ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Greg Dulcich was getting an accelerated on-field course in how to play first-team tight end for the Denver Broncos, and with Russell Wilson at quarterback, no less.
Ordinarily, rookies destined to eventually become starters spend most of their offseason working with the backup unit before getting their promotion a week into training camp or so. While the first-teamers fine-tune, the rookies observe and absorb, learn the playbook and prove they can first consistently execute the assignments before joining the good guys.
Even Broncos who started Day 1 of the regular season, like first-round left tackle Garett Bolles and third-round center Lloyd Cushenberry III, played behind a veteran during the offseason.
Dulcich, a third-round pick out of UCLA, was sharing the Broncos’ first-team reps with third-year veteran Albert Okwuegbunam through the first two weeks of Broncos OTAs in late May/early June. Dulcich’s fast track, though, hit the brakes as a minor core muscle pull forced him to sit out as a precaution the final week of OTAs and the Broncos’ two-practice mandatory minicamp.
With Broncos coaches reporting for training camp Monday, and players next Tuesday, one of the questions confronting the team is: Who will be the starting tight end, the veteran Okwuegbunam or the kid Dulcich?
The vet is the way to bet, at least early. Dulcich should be full go for the start of training camp, but look for Okwuegbunam to get the first of the first-team reps. Okwuegbunam was the unquestioned No. 1 tight end after the Broncos moved Noah Fant to Seattle in March as part of the Wilson trade.
“Obviously, that opens up a big opportunity for me,’’ Okwuegbunam said in May.
But then, six weeks later, the Broncos drafted Dulcich in the third round. Third rounders usually take half a season, if not a year or two, before they make a contribution other than special teams, but Dulcich immediately was taking turns inside the first-team huddle.
“I didn’t think too much of it,’’ Okwuegbunam said two months ago about the Dulcich selection. “I’m still just focusing and approaching it as being ready to step into that No. 1 spot and do the best to my ability and approach every day the same.”
Okwuegbunam, 24, is the bigger tight end at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds. He has a low-burn personality that should not be confused for lack of passion. He competes. He strives. Even if he doesn’t outwardly show it. And in his first two NFL seasons, Okwuegbunam showed flashes of big-play potential.
Dulcich, 22, may be a more natural receiver at 6-4, 245. He is confident and comfortable in his own skin, showing off his toned quads by wearing the shortest of shorts on the practice field and letting his brown curls flow beneath his helmet. But he’s also smart enough to not get too carried away. He knows what he doesn’t know.
“I think there is a lot to work on—pass game, showing some more wiggle and learning how coverages are going to be played in the NFL,’’ Dulcich said in May. “It’s going to be a lot different than college. The run game, too, and being more explosive and coming off the ball.’’
Both Okwuegbunam and Dulcich have superior receiving talent and need to get better at blocking. Nathaniel Hackett will use both. It could be that Okwuegbunam is the No. 1 tight end early in the season but Dulcich takes over about midseason. But that’s just speculation based on the early work the Broncos gave Dulcich with the No. 1 offense this offseason. Come the regular season, performance will dictate playing time.
The Broncos will also mix in blocking tight end Eric Tomlinson for roughly 20% of the snaps. Tomlinson is a 6-foot-6, 263-pound road grader who had just 2 catches for 8 yards the past three years combined while playing for four teams. But watching him move on a wide-zone running ball should be something to behold.
The Broncos also brought back solid veteran Eric Saubert, a team-first player who is well-liked in the locker room and can fill in adequately if a tight end gets nicked up for a week or so.
But Okwuegbunam and the rookie Dulcich promise to have one of the most closely contested training camp competitions.
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