The NFL is currently in Year 2 of its new preseason and regular season format.

The league upped its regular season to 17 games, and trimmed the preseason down to only three games last year.

So, it makes sense there are different philosophies in terms of how to use those three games.

For years, in the four-game preseason format, teams would hold their starters out of the first game. Then, play them 1-2 series in the second game. And usually, teams would play starters either a full quarter or an entire half of the third preseason game, before protecting the starters in the last one.

But, as we saw on Saturday, those rules have changed.

The Buffalo Bills decided to play almost all of their starters in the second preseason game of the year, a shellacking of the Denver Broncos 42-15. Meanwhile, the Broncos — led by first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett — played only a handful of starters.

Hackett should be applauded for deciding to keep the starters safe, for the most part.

One thing that was a bit interested was the way he utilized starting tight end — and crucial offensive piece — Albert Okwuegbunam for basically the entire preseason game.

“Yeah, I think our tight ends are playing really well—all those guys,” Hackett said after the game when asked about Albert O. “The four guys that we had playing quite a bit—five guys we have playing. We want to get a good look at all of them. There are guys that some have played a little more football than others.

“But Albert’s [a] guy that he needs some reps,” Hackett continued. “It was great to see him miss that first one and then come back and catch the next one because that’s what he does. He vertically stretches down the field. I’m excited to see the film and see where they are at.”

The miss Hackett spoke of was an almost-touchdown in which the athletic tight end hauled in but got neither of his two feet in the end zone, when he did have a chance to.

But, as the game continued, Okwuegbunam hauled in four catches for 32 yards on five targets. His best play came at the start of the fourth quarter, a 26-yard catch hauled in from Brett Rypien’s arm.

Even Tim Jenkins, the founder, CEO and QB coach of Jenkins Elite, wondered why Albert O. was still in the game:

For the tight end, it was a fantastic body control adjustment to jump, spin in the air and bring the pass down.

But, was having him out there even worth it?

It was already 42-9 in the game, a preseason contest which is utterly meaningless except for evaluating backup players.

Which Albert O. certainly isn’t.

Simply, the Broncos — and superstar quarterback Russell Wilson — need Okwuegbunam to stay healthy this year. At least through the preseason. They shouldn’t be risking his health.


Wilson’s lack of talented tight ends in Seattle left him with a heat map which is extremely cold in between the hashmarks.

Russell Wilson 2021 heat map. Credit: Pro Football Focus.

Russell Wilson 2021 heat map. Credit: Pro Football Focus.

Of course, Albert O. won’t be the only player roaming the middle of the field, nor will he be the only tight end playing.

It’s possible, considering Hackett’s comments about the third-year tight end, that the new head coach isn’t very impressed with Okwuegbunam’s play in training camp or the preseason to this point.

Keep in mind, the Broncos drafted tight end Greg Dulcich with their third-round pick, plus there’s Eric Saubert, Eric Tomlinson and Dylan Parham on the roster at the position, too.

Still, as a pass-catcher, it seems Okwuegbunam is the most athletic and physically able to be a threat through the air.

For Albert O., the crucial time to continue impressing Hackett and the coaching staff is now. And it seems likely we’ll get another heavy dose of him in Week 3 of the preseason. And for Hackett, figuring out the balance of playing starters is a learning process he’s working through in his first preseason as a head coach.

The Broncos lost key backups vs. the Bills in Michael Ojemudia (elbow, 4-6 weeks) and Malik Reed (eye) during the game, although Reed should be able to go in Week 1 of the regular season.

And while Hackett is clear he dislikes the preseason and the gambles it presents with starters, he’ll have to continue to find balance with playtime next week.

Then, in three weeks from today, the Broncos kick off their regular season with the first-year head coach. There will be more questionable decisions along the way, so Broncos Country has to be ready for that: Let’s ride.