Rookie tight end Greg Dulcich could be key in getting Broncos to the end zone

Rookie Greg Dulcich missed a chunk at the beginning of the season, but he's been impactful in several games since his return for the Denver Broncos. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Rookie tight end Greg Dulcich has played in only four games for the Denver Broncos this season after an extended recovery from an offseason hamstring injury. But in those selected cameos, he has shown he can move the needle for a group sorely in need of more output.

"He's been really special," quarterback Russell Wilson said recently. "You know, when you've thrown as many footballs as I've thrown for as many years as you've thrown it, the first three throws you can tell, 'OK, he's got it. There's something to it.'"

The sample size is still fairly small: 13 receptions for 193 yards. But for the league's worst scoring offense (14.6 points per game), Dulcich has been a barometer for how things have gone for Denver over the last month. When Wilson gets him the ball -- as he did on Dulcich's first career catch for a 39-yard touchdown against the Chargers -- or finds him enough -- like the 87-yard day in a London win over the Jacksonville Jaguars -- the offense clicks better.

But if Dulcich gets less room to work or doesn't connect enough -- like his one-catch game Sunday in a loss at Tennessee -- it's another indicator of a disjointed unit.

Dulcich did not practice with the offense until he was designated to return on Oct. 11. Since then, he has made the impact plays the Broncos have not had nearly enough of as a team (Denver has 12 total touchdowns in nine games).

"I just want to keep working," Dulcich said. "Every time I go out there and I want to be in a position to contribute, to be ready to contribute ... I feel like this team is close, right there, if we can just clean some things up, finish plays. When I get the chance I want to finish plays."

With wide receiver Tim Patrick on injured reserve since the summer, and WRs KJ Hamler (hamstring) and Jerry Jeudy (ankle) also currently question marks, the 3-6 Broncos are certainly on the hunt for passing-game impact as they get set to host the 2-7 Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox).

Dulcich has that kind of potential. In the first three games of his career (against the Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets and Jaguars) -- Dulcich had the best yards per catch total of any NFL tight end at 15.5 yards per catch. And despite missing five games, Dulcich is already third among the league's rookie tight ends in catches and yards receiving, behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cade Otton and the Baltimore Ravens' Isaiah Likely.

Dulcich, a third-round pick in this year's draft, initially started out as a walk-on wide receiver at UCLA, and that comfort level is easy to see when he has a pass within his catch radius. He averaged 19.9 and 17.3 yards per catch, respectively, in his last two seasons at UCLA.

"When I watched the college tape coming out, you could see the explosiveness and you could see how smooth he was to the ball," said Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten. " ... He really doesn’t say much, but he studies, he prepares, you can move him a lot in the offense itself. You can spread him out, put him in line and I think we can expand as we move forward with him."

The Broncos have spent most of their time on offense in a three-wide receiver set, especially over the last four games -- at least 44 three-WR snaps in each of those games, including penalty snaps -- so Dulcich has split time with the other tight ends as the Broncos have sputtered. In that process Albert Okwuegbunam, a fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft, has been largely displaced by Dulcich as the receiving tight end.

Okwuegbunam has been a game-day inactive in three of the last four games and was in uniform Sunday in Tennessee but did not play. The Broncos could pump up Dulcich's playing time, as well as others at the position, by leaning more toward some of the bigger personnel groupings, but coach Nathaniel Hackett has consistently cited Wilson's comfort level as a significant reason in playing the way they have despite the struggles.

But the combination of Dulcich and Okwuegbunam in a two-tight end look hasn't really been explored by the Broncos despite its potential in the passing game.

"We are trying to do what we think is right for the group and still at the same time mix some of those bigger personnel (groupings) in and some of those things in there to be able to run the ball," Hackett said earlier this week.

"You just stay ready whenever they call your number," Dulcich said. "That's what I do."