STATE OF THE ROSTER

Could two-tight end sets with Greg Dulcich and Albert Okwuegbunam be in the Broncos’ future?

Jan 20, 2023, 10:20 PM
Greg Dulcich...
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the offseason gets under way, we’ll be taking a look at each position and where it stacks up.

STATE OF THE ROSTER: TIGHT END

Greg Dulcich’s season was as frustrating as it was promising.

As a pass-catcher, he had the second-best season for a rookie tight end in Broncos history. He trailed only Noah Fant in 2019 for receptions and receiving yards in a first season. But he accomplished that despite playing a mere 10 games due to hamstring injuries that bracketed his season.

Dulcich missed the first five games and the final two. But what’s more, he missed nearly all of training camp, the entirety of preseason and most of OTAs. The repetitions he needed to improve as a blocker evaporated.

What Dulcich did — despite the obstacles — was remarkable. He didn’t blossom as a blocker, but he took the first steps.

“Coach (Jake) Moreland, my tight ends coach, did a really great job with me, trying to hone in on the specific techniques — pushing off on one foot against the other, hand placement, all that kind of stuff — to get me better, especially because of all the time I missed,” Dulcich said.

But as Dulcich played, Albert Okwuegbunam sat on the bench. The third-year veteran saw his playing time decline in the season’s first four weeks — even while Dulcich continued to work his way back from the hamstring injury.

So, his lack of use was not solely due to Dulcich — another vertical-stretch pass-catching threat — becoming available for Week 6 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Mounting injuries at wide receiver seemed to create a window for the Broncos to use some two-tight end sets with Okwuegbunam spelling a receiver, but the Broncos’ coaches passed on that idea, too.

There is little doubt that Okweugbunam needs to become more consistent. He had two clean drops of 12 catchable passes last year. Only Mike Boone had a worse drop rate (one every 5.5 catchable passes). When he returned to prominent action in Week 17 at Kansas City, he appeared rusty. He double-caught his touchdown pass in the third quarter of that game.

But Okwuegbunam did get open, and he was a Russell Wilson overthrow away from an explosive play seven days later against the Chargers. And it was hard not to look at the possibilities if the Broncos could get Dulcich and Okweugbunam on the field together next year.

“I think that would be really cool. Me and Albert on the field on the same time — we could do a lot of cool stuff with that,” Dulcich said.

They might sacrifice blocking, but the duo could be explosive together. And few defenses have the personnel to adequately defend a pair of 240-to-250-pound players with speed bursting into space.

But it goes beyond that.

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SPECIFIC PLAYERS FOR SPECIFIC ROLES

What the Broncos lacked is a No. 1 tight end who excels at everything. Those players are rare, of course. And they must be cultivated. Travis Kelce didn’t walk through the Chiefs’ door as a complete tight end; he had to blossom as a blocker after breaking out as a downfield threat during his final season at the University of Cincinnati in 2012.

Denver hopes Dulcich can become that all-around, every-down tight end. The closest player the Broncos had to that in 2022 was Eric Saubert, who was the team’s most-effective pass catcher at breaking tackles. Per data compiled by SportRadar.com, Saubert averaged one broken tackle every 5 catches. That was the best rate for any Bronco with at least three receptions.

Eric Tomlinson ranked second among Broncos tight ends in snaps with 407, trailing only Dulcich. Most of his work was as a blocker, although he caught two short-yardage touchdown passes in the final five games of the season. He had more scores in the last five games than in his first 80 career NFL contests (1). He also led Denver’s tight ends with 12 starts.

And then, when the Broncos needed a fullback, they usually turned to Andrew Beck. But he also worked as an H-back and tight end. Beck also averaged 19.2 special-teams snaps a game, which led all Broncos offensive players.

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CONTRACTUALLY SPEAKING

GREG DULCICH: Under contract through 2025.

With better health, Dulcich’s rookie contract could become one of the best bargains on the roster.

ERIC SAUBERT: Unrestricted free agent.

Saubert and Russell Wilson clicked early, although his use as a pass-catching target was infrequent. He posted career highs in catches (15) and yards (148). Saubert had a cap value of $1,047,500 on a 1-year deal, per OvertheCap. Denver could bring him back once the market settles.

ERIC TOMLINSON: Unrestricted free agent.

Tomlinson played 2022 on a 1-year, $1.035-million deal. A similar contract would make sense.

ANDREW BECK: Unrestricted free agent.

The coaching hire could play a massive role in Beck’s status. If it’s Sean Payton, Beck might have a future — if Payton sees him as a true fullback. The ex-Saints head coach makes more use of the fullback than most offensive play-callers.

ALBERT OKWUEGBUNAM: Under contract through 2023.

It will be a put-up-or-shut-up offseason and camp for the 2020 fourth-round pick.

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