When the Broncos acquired quarterback Russell Wilson last month, Albert Okwuegbunam received a promotion and correspondingly much higher individual expectations.
The blockbuster deal that brought Wilson to Denver included a trade for rookie tight end Noah Fant to Seattle. This paved the way for Okwuegbunam to take center stage in the season’s No. 1 tight end after recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury that limited him to four games as a rookie in 2020.
Okwuegbunam lives up to high expectations.
The Broncos believe in me and give me great opportunities,” Okwuegbunam told Olx Praca after a mini-camp workout on Tuesday. “And I plan to take full advantage of it.
After 11 interceptions for 121 yards and a touchdown in four games as a rookie before tearing his right cruciate ligament in a loss in Atlanta, Okwuegbunam had 33 receptions for 330 yards and scored two goals last year. His yards per target was similar, with 8.1 in 2020 and 8.2 in 2021.
The former fourth-round pick from Missouri missed weeks 5-7 last fall with a hamstring injury and then spent a month on the team’s base following the end of the 2021 season while continuing to fully rehabilitate his knee. In 14 games and six starts last year, Okwuegbunam played 47% of offensive snaps (Fant played 84%).
Okwuegbunam’s knee wasn’t at 100% last year, which he didn’t realize until his offseason started to pick up steam.
“You would like to tell yourself that you are 100% and that you feel great – and I really felt really good and thought I played well – but this off-season I feel even better,” Okwuegbunam said. “I can do more aggressive knee hooks and little things like acceleration and other things that I didn’t realize all last season.”
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound athlete estimates he was running about 90% last year, and in the first two days of the mini-camp, his run along the route became noticeable.
“All off-season I focused on getting stronger, staying fit and just making my knee bulletproof with an ACL injury when I was a rookie,” said the 24-year-old. “Now the biggest thing I could improve is consistency. Being a year older, I have improved my preparation and knowledge of defense, and the game slows down more for me.
Okwuegbunam had one fall in 40 targets last season, but he also made six explosive shots (gaining at least 16 yards) and 15 first downs, moving sticks on 45.4% of his total shots.
“I’m learning more and more to use protection with my mismatch ability,” he said. “It has to do with the combination of my size and speed – whether I’m a midfielder I’ll be faster and against (defensive defender) I’ll be close to his speed and bigger than him. With our coaches (Head Coach Nathaniel) Hackett and (Offensive Coordinator) Justin (Outten) they are doing a good job of helping me on offense and creating these inconsistencies.”
And according to another rising playmaker on the team, Okwuegbunam has taken on a more active leadership role in the Broncos locker room.
Sophomore running back Javonte Williams said Okwuegbunam has a “different trust” in him.
“Albert O looks good,” Williams said. “He talks more in the dressing room, he talks more on the pitch. He already seems to be more comfortable (in the main role).”
Even though domestic expectations are that Okwuegbunam could break through in 2022 — so Fanta could have been sold — the Broncos will likely look to solidify their depth in the tight end at the NFL Draft this weekend.
Colorado State star Trey McBride, who is the best tight end on the board, will most likely not be available if the Broncos stay in place with their first pick at number 64. But with two picks in both third and round four, overall manager George Paton could make up a tight end.
Other tight ends currently on Denver’s roster are Eric Tomlinson, Sean Beyer and Andrew Beck (defense/tight end hybrid), while Caleb Wilson is trying out during mini-camp.