One of Drew Lock’s best passes as Missouri’s quarterback in 2018 came on a two-point-conversion attempt … following a delay-of-game penalty … in a game the Tigers lost by 14 points.
But for Broncos fans, the connection between Lock and recently drafted tight end Albert Okwuegbunam that September day against second-ranked Georgia should generate excitement.
The penalty allowed Lock to line up in shotgun at the 8-yard line. Using the additional space to survey the end zone, Lock stood in a clean pocket and watched as Okwuegbunam used a double move to beat cornerback Tyrique McGhee. Lock fired a dart to him before safety J.R. Reed could arrive to break it up.
The successful conversion displayed Lock’s strong arm and the 6-foot-5 Okwuegbunam’s matchup problems but was otherwise a footnote in a 43-29 loss. However, it doesn’t require much imagination to envision the throw-and-catch playing on a loop in Broncos general manager John Elway’s office.
A year after trading up in the second round to draft Lock, the Broncos selected Okwuegbunam in last month’s fourth round.
Elway consulted with Lock about Okwuegbunam, whose production dipped from 43 catches for 466 yards as a sophomore (with Lock) to 26 catches for 306 yards as a junior (without him). Confident with the response he was given, Elway made his move and added Okwuegbunam to an already loaded position group led by Noah Fant and includes Nick Vannett, Jeff Heuerman and former fifth-round picks Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli. Andrew Beck is expected to be a tight end/H-back/fullback option.
“When Drew gave him the seal of approval, we were glad he was our target in the fourth round,” Elway said. “Plus, to put him on the other side from Noah, he’s a 4.49 guy that can really run at 258 pounds, and a big target in the red zone.”
It’s no surprise Lock would sign off on his big tight end. He and Okwuegbunam established a connection at Missouri from the moment they stepped on the field together. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Okwuegbunam caught a 27-yard touchdown pass against Missouri State in his first college game. That was the first of his 11 touchdowns, which included a 10-yard scoring reception against Arkansas that gave Lock the SEC’s single-season record for touchdown passes.
At Missouri, Okwuegbunam averaged a touchdown once every 4.3 catches.
“I think what makes Albert so special is how smart he is and how he finds open spots on the field,” Lock said. “Really, him in the red zone, you can find a lot of clips of us at Mizzou on corner routes, putting it up high to him and letting him go get it.”
Corner routes may have been their bread and butter, but what stood out from games against Arkansas in 2017 and Georgia in 2018 was the many ways Missouri coaches utilized Okwuegbunam.
In a 48-45 win against the Razorbacks, he lined up … on the right end and ran in front of Lock for a dump-off (19 yards) … on the left end and ran in front of Lock for a dump-off (15 yards) … on the right end, faked a block and trickled into the secondary (10-yard TD) … on the left end and ran an over route (11 yards) … on the right end and ran a corner route (eight-yard TD).
Okwuegbunam’s performance in the win capped a ridiculous stretch in which he caught 10 touchdowns over five games, including four straight games with at least two touchdown grabs.
Ten months later, Missouri’s coaching staff really unleashed Okwuegbunam against Georgia.
In addition to his two-point conversion, he caught passes lined up … on the left end and ran a jerk route toward the sideline (nine yards before fumbling) … on the right end and ran in front of Lock for a dump-off (seven yards) … as one of three receivers to the right and ran a dig route (eight yards) … on the right end and ran a crossing route (nine yards) … split out to the right and ran a dig (eight yards) … split out to the right and caught a back-shoulder pass (16 yards) … on the left end and ran in front of Lock for a dump-off (10 yards) … split out to the left and ran a crisp slant route (12 yards) … split out to the left and ran a stop route (seven yards).
Lock showed trust in Okwuegbunam as a security blanket underneath — a design that often involved him faking a hand-off, reading the defensive end and quickly getting the ball out. That’s a wrinkle Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur should consider using with Okwuegbunam and Fant as a run-pass option that allows Lock to make simple reads and throws.
Lock also believed in Okwuegbunam as a vertical threat and was willing to go to him regardless of whether he was covered by a linebacker, cornerback or safety. Lock’s back-shoulder pass against Georgia was reminiscent of a throw he would make to receiver Courtland Sutton.
“He is a massive human being,” Lock said. “He is very athletic, can go up and get the ball and moves really well.”
Okwuegbunam’s production dropped in 2019 while playing with quarterback Kelly Bryant, and his usage in a 34-14 win over South Carolina showed why. He caught passes when he lined up on the right end and ran a route into the flat (three-yard TD), as part of a three-receiver set to the left and ran a stop route (six yards) and another three-receiver set to the left and ran an out route (10 yards).
Missouri’s offense functioned differently with Bryant than Lock, most noticeably in the first quarter when the Tigers ran and were stopped on third- and fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. On both plays, Okwuegbunam was getting single coverage from cornerback R.J. Roderick, who was giving up five inches in the matchup. It’s impossible to say for sure that Lock would have looked for Okwuegbunam on one or both of those plays, but it sure seems plausible.
As Okwuegbunam enters the NFL, he is unlikely to unseat Fant as the starting tight end, but his connection with Lock should help him contribute early on.