On the Broncos’ opening possession of the season, Russell Wilson’s first three passes and first two completions went to Andrew Beck.
At the time, it felt like a good omen for the Broncos’ tight ends. Beck was at the bottom of the positional depth chart, after all, and hadn’t had a reception in three years.
Would the tight ends, headlined by third-year pro Albert Okwuegbunam, be a core feature of the Broncos’ new offense with Wilson at the helm?
Three weeks later, that hasn’t been the case. Okwuegbunam has six catches for 45 yards on 10 targets, while Eric Saubert has one catch for 22 yards and Beck hasn’t caught a pass since that first drive in Seattle.
Saubert has the tight end group’s lone touchdown — a clutch catch that propel Denver past Houston in Week 2. Beyond that… the Shannon Sharpe impressions have been at a minimum. But head coach Nathaniel Hackett isn’t worried about the lack of pizzazz from the position so far.
“For us, it’s just about trying to take what the defense is going to give us with those (tight ends),” Hackett said. “Sometimes there are great matchups, sometimes there’s not great matchups and you want to be sure that you’re capitalizing on whatever you can find that week within your preparation. So, we want to involve (all the weapons). We don’t want it to just be about the tight ends.
“We want it to be about the running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers and make them have to cover everybody, because (that way) you never know when (the tight ends) will explode next.”
While that may be the goal, the detonations have been few and far between.
A woeful start in the red zone (1 for 7 so far) hasn’t helped, nor has the offense’s struggle to establish an overall rhythm getting in and out of the huddle.
Receiver Courtland Sutton, on an early Pro Bowl pace with 19 catches for 291 yards, has seen a 47.7% share of the Broncos’ pass yards so far. Meanwhile, running back Javonte Williams is the team’s leading second-leading pass-catcher (15 receptions) behind Sutton (19).
The lack of tight end targets could be a result of the system: Over Hackett’s three seasons as the offensive coordinator in Green Bay, the Packers’ leading tight end averaged 426 yards and just over five touchdown catches a year.
For Okwuegbunam’s part, the third-year pro is “focusing on what I can control.” Since Noah Fant was traded to Seattle in March as part of the Wilson deal, Okwuegbunam (Denver’s fourth-round pick in 2020 out of Missouri) was expected to emerge as a bona fide passing threat this year.
He had five catches in Week 1, but none in Week 2, and just one reception for 12 yards in Week 3.
“Right now I’m worried about blocking well, about helping our team win,” Okwuegbunam said. “Obviously when those targets come, my plan is to take full advantage of them, and that’s still my mindset as it was at the start of the year.”
Despite the tight ends’ lack of receiving production early on, Hackett said the group adds plenty of other dimensions to the offense that have value. While Okwuegbunam could break out at any time, Saubert and Eric Tomlinson provide veteran presences and solid in-line blocking technique, with the former proving in Week 2 that he can do more than just open up holes. And Beck remains the Broncos’ versatile fullback/tight end hybrid.
“I think all those guys bring different attributes, and that’s the cool thing about them,” Hackett said. “Every guy that goes in there can do some things a little bit different in the capacity of blocking, pass protection, run game, all those things.”
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