Broncos’ belief in rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam keeps growing

Amid a crowded Broncos tight end room featuring starter Noah Fant, there’s a growing belief rookie Albert Okwuegbunam is a star-in-waiting.

Quarterback Drew Lock called him a “monster,” as did veteran tight end Nick Vannett. Entering training camp, the feeling was Okwuegbunam might be in for somewhat of a redshirt year considering Denver’s depth at the position with Fant, Vannett, Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and Andrew Beck. But Okwuegbunam’s consistency in practice may force him into the game plan Sept. 14 against Tennessee..

“He’s just so physically gifted,” Vannett said. “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.”

Selected in the fourth round (No. 118 overall) of April’s draft, the hype around the 6-foot-5 Okwuegbunam was immediate considering he played with Lock for two years at Missouri. In 33 games together, the duo connected for 17 touchdowns on 72 catches, and the tight end posted 98 catches for 1,187 yards.

“All the chemistry we built up at Mizzou has translated really well,” Okwuegbunam said. “(Lock) knows what I’m good at, and I know what he likes to see from a receiving standpoint as far as routes and my demeanor when the ball’s in the air.”

Okwuegbunam beefed up throughout college to become an SEC force, and his 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine led all tight ends. During camp, he’s showed how that speed can translate into separation, with a number of touchdown grabs on both vertical routes and in the red zone.

“I knew he could run,” tight ends coach Wade Harman said. “I wasn’t sure he could run that fast.”

That speed and play-making ability (nearly a quarter of Okwuegbunam’s college receptions went for scores) has been on display throughout camp as Lock has re-connected with his college teammate.

“Open field, he’s going to blow by you,” Lock said. “In the red zone, it’s just kind of a sneaky fast. It doesn’t look like he’s moving very quick then all of a sudden he’s two yards behind the guy or slipped underneath the guy somehow.”

Okwuegbunam’s biggest area of improvement he needs to make as a pro is his blocking.

Coach Vic Fangio noted the team needs “to find out what kind of blocker he is,” and said the tight end has made incremental progress in that regard.

“One of the biggest things with a tight end as it relates to blocking is do they want to do it,” Fangio said. “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 for the ones coming out of college these days that don’t do it much.”

Okwuegbunam said he’s “really honing in on (the) technique” of run blocking during camp, and while he’s aware of the depth of the team’s tight end room, he’s aiming to still somehow make an impact this fall.

“As far as coming out and making plays, I felt like I’ve done a good job of that,” he said. “I still have improvements to make, but obviously I’d love to make an impact early, because that’s just the competitor I am. As far as that actually being done, that’s not my decision.”

If 2020 ends up being more watching than playing for Okwuegbunam, the 22-year-old said he would embrace that, too.

“Every rep in practice, I’d make sure I’m continuing to make those same strides since I’ve got here,” Okwuegbunam said. “And just (focusing) on being as mentally sound as possible… Really, it’s just about not treating my preparation any differently.”