Ah, the tight end. If one looks up the definition of a tight end on Wikipedia (don't use this at home kids) they would find this:
"The tight end is often seen as a hybrid position with the characteristics and roles of both an offensive lineman and a wide receiver. Like offensive linemen, they are usually lined up on the offensive line and are large enough to be effective blockers. On the other hand, they are eligible receivers adept enough to warrant a defense's attention when running pass patterns."
While this definition is certainly true, the tight end has evolved into an even bigger animal for some teams. Last season we saw the rise of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Jimmy Graham. Add other star tight ends like Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, and Jermichael Finley to the list and you can see why it was the year of the tight end. The big, fast, and athletic tight ends are becoming more prominent than the in-line tight ends. The Bengals have a tight end of their own that has the chance to move into elite tight end territory.
Starter, Jermaine Gresham, third season: Has Jermaine Gresham been a bust so far in his career? Is he overrated? ESPN's KC Joyner thinks Gresham is one of the most overrated players in the league. I would like to respectfully disagree with that. Joyner argues that Gresham did not have the numbers to earn the pro bowl nod that he was given last season. Gresham was a second alternate to the pro bowl, so the numbers argument does not really work here. He did improve upon his rookie season, as he caught 56 passes for 596 yards and six touchdowns.
I was speaking with the great Josh Kirkendall, and he made a very good point. People seem to be expecting too much from Gresham, due to the overwhelming success of Gronkowski and Graham. Gresham is a different type of tight end from those two, especially Graham. Gresham does not have great speed, but he appears to be a physical beast. He is tough to bring down, and is that not what you want in a tight end? One criticism that has been pointed out this offseason, is Gresham's sloppy route running. If Gresham can improve his route running, he will provide even more of a reliable target for Andy Dalton. Gresham also ran a lot of short routes last season. According to Pro Football Focus, 40 of Gresham's 61 catches during the season and playoffs were on routes ran of ten yards or less. This probably has more to do with play-calling than Gresham's ability to stretch the field. It would seem that Jay Gruden would likely open up the playbook for Gresham this season, as he has had a year to digest what Gruden is trying to do.
As far as blocking, Gresham has improved. I watched a few games on my recently purchased NFL Game Rewind, definitely worth the price by the way. I watched games in 2010 and watched games from 2011. I am not a scout, but I did notice that Gresham got better at pass blocking in the 2011 season. He also improved in the running game, though he does not appear to be anywhere near where he needs to be. Gresham often looked like he was confused on who to block. I would expect Gresham to improve in run blocking this season, as he is more comfortable in Gruden's offense and there is no denying that he is strong enough to do well in the run game.
In a year when many expect the Bengals to somewhat go receiver by committee after A.J. Green, Gresham could be Dalton's second best option. Hopefully he makes the improvements needed to earn a pro bowl berth, and not be put down by KC Joyner.
Second-String, Colin Cochart, second season: Cochart was signed last season as an undrafted free agent from South Dakota State. The good ole' Jack Rabbits. I project Cochart to start out as the number two tight end, as he has the experience over rookie Orson Charles. Cochart is known to be more of the blocking type rather than receiving type. Cochart caught five passes for 44 yards and a touchdown last season, while showing that he has a high motor and never gives up on a play. Cochart is the guy most likely to line up in two tight end sets with Gresham, at least until Charles appears ready to play a part.
Third-String, Orson Charles, first season: I would expect Charles to gradually become the second-string tight end throughout the season. He presents match-up problems that Cochart and veteran Donald Lee do not. But first he has to learn the offense and assure Gruden that he can be the in-line blocker that the Bengals likely drafted him to be. He also must prove that he can be relied upon after his DUI in March. His stock fell after the arrest, but many think that Charles is a good person that just made a mistake. If Charles is the good character guy that he appears to be, the Bengals may have gotten themselves a steal. He is strong, allowing Charles to be effective in the running game, even though he has a smaller frame than most tight ends. His biggest contribution this season could be helping Dalton in the red zone. Dalton and the Bengals struggled in the red zone last season, so the addition of Charles could be an immediate help there. With Charles, the Bengals could eventually be looking at a lite version of the Patriot's tight end duo.
In the running, Donald Lee, 10th season: The veteran Lee was re-signed in April by the Bengals. Lee played in nine games last season, catching 11 passes for 115 yards. Lee also had a big 36 yard catch in the playoff game in Houston. He was involved in many two tight end sets, especially when Gresham missed games due to injury. Lee will have the chance to compete in training camp, likely with Cochart. He certainly provides a veteran presence, something that teams covet. I would think that Cochart would make the team over Lee,as long as he has a strong training camp, but you never know.
The tight end position may not be the most exciting position to watch this training camp, but there will be a lot of things to look for. Gresham becoming more comfortable in the offense, seeing how Gruden uses Charles in the offense, and the battle for the final tight end spot between Cochart and Lee.