Flashback to 2013, the Denver Broncos had one of the NFL’s most prolific passing attacks in its history as Peyton Manning threw for a league-record 55 touchdowns, lighting up the scoresheet. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker each had over 100 targets and scored 10 or more touchdowns. But the Broncos also unleashed a secret weapon that year, a player that was not featured in nearly any fantasy football analyst’s projections whatsoever. His name was Julius Thomas.
A freak athlete at 6-5, 265 lbs, the former football and basketball player from Portland State went for 65 catches on 90 targets for 788 yards and 12 TDs. Thomas outplayed Jacob Tamme to earn the starting tight end role out of training camp, earned Manning’s trust, and went on to his first of two-consecutive Pro Bowl-caliber seasons.
A freak athlete at 6-5, 265 lbs, Albert Okwuegbunam showed how efficient he can be in 2021, posting a 23% Target per Route Run rate (for reference, Travis Kelce averaged a 23% Target per Route Run from 2019-2021). Ranked at TE13 in Dan Adams’ Top 25 Fantasy Football Tight Ends for 2022, Okweugbunam looks poised to outperform his projections in the wild, wild AFC West this season.
Albert O. ran a 4.49 40 at the 2020 NFL combine, the ninth-fastest time ever posted by a tight end. For reference, Kyle Pitts ran a 4.44 in 2021. Okwuegbunam will pose a matchup problem for safeties and linebackers alike with his sub-4.50 speed, just like Pitts in Atlanta.
Okwuegbunam caught nearly everything thrown his way in 2021, snatching 33 receptions on just 40 targets… from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock (neither exactly known for their accuracy). Last season, he ranked third among all tight ends with an 82.5% catch percentage, falling behind only Hayden Hurst and Durham Smythe.
Russell Wilson is now the QB of the Denver Broncos. He is, by leaps and bounds, the best Broncos quarterback since Manning retired. If the Broncos “Let Russ Cook,” clearly all of the Denver pass-catchers will benefit. The Broncos ended 2021 with just 211.4 passing yards per game, ranking in the NFL’s bottom 10 with just 541 pass attempts. With the weapons that they have in the passing game, the Broncos could open the playbook and air the ball out quite a bit more this season.
In the process of acquiring Wilson, the Broncos shipped away last year’s starting tight end Noah Fant. Fant finished 2021 with 68 catches on 90 targets for 670 yards and four touchdowns, earning TE12 in half-PPR scoring. In dealing Fant, the Broncos signaled that Okwuegbunam is geared to step into the starting role.
The Denver Broncos suffered the unfortunate plight of losing wide receiver Tim Patrick to a season-ending injury early in training camp. Patrick has been the most lethal red zone threat for the Broncos in each of the past two seasons, leading the team with six receiving scores in 2020 and five touchdowns in 2021. With the combined loss of Fant and Patrick, the Denver offense has 175 targets (33.8%) up for grabs entering the 2022 season. If Okwuegbunam could inherit just one-fourth of those targets, it would put him between 80-90 targets for the season.
Over the offseason, the Denver organization parted ways with defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio and brought in the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett. In three seasons with Green Bay, Hackett had a pretty solid track record of making tight ends a contributing part of the offense. He was the architect behind Robert Tonyan’s breakout 2020 and could make significant use of Okwuegbunam’s skill set in his first season running the Broncos offense.
Winning in the West
The AFC West could potentially be an absolute spectacle in 2022, with the Chiefs and Chargers both ranking in the top-five of points per game a season ago, and the Raiders and Broncos’ offenses both improving this offseason. This whole division could potentially rank within the top half of the league in scoring, with divisional matchups being slugfests. I think fantasy football league-winning teams will have significant exposure to all four teams in this division.
Relative Positional Weakness
It does not take much to be a top-10 tight end in the NFL. Last season, the Commanders’ Logan Thomas was TE10 in half-PPR on a points-per-game basis, finishing with an average of 8.9 points (in five games). A tight end averaging nine points per game would very likely finish in the top 10 in 2022. With so many targets up for grabs in the Denver offense, along with the upgrade at quarterback and head coach, and the faith that the Broncos’ organization has shown in Albert O., he is set up nicely for a breakout campaign.
Breakout Precedence at TE
We’ve seen athletic tight ends have crazy breakout seasons in the past. I referenced Julius Thomas’ 2013 season that came out of literally nowhere. Last year, it was Dalton Schultz. An injury to incumbent Blake Jarwin set him up with the opportunity and he smashed, finishing as TE3 in half-PPR. In 2020, it was Tonyan. In 2019, it was Darren Waller. There’s precedence for this kind of breakout, and Okwuegbunam fits the mold.
Albert O. is currently being drafted as TE16, going in the 12th round or later behind names such as Mike Gesicki, Pat Freiermuth, and Cole Kmet. His draft price ranks alongside handcuff runnings backs Jamaal Williams and Raheem Mostert, and speculative wide receiver depth pieces such as Michael Gallup and Rondale Moore. To be able to get top-8 fantasy tight end upside from this late in the draft sets the rest of your team up nicely as well.
You can’t leave the draft without Albert Okwuegbunam if you can’t pronounce his name. You could just say “Albert O,” but that just feels like a cop-out at this point. Deep breath, here we go… “oh-koo-WAY-boo-nahm.”
There, now you’re ready to take him in every draft. Broncos Country, Let’s Riiiiide.
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire)