatches, especially when you have two big athletes out there. We can just own the middle of the field in the pass game. You have a guy like Noah Fant who can run just about any route, run past guys. Then you have someone like me. I can find the void and run crisp routes and just be able to get open. It creates those mismatches. At the same time, guys like us in the game, you don't know if it's going to be run or pass. It just kind of gives the defense — it kind of puts them on their heels a little bit not really just knowing what's going to happen. It just makes things more unpredictable. I just think it helps in the run game so much. It's good for the outside zones. I've always been a big fan of 12 personnel. I might be a little biased, but I've always been a big fan."
Vannett has caught just 61 passes for 591 yards and four touchdowns during his four-year career, but he said Denver is a "fresh start" and that he "busted his ass" during the offseason to add a new element to his game.
"I think a competitor like myself, I want to be as involved as I can," Vannett said. "The thing about me is I've always had great hands. I've always been able to make contested catches and [been] able to make catches anywhere outside my frame. I think the thing with me is each year I've gotten better with my quickness, gotten better at running routes. I've added some speed. I think this year this is by far the best I've felt. I feel more like a receiver, more athletic where I can run these routes that these other guys can run. That's my goal. Just me coming to a new team like this, it's almost like another chance to re-prove myself as a player that I'm not just a blocker. I can go out and I can run crispy routes. I can get matched up and create some separation, make a play. I'm just trying to display that as much as I can."
While Vannett may be a surprise addition in the passing game, Fant's contributions should be expected. He caught 40 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, and he posted a pair of 100-yard games as he played his best football late in the year.
"Anytime you get a tight end that runs a 4.5, who can catch the ball the way he does and can run the routes the way he does, that's so rare to come by in the league," Vannett said of Fant. "I I think last year he might have struggled a little bit blocking. I think this year he put on the weight. He took the offseason seriously. You can tell that this is his coming-out party this year. He's taking everything seriously. He's competing. He's running every play as fast as he can. He's giving great effort in the run game blocking-wise. I think that's one thing he wants to improve on. He wants to be more of a complete tight end."
In Okwuegbunam, the Broncos have another tight end with sub 4.5-second 40-yard dash speed, and the concept of pairing Fant and Okwuegbunam together on the field is intriguing.
"He's just so physically gifted," Vannett said of Okweugbunam. "I think the thing with him is he's kind 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."
And in Denver, the Broncos could have dynamic possibilities at the tight end position for the foreseeable future.
"When you're in a room of guys like [Fant] and Albert and Jake Butt, 'Fum,' Beck — this is my fifth training camp and I can honestly say from top to bottom this is the most competitive room I've ever been in," Vannett said. "You've got guys that can do it all. Not to mention they're great football players, but they're some of the best guys I've been around. I've had a ball being able to be in here so far. I'm going to be anxious to see what's going to happen for our room and for this team because the things I'm seeing right now I'm getting pretty excited just to think about what's going to happen down the road."