Broncos fans aren't so 'meh' on Noah Fant anymore

NFL draft profile: Noah Fant (0:58)

Noah Fant is a tight end out of Iowa who caught 19 touchdowns during his stint with the Hawkeyes. (0:58)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Let's just say there wasn't much confetti to be found when the Denver Broncos traded down in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft to a select tight end from Iowa, one Noah Fant.

It wasn't the public cascade of boos quarterback Donovan McNabb had to endure in 1999 when the Philadelphia Eagles selected him instead of running back Ricky Williams, or the boos that seem to follow commissioner Roger Goodell to the podium with every pick he announces each draft.

But despite his success in college (see video above), there was a general "meh" among the Broncos' faithful following the selection of Fant and a focus on the team's need for a linebacker instead. The Steelers took a linebacker, Devin Bush, with the No. 10 pick they received from the Broncos. Denver couldn't move up and take Devin White, who went to the Buccaneers at No. 5.

After further review, Broncos fans are coming around. Fant's play this season has provided much-needed upside for the 0-3 Broncos, who are missing several players due to injury -- quarterback Drew Lock (shoulder), wide receiver Courtland Sutton (knee), tackle Elijah Wilkinson (lower leg) and running back Phillip Lindsay (toe).

Fant enters Thursday night's game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL) as the Broncos' leader in catches (14), receiving yards (184) and touchdown receptions (two). He has done it for an offense that has already used three quarterbacks and is mired near the bottom of the league's rankings in scoring (30th) and yards per game (29th).

"Any time you get a tight end that runs a 4.5, who can catch the ball the way he does and can run the routes the way he does, that's so rare to come by in the league," Broncos tight end Nick Vannett said. "I think last year he might have struggled a little bit blocking. I think this year he put on the weight, he took the offseason seriously. You can tell that this is his coming-out party this year."

"Noah? Noah is going to make some plays, a lot of plays," Lock said recently. "People see that now."

"Noah has made some big plays, which is important," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We're very comfortable with throwing to him a lot if that's the best way to win."

It might be. With Sutton out for the remainder of the season and three of the Broncos' six wide receivers in their rookie year -- Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Tyrie Cleveland -- Fant has been the first, and most reliable, option in the passing game.

Fant's size, at 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, with speed like a wide receiver, has been a problem for opposing defenses. He can extend his reach over smaller safeties and run by bigger linebackers.

"An unbelievable athlete," quarterback Jeff Driskel said. "Dynamic with the ball in his hands. ... He's kind of done it all for us this year."

Given all the issues on offense, even Fant has had times when his opportunities have evaporated. He had five targets in the first half of the season-opening loss to the Titans -- five catches and 81 yards -- but just one target in the second half.

In Week 2, against the Steelers, Fant was not targeted in the first half, but he finished with four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown in the five-point loss.

"Every once in a while, they'll take something away or try and do something else, but we do try and throw him the ball," Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "It's not that segmented where you go away from him in certain halves. I do think that if the guys are doing their stuff and he's running good routes, then he'll get the ball."

Fant has come a long way from his rocky September last season. Over the first three weeks of his rookie year, Fant had multiple penalties against Raiders in the season opener, a key drop against the Bears in Week 2 and lost a fumble against the Packers in Week 3.

He found his footing slowly and his 40 receptions and 562 yards led rookie tight ends. He also had two 100-yard receiving games.

More than a year out from the draft-day trade that landed Fant, the Broncos appear to have done well. The Broncos used the picks acquired from Pittsburgh to select Fant, Lock and rookie starting center Lloyd Cushenberry.

So as Shurmur, the fifth offensive coordinator in the last five season for the Broncos, works to smooth out the many rough edges, Fant has become a focal point early on.

"He's moving me around, using me in different places," Fant said recently. "I'll be in the slot, I'll be in-line and I'll be outside as a wide receiver. I think that's what I love the most, just being able to have a versatile game and do a lot of different things, take advantage of a lot of different matchups."

"[Fant] is a big body, but he can run," said Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell, a former teammate of Fant's at Iowa. "... If he wants to be physical out there, he can be pretty dang good. ... He's got a lot of different weapons he can use. I think he's just on the tip of that iceberg right now."