The reason the Denver Broncos included tight end Noah Fant in the deal for Russell Wilson was because of their confidence in Albert Okwuegbunam. In spite of the additions of Eric Tomlinson, Eric Saubert, and the third-round selection of Greg Dulcich, Okwuegbunam remained enthusiastic about the progress he was making during the offseason.
With Dulcich sidelined by a chronic hamstring injury, Okwuegbunam emerged as the team’s best tight end during training camp. A lot of people thought Dulcich would try to force his way into the starting role, despite the fact that rookie tight ends typically don’t make an impact in their first year due to the high learning curve they face. A serious injury rendered all of that irrelevant, however.
As early as the second preseason game, it became clear that Okwuegbunam was not as well-liked behind the scenes as he had been previously. He was still playing as the Broncos approached the final period.
Still, Okwuegbunam saw action in 44 of the 66 offensive snaps in the opening game. Although Tomlinson started as a quarterback, Okwuegbunam participated in nearly as many snaps as Tomlinson and Saubert put together.
Okwuegbunam had trouble blocking in the season opener, but he still managed to catch all five of his passes for 33 yards. Initial results were encouraging, but by Week 2, Okwuegbunam had played too many snaps.
Even though the offense played six more snaps (72 to 70) than they did in Week 1, Okwuegbunam only participated in 38 of them. The total number of snaps and the percentage played reduced, although it was still more than the other tight ends. Against the Houston Texans, it could have been brushed off as a simple matter of using available personnel. In terms of snaps, Saubert and Tomlinson both had 24 and 26.
Okwuegbunam’s blocked shot certainly had an impact on his playing time. Although neither Saubert nor Tomlinson was excelling, they were performing noticeably better than Okwuegbunam. Okwuegbunam had an opportunity to contribute as a receiver against the Texans, as he was targeted twice. Unfortunately, he dropped one of those passes.
Okwuegbunam played 24 of 74 possible snaps in Week 3, while Saubert and Tomlinson both saw 35. Even though he caught one of two targets for 12 yards, his decline in fortunes persisted. Denver’s loss against the Las Vegas Raiders meant Okwuegbunam saw just one snap of action and so had little opportunity to make an impact.
Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten addressed Okwuegbunam’s usage, claiming the team’s opponents had more of an impact. If there weren’t a decline, it would be easier to believe. The tight end will see increased field time in the Broncos’ upcoming game against the Indianapolis Colts, according to Outten.
How it plays out remains to be seen, as Okwuegbunam is now ranked dead last among tight ends and is being thoroughly outplayed by the competition. Can the Broncos afford to play a subpar blocker at tight end against a solid defensive front, considering they lost Javonte Williams and have other run-blocking issues?
Outten suggested that the Colts’ talented front seven—even without Shaquille Leonard—makes it dubious to utilize Okwuegbunam. Okwuegbunam’s blockage is the primary cause of his demise, but it is not the only one.