Reviewing the Denver Broncos tight ends for 2020

Before training camp, our position review series looks at each of the team's position groups. Today we'll focus on the Broncos tight ends for 2020.

After going through all of the Denver Broncos quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers in our on-going series reviewing each of the team’s position groups, it’s now time to focus on the Broncos tight ends entering 2020. For Denver, the TE position has been hard to fulfill since the departure of Julius Thomas after the 2014 season, but it appears that general manager John Elway may have found a solution for the Broncos at the position.

[sv slug=”mocksim”]

Overview of the Broncos tight ends for 2020

The Broncos 2020 tight end room projects to have a lot of turnover from last year’s unit, with players like Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman likely moving on following the addition of Nick Vannett in free agency. It will likely feature a much more athletic group than what Denver has had in previous years, as 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant continues to develop and Albert Okwuegbunam makes his Broncos debut.

Meanwhile, Andrew Beck will look to fend off Troy Fumagalli and Austin Fort, to renew his role as the team’s hybrid receiving and blocking TE.

Can Noah Fant develop into a star tight end?

One of the more interesting storylines surrounding an individual for the Broncos in 2020, will be whether or not Fant develops into a star at the position. Tight ends typically struggle during their rookie seasons while making the transition to the NFL, more than most positions, only to pop in their second year. Fant experienced some early struggles at the beginning of 2019, but drastically improved week to week.

The flashes were there for Fant throughout 2019, in games against the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, and his second outing against the Kansas City Chiefs. He displayed the physical ability to become a mismatch nightmare at his position with his ability to pick up yardage after the catch, his size, and speed. With that said, he also had various instances on film of missing key blocks and struggling with drops early in the season.

Featured | NFLPA provides updates on precautions and preparations for the 2020 NFL season

Fant was targeted 66 times and had five dropped passes in 2019. An area of his game where he can improve will be his consistency as a blocker. It’s important to note that Fant’s stat line during his rookie season is almost indistinguishable in comparison to some of the league’s top TE’s.

What is Nick Vannett’s role among the Broncos 2020 tight ends?

The two-year contract that Denver gave Vannett means he will be on the roster in 2020 and will have a likely prominent role, but what that role will be, remains a mystery. Vannett isn’t as gifted of a receiver as Fant or even Okwuegbunam, but he is a solid blocker. So how will he fit in with the Broncos tight ends in 2020?

Considering how little offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur utilizes multiple TE sets, Vannett will likely become a rotational player that will give Fant a break when he needs one and to also help out in the run game as a blocker.

As the season wears on, look for Okwuegbunam to be integrated into Vannett’s role. Vannett’s 2021 dead cap hit of $875,000 could indicate there’s a chance he may only be a Bronco for 2020. How Okwuegbunam plays as a rookie will likely determine which path the Broncos take with Vannett.

How much will Albert Okwuegbunam see the field as a rookie?

Considering the Broncos free agency signing of Vannett and their 2019 first-round selection of Fant, TE didn’t appear to be a position of need for the Broncos ahead of 2020. When Okwuegbunam was available when the Broncos were on the clock in the fourth round, Elway relied on quarterback Drew Lock’s input for intel. The Broncos trusted Lock with his information and selected Okwuegbunam in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

While Fant is a sizable, fast, and athletic receiving TE, Okwuegbunam’s combine numbers suggest he’s even bigger and faster than him. Having a potential duo with those traits can help the offense stretch the seams, making it difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to gameplan on how to stop them.

Related | How will the Broncos utilize rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam?

As a rookie, Okwuegbunam will likely be utilized in the red zone, where his mismatch ability will be showcased. At the college level, one of Missouri’s go-to plays was the goal-line fade to Okwuegbunam towards the back interior of the endzone. Even though opposing defenses knew it was coming, they struggled to stop it due to Okwuegbunam’s size and ability to position his body to shield off defenders. If it worked at the highest level of college football, there’s a chance he will have a similar level of success in the red zone in the NFL.

