Under normal circumstances, rookies have significant time to adjust to their new pro environs in the offseason and during training camp. This year, the pandemic demands an accelerated learning process without the NFL preseason and valuable scrimmage reps.
So, when the Denver Broncos selected tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, fans scratched their heads.
Denver previously invested a 2019 first-round selection in tight end Noah Fant. As a rookie, Fant logged 40 receptions, 562 yards, and three touchdowns.
At 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, Fant can stretch the field vertically for an offense and be a red-zone threat. He is projected to have a productive 2020 campaign in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s spread system as a natural receiving tight end.
When the Broncos’ incumbent starter is compared to the rookie, there are significant similarities between the two. Okwuegbunam is virtually the same size as Fant at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds. Both are natural, big-bodied receivers that are reliable targets in medium to deep routes.
Fant ran a 4.50-seconds 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, while Albert O. ran a 4.49. Each player also received criticism for inconsistent run blocking in their respective scouting reports entering the draft. Basically, on paper and on film, both guys profile as almost the same player.
At the beginning of training camp, Okwuegbunam was gaining momentum and recognition among media and teammates for his pass-catching ability. But during Wednesday’s ‘helmets and shells’ practice, the rookie tight end was humbled by his head coach for his blocking.
“Albert’s done well,” Vic Fangio said following the fifth practice of Broncos camp. “Obviously, he’s got some good receiving abilities. We have to find out what kind of blocker he is. A big part of being a competent blocker is a mentality to want to block.”
If we’re being honest, Fant can probably make a career in the NFL with average run blocking ability. His athleticism and talent as a receiver will cover up the warts and compensate for any blocking deficiency, especially if he’s getting first downs and scoring touchdowns.
But is there enough room on an NFL roster for two players that are so comparable in profile and who have the same Achilles heel?
“As a tight end, a lot of times when you do block, you’re having to block good players,” Fangio explained. “A good bit of that is want to and toughness. We’re trying to figure that out with him to see if he has that part of his game.”
While it’s easy to excuse the rookie’s errors in training camp because of the learning curve or shortened offseason, there’s never an excuse for lack of effort. Fangio challenged Albert O. to embrace run blocking in the same manner that he embraces route running.
In his spare time and at practice, Okwuegbunam needs to be O-line coach Mike Munchak’s shadow. It can be easy to go to the back of the line during one-on-one blocking drills when you’re a scoring machine in college, but this isn’t the SEC. Albert O. must embrace learning the proper techniques of blocking so that he can develop into a complete NFL tight end.
However, so far, Okwuegbunam’s lack of proficiency in the blocking game hasn’t completely kept him from receiving some first-team reps. When asked about rookies jump from third- to second- to first-team units in camp, Fangio said, “You just try and balance it.”
The Broncos have other tight ends in the mix like Nick Vannett, Jake Butt, Andrew Beck, and Troy Fumagalli, all of whom are rotating through multiple units. This means that every rep, whether it be in the passing game or running game, is critical to separate candidates from the competition.
“We don’t always stay with the same 11 guys with the ones,” Fangio said. “We’ll start a drill with ones and after you keep watching, sometimes those guys get mixed in. They have to show it. They have to earn it. With the shortened training camp, obviously we have to get out the Ouija board out and do some predicting. It’s a little bit of everything there, but definitely never want to give anybody a job.”
Fangio has received criticism for his comments and critiques of players as head coach of the Broncos including Von Miller and Drew Lock. It’s not the tone or delivery that bother people, but unvarnished the truth.
Fangio calls it like he sees it because he’s a veteran football coach. From saying Miller can be better, Fangio’s resolve is consistent. Coaches don’t waste time on players that can’t improve, especially this season.
It would behoove Okwuegbunam, who happens to be one of Lock’s close friends, to embrace his largest area of improvement. That is, if Albert O. wants to have a successful rookie season as a pro.