ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When training camp begins, tight end will be the most competitive, most tightly packed spot on the Denver Broncos' depth chart.
By selecting Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, a former college teammate of quarterback Drew Lock, in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, the Broncos took their fifth tight end in the past six drafts -- a total that includes Noah Fant, the team's first-round pick in 2019.
Earlier this offseason president of football operations/general manager John Elway said: "I like the group we have, I like what Noah did as a rookie, but we're always going to try and find good football players, as many as we can, at every spot. [Tight end] is no different."
Consider all five of those former draft picks are still on the roster -- Okwuegbunam, Fant, Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli. The Broncos also signed Nick Vannett to a two-year, $5.7 million deal this past March. And then there's Andrew Beck, a versatile player who can line up at tight end as well as fullback and played more snaps on special teams last season than any of the other tight ends on the roster.
Do the math: That's seven players the Broncos have invested in for what last season amounted to four roster spots when the team exited training camp.
New offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur hasn't offered many hints -- beyond the get-the-ball-to-the-good-players mantra -- about what his Broncos playbook will look like. Given Shurmur has largely used one-back sets during much of his time as an NFL playcaller, and how aggressively Elway added to the tight end position this offseason, the expectation is the team's tight ends will get plenty of work in the passing game.
"I really do think you have to spread the ball around," Shurmur said. "Typically, in games that you win and play good offense, when you look at the stat sheet at the end of the game, there's probably six or seven guys that caught passes and there's probably two or three guys that ran the ball. I really do think if you're going to play good offense, you need threats outside, inside and in the backfield. It's going to be fun."
Fant, with 40 receptions as a rookie last season, is TE1 and it's hard to believe the Broncos would have sought out Vannett as the kind of receiver/blocker combo they'd like to pair with Fant if they didn't envision him on the roster. And no matter how raw Okwuegbunam might be in his route running, the bottom line is he has rare speed -- 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine at 258 pounds. That's faster than 29 of the wide receivers who ran in Indianapolis.
For his part Beck plays more on special teams, or did this past season, than any of the team's other tight ends, and just after the season Elway said Beck "came in and did a tremendous job."
In short, it doesn't take long to get to four potential candidates for the active roster. Heuerman (third-round pick, 2015), Butt (fifth round, 2017) and Fumagalli (fifth round, 2018) are now in a competition where not everybody is going to have a chair when the music stops.
The Broncos have consistently lauded the potential of all three of those players, but each of the three has battled injuries and spent at least one season on injured reserve with the Broncos.
The Broncos have seen Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce terrorize their defense in recent years and want more at the position in their offense. Three of Kelce's five career games with more than 130 yards receiving have been against the Broncos.
The Broncos haven't had a tight end finish a season with more than three touchdown catches since Julius Thomas had 12 touchdowns in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton said it's all part of the need on offense to give Lock as many options as possible.
"If we get into a situation where Drew and everyone else in the offense gets comfortable with the offense, then we know what we're supposed to do, then it becomes pretty much an unguardable situation to where Coach Shurmur is obviously going to call the best play for us to go and be successful," Sutton said earlier this offseason. "... I think that Coach Shurmur's offense is going to be able to add a lot of threat to all the weapons that we already have on offense."