Trading for Russell Wilson changed the trajectory of the Denver Broncos as a franchise. Still, the collateral damage from the trade with Seattle will impact other positions on the Broncos’ roster.
Other than the draft picks, Noah Fant was the greatest asset the Broncos gave Seattle in exchange for Wilson. Fant’s level of play in Denver gave Broncos fans plenty to debate about but he has all the tools and ability to be an NFL starting tight end for quite a while.
Albert Okwuegbunam enters 2022 as the leader to be the successor to Fant. While Okwuegbunam is capable of producing big numbers with Russell Wilson, the Broncos opted to sure up the position by adding Greg Dulcich in the third round in April’s Draft.
In this edition of the Broncos Film Room, we’re going to break down the strengths of Okwuegbunam and Dulcich and how both tight ends can complement each other while battling it out for Denver’s starting tight end position.
Albert O’s Case
A torn ACL prematurely ended his rookie season, but Okwuegbunam was able to step up enough to sub in for Fant at a sufficient level and create big plays for a dreadful 2021 Broncos offense. Drafted out of Missouri in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Okwuegbunam’s combination of size and speed proved to be too much at times for SEC defenses, especially when former Bronco Drew Lock was leading the Tigers.
Now entering his third year for the Broncos, Okwuegbunam has shown that his skills translate to the NFL level as an impact player.
In his best game as a Bronco so far, Okwuegbunam put up 77 yards on three catches when the Eagles visited Denver in Week 10.
The Broncos are in 12 personnel with Fant covering Okwuegbunam to the field side. He doesn’t have that elite NFL top gear, but only a year removed from tearing his ACL at this point in time, Okwuegbunam is able to turn a missed tackle into a big play after getting into the open field.
I don’t need to preach about how bad the Broncos’ passing attack was last season, but even when they weren’t thrown the ball, Fant and Okwuegbunam were able to stress defenses vertically out of heavier personnel and formations. Having both on the field at the same time forced defenses to respect the run while having to cover the entire field due to their big-play ability. The 2021 Broncos were unable to exploit many of these opportunities.
Another big play out of a two-tight end formation, this time against Cincinnati. Okwuegbunam is able to freight train his way open in the middle of the field and break off a chunk of yardage for the Broncos. Okwuegbunam is able to win the mismatch against Bengals’ linebacker, Germain Pratt, and this time the Broncos were able to move the ball forward 24 yards.
In one of the best performances from the team as a whole in 2021, Okwuegbunam brought in five receptions for 41 yards and this incredible tight-rope attempt for a touchdown.
Denver struggled throughout 2021 with a Red Zone Touchdown percentage of 54.72%, good for only 21st in the NFL. Okwuegbunam’s two 2021 touchdowns both came on strikingly similar plays where he was able to break tackles and fight his way into the endzone.
The expectation’s for the 2022 Broncos offense vastly surpass those of the last six Broncos teams. Not only in terms of production, but in terms of scheme and fully utilizing the strengths of the players on the roster.
It’s only fair that Okwuegbunam gets as much benefit of the doubt as Sutton or Jeudy and also gets a chance to show what he is capable of with a new coaching staff and another year removed from his ACL tear.
Dulcich’s Rookie Impact
Selected with the Broncos’ 80th overall pick in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Greg Dulcich enters the NFL with modest expectations. Although I have to say, this was my favorite pick of the 2022 class.
Dulcich was profiled as a complete Y-tight end with the ability to generate an instant impact as a receiver in year one. Dulcich was UCLA’s most explosive receiver in 2021, leading the Bruins in yards per catch (17.3) last season. He showed very good run-after-the-catch ability and deep ball tracking skills allowing him to produce big plays from all over the field.
Dulcich’s season highlight came in Week 2 against LSU. Granted it was terrible coverage, but Dulcich’s skills as an open-field runner helped propel UCLA to an upset over the then #16 Tigers.
With Russell Wilson launching moonballs all around the field for the Broncos this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dulcich making incredible catches downfield showing off his ability to track the football and sell out for the catch.
Dulcich routinely displayed toughness and an ability to eat up yardage working the intermediate level of the field. Even more important, Dulcich has great, natural hands and shows confidence in tight window situations when hit immediately after the catch.
One of the most exciting clips to come from Dulcich’s 2021 season came against Washington on this shovel pass. Broncos fans have been victimized enough by Travis Kelce and the Chiefs with similar plays, looks like the Broncos will have a chance to pay Kansas City back the favor with Dulcich.
The important factor to remember when it comes to rookie tight ends is that they are playing one of the most difficult positions on the field when it comes to translating college success into immediate NFL success. Going back to Noah Fant, his production as a rookie left him vulnerable to criticism as his 40 receptions, 562 yards and three touchdowns were disappointing when you factor in that he was selected 20th overall the spring before.
But only two rookie tight ends have ever racked up 1,000 yards or more in year one, Mike Ditka in 1961 and Kyle Pitts in 2021. To put the transition rookie tight ends have to make in even better perspective, only 12 rookie tight ends have ever produced 600 yards or more in a season.
It can be extremely difficult for rookie tight ends to make the leap instantly to the NFL since they have to deal with bigger, faster, stronger and more experienced players at all three levels of the defense.
So while Dulcich profiles as a complete tight end and should be capable of making big plays for the Broncos in 2022, it’s important to remember the trajectory his development track is on.
One of the more intriguing questions that will be answered as we progress through the season is, will Dulcich will be able to adapt enough to the NFL to convincingly take over the starting role by the season’s end?
As things appear entering training camp for the season, the Broncos are going to use a “tight end by committee” approach with Okwuegbunam, Dulcich, Eric Tomlinson and Eric Saubert. Saubert and Tomlinson are veterans that should be utilized more in the run game and pass protection while Okwuegbunam and Dulcich bring dynamic receiving skills to the table.
Dulcich absolutely has the talent and ability to become one of the better tight ends in the NFL. Given the situation he is finding himself in as a rookie, it’s possible for him to approach Noah Fant’s rookie year totals. If the former Bruin is able to come along with his blocking and generate big plays at all three levels of the field, he has the talent to instantly outplay his draft position in year one.
With 2022 bringing a new coaching staff, quarterback and hope to a Broncos offense that has been gasping for life since 2015 – it’s possible we see career years from multiple Broncos tight ends this fall.