An NFL tight end has to be two things at once — a brute and a ballerina. Second-year Broncos tight end Noah Fant has the ballerina part down, but until he becomes a brute, his chances to dance will be limited.
NFL offensive coordinators go to great lengths to disguise what they’re doing and eliminate “tendencies,” and there’s no quicker path to tipping your hand than putting a one-dimensional player on the field. Fant, as dynamic as he has been in the passing game, struggles as a blocker, which shrinks the playbook when he’s on the field.
Pat Shurmur was hired to build the run game first. That’s how you take pressure off of Drew Lock. That’s why the money was spent on Melvin Gordon after already having Philip Lindsay. Establish the run and the passing game opens up.
Quarterback keepers and roll outs are effective because the defense chases the run fake in the opposite direction. That’s when Fant can be extra dangerous — coming across the middle with nothing but space in front of him. But for that to work, the opposing defense has to believe he’s a blocker. That hasn’t happened yet.
This is why you’re seeing so much of Nick Vannett; he’s the most polished dual threat tight end on the roster. Teams know he can run block, so when you play-action pass, he comes open. But when Noah Fant gets down in his stance, the defense knows that if it is a run, it’s likely going the other way. This puts Shurmur in a bind.
Noah Fant is working every day to change this dynamic, to become an “every-down tight end,” but it takes time. Run blocking is a three-fold
challenge. One, and the easiest to master, is effort. There has to be a willingness to initiate contact, to deliver a blow and not be discouraged when you get tossed to the ground.
Second, technique. For a natural pass-catcher, run-blocking is counter-intuitive. Running routes is about avoiding contact, slipping punches, and shaking free of a defender. Run-blocking is about smacking a defender, latching on and controlling his movements. This involves precise foot and hand placement, dropping the hips without dropping the head, squaring up the defender and popping him.
The third part is mastering the run-blocking scheme employed in Shurmur’s West Coast-style offense. “Zone blocking” involves blocking an area, not a specific man. This requires a “combo block” between the tight end and tackle, which neutralizes both the defensive end and the linebacker behind him, or any defenders in the area who have hostile intentions. Typically, once the defensive end is blocked, either the tight end or tackle advance to the “second level” to block the linebacker. Who picks up the linebacker depends on which hole he shoots through. It happens fast and takes a lot of repetition to master — practice made difficult by a COVID-shortened offseason and CBA rules restricting padded practices.
You can’t become a better blocker without doing it in shoulder pads and a helmet. And if you don’t become a better blocker, then you can’t be an every-down tight end. And when you’re not an every-down tight end, the defense knows why you’re in the game. And if the defense knows why you’re in the game, they key on you.
The fact that Fant has still been able to flash his brilliance, despite being an easy tell, shows us his potential, and that’s something to be excited about.
The sky is the limit for Fant. But first, he has to get dirty.
Nate Jackson is a former Broncos’ wide receiver/tight end who now lives in Denver. He works part-time at 104.3 The Fan.