The Denver Broncos offense sputtered last season under Nathaniel Hackett, shutting down the prior offseason’s proposed excitement surrounding the team’s ability to have an explosive offense. One player on the roster who possesses explosive, athletic traits, and can help move the chains is Albert Okwuegbunam.

When the Broncos initially drafted him in 2020, his offensive traits as a pass-catching tight end were quickly demonstrated. He appeared in four games for the Broncos that season before suffering a torn ACL against the Atlanta Falcons.

In those four games Okwuegbunam played in, he hauled in 11 catches on 15 targets for 121 yards, one receiving touchdown — and six of his 11 receptions moved the chains for a first down. What was even more impressive was how quickly he moved at 6’5 250lbs.

He attacked physical therapy and rehab on his knee aggressively and returned in time for the start of the 2021 season. Despite playing behind Noah Fant, Okwuegbunam started six games that season and appeared in 14 games total. He hauled in 33 catches on 40 targets for 330 yards (10.0 yards per reception) and had two receiving touchdowns on the year.

When the Broncos put him in the slot, on the outside, or even flexed him as an F-back, he capitalized on making plays in open space by using his speed, athleticism, and size. After Nathaniel Hackett took over as the team’s head coach, and the acquisition of Russell Wilson — on paper it seemed like a no-brainer that Okwuegbunam could have a potentially significant role inside of the offensive scheme.

Things went the opposite direction. Despite having a strong training camp, Okwuegbunam saw very minimal targets early on in the season before seemingly getting phased out of the offensive game plan. He saw 18 total targets last season with seven of them coming in the final two games of the season after Jerry Rosburg took over as the interim coach.

Rosburg himself noted in a press conference that he wasn’t sure why Okwuegbunam wasn’t on the field all season long and made it a point to elevate him. Under Hackett, he made Okwuegbunam a gameday inactive for seven games while choosing not to use him in two other games where he was available if needed.

The Broncos’ fourth-year tight end hauled in a touchdown catch against the Kansas City Chiefs from Russell Wilson which gave them the lead in the third quarter.

He saw his most action of the season in the Broncos’ final two games.

Sean Payton’s arrival could mean great things for Okwuegbunam

If anybody knows how to maximize the tight end position it’s Sean Payton. Having worked with great players like Jason Witten, Jeremy Shockey, and Jimmy Graham, Payton understands that not every tight end is meant to do the same thing — which could work out great for the Denver Broncos.

Whether that’s being an in-line option with a hand in the dirt, flexed in the slot, or maneuvered around in a Joker-type role, Payton understands that different players at that position can offer things that make the offense more diverse in ability.

“He can run,” Payton said during mandatory minicamp. “He’s athletic. I think consistency. He’s made progress. He’s at that stage where this is the time. He did make a few plays. I was encouraged with that. I think that as a teacher, our job is to hit the ceiling with these guys. He’s been very attentive. We’re not in pads yet, so that tight end position is interesting. Some of them are better run blockers, some are better receivers. He’s certainly athletic. I’ve said this a million times. Confidence is born out of demonstrated ability. We can wish for confidence, and you can say, ‘I’m confident.’ We’ve all seen moments where players do something in a game and all of a sudden—so it has to be born out of demonstrated abilities. There’s a catch he makes today that gives that young man confidence that he can do it again. That’s the growth spurt. It just can’t be wished for.”

For Okwuegbunam, he’s been focused on carving out a role for himself inside the offense.

“It’s going good,” Okwuegbunam told Mile High Sports about how the offseason has been for him. “I’m just taking all of the steps and just competing and doing everything that I can to regain a role coming off of last season.”

With a new head coach in Payton and new position coach Declan Doyle, Okwuegbunam feels like he’s been put in a position to make plays which has led to him regaining confidence.

“100%, that’s part of coming out here and making plays,” Okwuegbunam said. “Gaining confidence in myself, not just for myself, but from the coaches, my teammates, quarterbacks, and everybody since coming out and demonstrating — and reminding everybody of my talent and abilities.”

While observing Okwuegbunam throughout the team’s off-season program, he looks like he’s having fun again. Anybody watching practice could see that his level of confidence has grown. Part of that stems from Payton’s approach — while he’s acknowledged that last year’s offensive tape was hard to watch for the entire team, his arrival means that a fresh start is in order for everybody.

The vibe around Dove Valley with Payton’s presence has been entirely different than anything the Denver Broncos have had arguably since Gary Kubiak. Every practice period has an intention behind it as Payton thinks beyond just the X’s and O’s.

“It’s great,” Okwuegbunam said on Thursday. “Having a coach with a great pedigree, great history overall is amazing. Adding having coached some really good tight ends, that’s great as well. Just knowing that he’s been there and done it before, anything that he asks of you, you know it’s going to be right.”

He’s attacked this offseason aggressively with his strength and conditioning, and speed training, and has carried over a new-found level of confidence that wasn’t there last season. With Payton’s history and in-depth attention to detail about the offense and every position, if Okwuegbunam can continue to carry over his momentum into training camp, it’s easy to project that he’ll be a big part of the Broncos’ plans on the offensive side of the ball.

Even though the Denver Broncos have an extremely talented second-year tight end in Greg Dulcich — a world exists inside Payton’s offense where both Dulcich and Okwuegbunam can have success and challenge defenses in different ways.