A Look at the Bengals’ TEs
The Bengals’ approach to the tight end position this offseason has been nothing short of revolutionary — for the Bengals, at least. Back in February, head coach Marvin Lewis hinted this might be the case, saying that in order to get a “complete” TE (one that’s both a good blocker and a threat as a receiver) a team needed to either use a high draft pick, or select in the later rounds a project with soft hands who could be taught to block. The latter route was the one Lewis indicated the Bengals would take and, indeed, the Bengals plucked Villanova TE Matt Sherry off the board in the sixth round.
Before that, though, the Bengals had already floored many longtime fans with their successful pursuit of Colts restricted free agent Ben Utecht. Indianapolis declined to match the the three-year, $9 million deal Cincinnati offered their No. 2 TE. The Bengals have subsequently made it clear to Utecht that they are counting on him to play a significant role in the passing game.
The deal for Utecht was surprising in light of the fact that the Bengals just gave TE Reggie Kelly similar money last offseason — and moreover did so only grudgingly. Carson Palmer reportedly had to beg the Bengals to sweeten their offer to Kelly, while at the same time convince Kelly to take less than another team was offering, to get the deal done.
That kind of attitude toward the TE slot was far more typical of the Bengals than what’s been seen this offseason. Traditionally, the Bengals have viewed the position as, first and foremost, a sixth offensive lineman, and only incidentally as a passing target. And it’s possible that they still do, that all this chatter about throwing to the TE is so much smoke. Coach Lewis has talked repeatedly during the offseason about re-establishing the running game, and in a recent column NFL.com’s Pat Kirwan predicts a return to smash-mouth football.
"It was suggested to me that a few teams may be considering an old-fashioned offensive mentality that might be more from the Vince Lombardi school than the spread offense of 2007. It just might be time to send two big in-line tight end types out on to the field with a big old-fashioned fullback and a power runner. It might just be time to punch these quick defenses right in the nose with some smash-mouth power football."
So…two solid blocking TEs in Utecht and Kelly? Check. A “big old-fashioned fullback” in Jeremi Johnson? Check. A “power runner” in Rudi Johnson? Well, we’ll see, but theoretically yes. Oh, and then there’s the potential return of RB Chris Perry to the lineup. Perry was one of Palmer’s favorite targets back in 2005, catching 51 passes for 328 yards and a pair of TDs, reflecting the Bengals’ preference for a receiving back out of the backfield versus a receiving TE on the line. In short, don’t make any bets on Utecht being among the teams leading receivers yet.
Kelly and Utecht are, barring injury, locks to make the final roster. Second-year man Dan Coats, an undrafted free agent signed in 2007, had a solid developmental season last year, appearing in 15 games, starting three, and grabbing 12 passes for 122 yards. Notably, Coats has been practicing at fullback during early OTAs, and could conceivably displace Johnson. If Coats moves to FB, that could make room for journeyman Nate Lawrie. Lawrie, a sixth round pick of the Bucs in 2004 who came to Cincy via New Orleans, was brought up from the practice squad during the ’07 season to be the second TE in two-TE sets. The Bengals usually only keep three TEs (not counting long snapper Brad St. Louis), but if the position is going to see more use, Sherry could stick as the fourth guy, but it’s more likely he will end up on the practice squad, where he’ll have a year to learn and a shot at the roster in 2009.