SEATTLE - On the night the Broncos drafted Noah Fant — first round, 20th overall, a rather lofty spot for a tight end — he was shown a video from his parents, Kathy and Willie Fant.
Mom’s and Dad’s message to their youngest son was so sweet and meaningful to him he cried.
His mom, who would know, acknowledged: “I knew when you were born God had definitely blessed you with size at 11 pounds, 1 ounce.”
(Twenty-one years later, he’s ripped, a marble statue of a young man, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds.)
His dad, who was 8-year-old Noah’s first coach, showed a father’s duty is never done: “I need you to remember: always be a man of God.”
There’s no doubt what drives Noah Fant going into Thursday’s preseason game against the Seahawks here at CenturyLink Field. It’s his family, from Kathy and Willie to older brother Chris, who coached him at Omaha (Neb.) South. And identifying the first-round pick’s motivation in football seems important for the Broncos. All the other boxes are checked: brains, size, speed, hands (19 touchdowns in college, the record for a tight end at Iowa).
Thursday night, the Broncos prefer to see more from one first-round pick (Fant) and the same dazed and confused look they saw over three forgettable seasons from another (Paxton Lynch). Lynch is competing for the backup quarterback job with the Seahawks. Fant is competing for starter snaps as a Broncos rookie.
Family ties matter. Lynch’s inner circle emboldened him to believe the Broncos were at fault for his struggles, not him. And there was Julius Thomas, the most recent Pro Bowl tight end at UCHealth Training Center, whose father was prone to throw shade on John Elway, Peyton Manning and “loser” Broncos fans on the internet. Ah, those were the days.
When Noah Fant was at Iowa his brother criticized Kirk Ferentz and the coaching staff on Twitter. “Hard to watch that mess over and over!” is part of what Chris Fant tweeted.
At least publicly, Noah Fant handled the sticky situation with maturity, sticking up for his family while maintaining good relations with coaches.
“My goals in the NFL are to become one of the best. It’s pretty simple,” Fant told me after practice at UCHealth Training Center on Tuesday. “I have super-high expectations for myself in that aspect. I feel like the coaches do also. They expect great things from me. I’m not trying to play like a rookie. I’m trying to push myself forward, so it’s a building block into next year, too. I always want to be building.”
Fant certainly looks the part. But it has been a slow start. So far in Broncos camp — his first training camp in the pros, always a rough go — he’s stood out for two things: how fast he can run (like a swift wide receiver, plus 40 pounds), and how often he pukes on the practice field (at least four times, by my count). Fant said the speed of the NFL game and how coaches disguise a defense have been key adjustments.
“I go against nickels, corners, safeties, linebackers, anybody. Sometimes Von (Miller) and (Bradley) Chubb drop out in coverage,” he said. “There’s so many moving parts in that defense it’s crazy.”
Fant cited Chris Harris Jr. and Justin Simmons as his fiercest defenders. Makes sense. Defensive backs are the only ones who can catch him.
”I think each day (the pro game) starts to get slower for me,” he said.
It’s rare to see a tight end go in the first round, especially to the Broncos. The last time the Broncos drafted a tight end in the first round was in 1972 with Houston’s Riley Odoms. Watching Harris, Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Will Parks laugh as they count their interceptions after camp practices, it’s hard not to wonder what this defense would look like if Denver had stayed at No. 10 to draft Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. Time will tell if trading back to select Fant was a smart move.
Fant was the second tight end taken in the first round. His Iowa teammate, T.J. Hockenson, went No. 8 overall. Fant was only the ninth tight end taken in the first round in the past decade.
Short list, is what I’m saying.
The best of those was Evan Engram of the Giants (64 catches, 722 receiving yards, six touchdowns, a banner rookie year by any measure). The average rookie-year production from Engram, Hayden Hurst, O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham: 36 catches, 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Would the Broncos take those stats from Fant in 2019? Yes, in roughly the time it took Fant to complete the 40-yard dash at the combine (4.51 seconds, fastest among tight ends). The Broncos haven’t had a tight end catch 36 passes since Owen Daniels (46) in 2015. It’s an issue.
Fant’s motivation is not an issue. It’s a blessing.
“I have a very special relationship with my family. Especially in sports, my dad’s always pushed me harder and harder. He always wants me to get the most out of what I’ve been given,” Fant said when I asked of the draft-night video.
“The one that kind of got my tears jerking was when my mom came on,” he said. “My mom was always involved in the sports side of my life, but she was always the one to hear me out and give me a hug after the game. Being able to make them proud and accomplish a life goal like that was special for me. I’ll never forget it.”
Broncos to wear No. 87 include Ring of Famers Rich “Tombstone” Jackson and Lionel Taylor, as well as two-time world champ Ed McCaffrey, heartthrob Eric Decker and Manning’s practice target from the Super Bowl 50 season, Jordan “Sunshine” Taylor. They pray Fant is another they will never forget, but not like Paxton Lynch.
Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.