With Drew Lock sidelined with a shoulder injury and top wideout Courtland Sutton out for the season with a torn ACL, the onus to jump-start the Broncos’ passing attack falls on tight end Noah Fant.
Through his first 18 career games, Denver’s first-round draft pick from 2019 has proven his big-play capability. He went through rookie growing pains last year (i.e. three drops against Kansas City at home) and quickly learned from them. And now, two games into 2020, Fant’s play is backing up his preseason declaration that he wants to be in the same elite category as All-Pro tight ends Travis Kelce and George Kittle.
But for Fant to take on that offensive onus offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the Broncos backup quarterbacks (Jeff Driskel this week, perhaps Blake Bortles in coming weeks) must keep Fant more consistently involved.
Case-in-point: Fant’s production has been explosive in two of the four halves the Broncos have played so far, and non-existent in the other two.
In Week 1 against Tennessee, the former Iowa star went off for five catches on five targets, tying a career-high, for 81 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The second half? As the Broncos’ offense sputtered with four punts in six possessions, Fant was silent with zero catches on one target that came with 17 seconds left.
“We tried to take advantage of some other matchups, which was a good idea,” Fant said after the loss. “I’m sure we’ll get it figured out and keep pressing forward from there.”
While Fant gave the company line, the real talk is this: In that game, without Sutton out due to a shoulder injury, the Broncos needed to be more aggressive with play-calls geared toward their young, explosive tight end. It was the same story in Week 2 when Fant had no targets in the first half but then made his mark in the second half with four catches on five targets for 57 yards and a touchdown plus a two-point conversion, all off the hand of Driskel.
Driskel, it seems, understands who his top target should be.
“Noah is an unbelievable athlete who’s a big target out there, he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, and he can make the contested catches,” Driskel said. “He’s done it all for us thus far this year, and we’re kind of expecting him to build on that and keep making plays for this offense.”
Coach Vic Fangio said the Broncos are “very comfortable throwing it to him a lot if that’s the best way for us to win.” Throw Fant’s way until the defense proves it can stop him or until the defense’s attention towards the tight end opens up room for the team’s speedy rookie wideouts.
Fant ranks fifth among NFL tight ends in receiving yards with 138 total, but his 15.3 yards per catch average is higher than the other four tight ends on that list. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s also the only player with a perfect 158.3 passer rating on 10 or more targets this season.
“Noah’s able to open up plays for us,” rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy pointed out. “They’re going to start focusing on Noah, so that means more 1-on-1 chances for me, KJ (Hamler) and the other receivers to get open.”
So far, Fant is on track for 88 targets this year, and that’s not near enough for an offense in need of an every-down receiving threat to emerge.
Shurmur’s game plan should have underlined, right at the top of his sheet: Feed Noah Fant.