Can Andrew Beck sneak onto the final roster as a tight end-fullback hybrid?

Last season for the Broncos, Beck took over duties as the team’s fullback when Andy Janovich dislocated his elbow. Beck’s use can translate into an h-back or wing TE in Shurmur’s offensive system where he can be utilized in cross-motion underneath formations to the flats as a receiver or to kick out edge defenders as a back-side blocker.

The Broncos’ overall depth at TE currently makes Beck expendable and puts his roster spot in jeopardy, but he should hold enough value as a blocker in the run game that the Broncos keep him around on the final roster, or at the very least, the practice squad.

Is Jeff Heuerman’s fate already sealed?

Heuerman finds himself in a tough position amongst the Broncos tight ends in 2020. Previously, he was the Broncos starting TE in 2018, but the addition of Fant in the first round in 2019, relegated him to the role of a rotational player. With the off-season addition of his former teammate Vannett, he’ll have to compete for a roster spot at training camp.

As the Broncos get ready to navigate through training camp on July 28th, Heuerman will have his work cut out for him against other TE’s. If the Broncos were to release Heuerman, they would free up nearly $3.9 million in cap space. Once training camp kicks off, Heuerman will battle the odds to potentially make the Broncos roster at TE in 2020.

Can Jake Butt finally realize his potential?

Butt finds himself in a similar, yet slightly different position than Heuerman in regards to remaining a Bronco.

The case against him making the final roster is that, like Heuerman, he doesn’t have a clear role to fill following the team’s signing of Vannett. Butt’s injury history warrants some concern and the Broncos could save a little over $800,000 by releasing him if he didn’t win one of the team’s final roster spots. The case for Butt remaining as a member of the organization is that he has the potential to be a better overall player than Vannett in that same role if healthy, and more importantly, he’s still practice-squad eligible.

Its likely Butt won’t make the final roster, but if he hangs around on the scout team and can stay healthy, he could be an ideal replacement for Vannett if the Broncos decide to move on from him after the season. Odds are, another team would likely pick Butt up off of waivers if released by the Broncos.

Troy Fumagalli needs to recapture his form from last year’s training camp.

In last year’s training camp, Fumagalli turned heads as both a blocker and receiver but struggled in both the preseason and regular season. The Broncos activated him for only 11 games in 2019 where he saw more than 20 snaps on the field only once.

Despite being a last-minute roster addition, Beck stood out in his role as a blocking tight end over Fumagalli. The only chance Fumagalli has of making the final roster is by outperforming the Beck, Butt, Heuerman, and Fort.

Can Austin Fort steal Beck’s role back?

If he didn’t suffer a torn ACL in the Broncos first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2019, Fort might have become an undrafted gem for Denver last season.

Fort stood out during multiple practices at training camp in 2019. He was one of the more consistent and disciplined blockers on the field and made the most of every rep he earned with the Broncos first and second-team offensive units. Fort became an early favorite to make the roster at the position and was granted the opportunity to start in the team’s first preseason game. Unfortunately, his knee injury derailed that from happening.

Despite the injury, the expectations for Fort are high, but now he finds himself in an underdog role against Butt, Heuerman, Fumagalli, and Beck for the fourth TE spot on the final roster. If he can perform in practice the way he did last season, there is a strong chance he could find a way to sneak onto the team’s final roster.

What will the depth chart for the Broncos tight ends in 2020 look like?

The Broncos tight ends for 2020 are an easier position group to forecast in comparison to others, as the team will likely carry no more than four players at the position into the season. With three players ideally locking up their spot on the roster, the final spot will be up for grabs in one of the Broncos’ biggest position battles at training camp.

Beck, Fumagalli, Heuerman, and Fort will all compete for the final spot on the depth chart. Entering camp, Beck is widely considered to be the early favorite for the Broncos in 2020.

For more Broncos coverage and content, follow us on Twitter: @BroncosPFN

Related Articles