NFL Draft: What the Denver Broncos are getting in Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa’s longtime football coach, made waves in November when he referred to Noah Fant as a “specialist” after continued questions about why he wasn’t being used more often.
The term was panned, mainly because it seemed to be short-changing Fant’s contributions and ability. But while the word choice was poor, Ferentz was trying to say there’s not really another player like Fant. He is special.
Fant, who was chosen No. 20 overall by the Denver Broncos in Thursday's NFL draft, possesses wide-receiver speed in a tight end’s body, at 6-foot-4, 249 pounds.
He can jump higher than most NBA players (his jaw-dropping vertical of 39½ inches at the NFL Combine was actually short of the 42 he achieved last summer).
He caught more touchdown passes (19) in his three-year Iowa career than any other tight end in the Hawkeyes’ illustrious history.
Fant is a unique talent, and probably one Iowa will be hard-pressed to produce another like him again. That’s why he was always going to be a tantalizing NFL prospect. The Broncos got excellent value at No. 20.
Some of them have already been mentioned, but statistics (78 catches, 1,039 yards) only describe part of Fant's production. The less-visible effect of Fant's presence on the field is the attention he attracts — he consistently drew double teams or an opponent's top defender; and if he didn't, he would make them pay.
Fant has the speed to run away from most linebackers, and even if safeties can keep pace, he's carrying several inches and about 35-40 extra pounds. He can be a mismatch nightmare — especially in the red zone.
That's where Fant did a ton of damage, often being the target of quick outs or crossing patterns near the goal line.
Pro Football Focus dinged him for 13 career dropped passes. It's true, he had some ill-timed drops at Iowa. But he also made some very difficult catches, be it high-pointing the ball or scooping up low throws near the ground.
We may never truly know the real reason why Fant played 246 fewer snaps than T.J. Hockenson in 2018. That's an issue that surely 32 NFL teams investigated. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. recently spoke about college athletes that partially check out — knowing the NFL is near, for fear of getting hurt — and then are fine at the next level. Given the fact that Vic Fangio was willing to make Fant his first draft pick as Denver's head coach, the Broncos surely feel comfortable that there are no lingering issues.
Fant is not a prototypical in-line blocker as a tight end. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein said he "lacks (the) grit and play strength necessary at the point of attack."
Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts
Too often, we get focused on what players aren't, instead of what they are.
Ferentz was on the right track with the "specialist" comment. A more creative and wide-open offensive system probably could've used Fant to do even bigger things than Iowa did. The Hawkeyes used him a lot, but they should have used him more.
A few plays stand out as I reflect on Fant's career at Iowa.
One, how he took a screen pass at Purdue and turned it into a 65-yard gain up the left sideline — pulling a helpless Boilermaker 10 additional yards along the way.
Two, how he wasn't ready when the ball was snapped near the goal line at Penn State — and Nate Stanley threw an interception that ultimately sealed Iowa's loss late in the fourth quarter.
Fant has the potential for high payoffs, but still has more to prove. He's no doubt got all the physical tools. He'll need excellent coaching to refine his tight-end craft. Having a veteran quarterback in place in Denver in Joe Flacco should help with his development.
But if he's used correctly, he could be an elite tight end in the NFL for years to come.