Draft Analysis: Pick 4.118—Albert Okwuegbunam
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
When the Broncos picked Noah Fant in the 2019 NFL draft, I had this to say: "The combine provides objective proof that Fant is an insane athlete, but how confident can we be that his physical gifts will translate to success on the football field?"
The same question applies to Albert Okwuegbunam, who an analyst on The Draft Network described as, "[a] physical freak with monster size," who "based on his traits alone, looks like a top prospect."
The two TEs are remarkably similar prospects. Below I walk through their defining traits, putting my own analysis of Fant (written at the time he was drafted) side by side with other analysts' commentary on Okwuegbunam. We begin with the trait that most separates the two players from their peers: athleticism.
It's not hyperbole to say that both Fant (97th percentile speed score) and Okwuegbunam (99th percentile) present a combination of size and speed that rank among the best ever tested at the NFL combine. The two players profile incredibly similarly:
Okwuegbunam is a hair bigger and faster, but it's really only by the slightest margin. However, he only participated in the forty and exited Indy with an incomplete athletic profile. Fant, on the other hand, crushed all the drills at the combine and put together an impressive athletic scorecard. Here's what I wrote about Fant's athleticism when the Broncos selected him, followed by a scout's take on Albert O.
Fant: "Despite a 94th percentile sparq score it's really just Fant's size and straight line speed that show up on tape. The other dimensions of his athleticism that popped at the combine did not translate to his on-field performance."
Okwuegbunam: "Okwuegbunam's biggest strength is his size/speed combo, as he's an imposing tight end with a 99th percentile speed score when compared to historical figures for other prospects at the position." (CBS Sports)
Fant: "Most of his route running occurs in a straight line; does not run a diverse route tree. Change of direction skills not good enough to consistently separate on flat-breaking routes."
Okwuegbunam: "Totally a straight line guy that can win on the vertical plane. He lacks the agility and separation quickness needed to truly shake guys at creating separation." (The Draft Network) "Underdeveloped route runner who will need time to adjust to the pace against man coverage at the next level. Stiff lateral movement skills." (The Draft Network)
Run After the Catch
Fant: "Despite the incredible combine performance, Fant is not elusive in the open field. He will occasionally run away from a defender thanks to his 4.50 wheels, but PFF credited him with only 3 missed tackles forced across two years of college. My own tape study shows the same—he's just not a tackle breaker."
Okwuegbunam: "Won’t fool anyone for being a shifty player in the open field." (The Draft Network) "Even with his speed, Okwuegbunam's after-the-catch ability was no different than any other tight end in the class, as he averaged just 5.5 yards after the catch per reception throughout his career while breaking only 12 tackles on 98 career catches." (PFF) "May rumble through some tackles but don't expect a lot of RAC." (The Draft Network)
Fant: "He dropped 11 of 80 catchable targets over the last two seasons. That's pretty bad. I don't like dinging guys too much for drops, but hands are definitely not a strength."
Okwuegbunam: "Has some serious drop issues (10.3% drop rate in his career)." (PFF)
Fant: "Best described as a work in progress. He has some good reps, and some very concerning reps. While he's good enough to convincingly represent a running play when he's on the field, he's not at the point where we should be running towards his gap with confidence."
Okwuegbunam: "Needs considerable growth as a blocker where he underwhelms for his size." (The Draft Network) "A lot of his power and strength is robbed by his high frame, he's not easily able to work under the pads of defenders due to to some tightness in the hips and as a result his push and pop is really tempered and ineffective." (The Draft Network)
The biggest on-field difference between Fant and Okwuegbunam is their ability to win contested catches.
Fant: "He hasn't shown the ability to go up and win 50/50 balls, making only four contested catches over the past two years. He doesn't box out, doesn't high point passes, and doesn't hand fight when the ball is in the air. Maybe he develops these things, but right now they're not part of his game. He scored most of his touchdowns through a combination of good play design and straight line speed."
Okwuegbunam: "Size is one of his best qualities. He'll snatch balls off the top of defenders' fingertips if you ask him to play above the rim and shows good toughness to absorb body shots. Length, reach, soft hands and catch radius combine to mitigate his separation issues. Shows very good concentration and ball skills." (The Draft Network)
The ability to win contested catches is a key difference between the two tight ends, so it's worth looking at how Okwuegbunam separates from Fant in this area. One key to his success is excellent body control when attacking the ball. Whether it's getting a foot down in the corner of the end zone while a DB shoves him out of bounds (TE, right side of the line):
Or fighting through a hand in his face to snatch a pass over the top of a DB, Okwuegbunam is under control.
He also shows the ability to use his hands to gain an advantage at the catch point. In this clip, Okwuegbunam controls the corner's inside shoulder, creating just enough space to stack the DB and wall him off from the back corner of the end zone (split wide, bottom of the screen).
Okwuegbunam's tape is jam-packed with excellent contested catches like these. But similar jump-ball wins are conspicuously missing from Fant's tape.
All in all, Okwuegbunam presents as a remarkably similar prospect to Fant when he was coming out of Iowa. At their core, both players are sketchy blockers with an elite combination of size and speed that result in plays like these (Okwuegbunam lined up at H-back).
Here's Fant turning on the jets (inside slot):
For what it's worth, Fant looks faster to me on tape, but they ran essentially identical forties. Until we see them both on the same field it's probably fair to call their speed comparable.
Even though Fant was the higher draft pick, the biggest difference in their on-field ability actually tips in Okwuegbunam's favor. He's simply much better at playing the ball in the air. Fant's rookie season made it glaringly apparent that he has issues tracking the ball, and Okwuegbunam looks far more capable on that front. Here he is making a difficult catch that requires him to locate the ball coming in over his shoulder at a tricky angle—just the sort of read that Fant struggled with as a rookie (slot, bottom of the screen).
So why did Fant go in the first while Okwuegbunam plummeted to the fourth? It could be in part because of the way teams perceive Okwuegbunam's commitment to the game. Fair or not, there are concerns about his effort level as a blocker, willingness to play through pain, and overall desire to be playing football.
While those sorts of questions may have pushed Okwuegbunam down draft boards, Fant's all-around athletic dominance likely pushed him up into the first round. Okwuegbunam undoubtedly helped himself by crushing the forty, but Fant's combine performance likely did even more to raise his draft stock. Testing in all the drills instead of just one makes a difference.
Additionally, it's easier to make inferences about the way the NFL values a player when they fall to later rounds than when they're taken early. A slide requires that every team pass on a player, while an early selection only tells you that one team likes the guy. In this case, it could be that the Broncos were uniquely high on Fant. So, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello's interest in speed at tight end possibly pushing Fant's stock up and attitude concerns driving Okwuegbunam's down, it makes sense why each landed where they did in the draft. But looking purely at their ability, Fant and Okwuegbunam bring much of the same to the table.
In selecting the Missouri tight end, Denver is going all in on the Andy Reid-style track meet approach to offense. There simply aren't many teams that will be able to run with a pass-catching group that includes Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Noah Fant, and Albert O—not to mention Courtland Sutton, Melvin Gordon, and Phillip Lindsay, who present their own matchup issues in the passing game.
Okwuegbunam has all the physical gifts required to succeed in the NFL. Whether that happens will come down to the biggest question marks in his profile: his commitment to the game, and his ability as a student and learner. One reason to be hopeful is that heading to Denver reunites him with his college quarterback. Drew Lock reportedly gave his blessing on the Okwuegbunam pick before Elway sent it in. Let's hope that Lock knows something we don't about Okwuegbunam's work ethic and character, and that the former teammates can rekindle the outstanding chemistry they built together in college.