There are certain position groups in football that have risen to prominence in recent years. Quarterbacks, though always heavily valued, have been deemed as the engine that drives successful franchises. Offensive tackles are in another group that have always been highly coveted, but a shift has occurred to value right tackles higher than in previous NFL eras.
And then, there are the tight ends.
Previously seen as guys who can block a little and act as a tertiary receiving option, they have quickly become some of the best athletes to step on a football field. The New England monster, Rob Gronkowski and the tower down south in Jimmy Graham are the beacons of success at the position. However, the AFC North division sports some stars at the position as well.
The Browns have the up-and-coming Jordan Cameron, The Ravens have a two-headed attack in Dennis Pitta and the newly-acquired Owen Daniels, with the expectation that they'll dominate the middle of the field. The Steelers have the proven veteran in Heath Miller who has made the Pro Bowl as recent as 2012. The Bengals also have a hydra of their own in Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and yes, Orson Charles. For a Bengals team that has long been seen as reactive instead of proactive, they were one of the earlier teams to jump on the tight end bus and invest heavily in the position.
The issue in Cincinnati with tight ends is their gross under-utilization of talented players at the position. They've been better about it in recent years, particularly because of the big investments in Gresham and Eifert, but disappointment on a variety of levels still lingers.
The pass-happy Jay Gruden days are in the past and Hue Jackson will likely bring a more balanced attack with controlled passing. If that is the case, using the big guys in the middle of the field to move the chains will be key. the loss of shifty slot man, Andrew Hawkins, will also likely have to be dealt with in the form of Eifert and Gresham placed there at times. It could bring wonderful mismatches that favor Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense.
Run The Dang Ball:
If we have said it once, we have said it a thousand times: Andy Dalton has not had a reliable running game to lean on in his three seasons as the Bengals' starting quarterback. Is he responsible for poor performances in big moments? Absolutely. However, those who support "The Red Rifle" can point to the team's 3.6 yards per carry average last season to carry their argument.
Aside from the fact that the below-average running attack isn't keeping opposing defenses honest, it also forces Dalton to throw the ball more often--particularly with enhanced risk. Needing upgrades at various other positions is a different post altogether, but the fact remains that running the ball will be a key to success for the Bengals in 2014.
Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but running the ball effectively will allow the offense to sell the play-action fake. And, who benefits greatly from selling a handoff? The tight ends roaming the middle of the field, of course.
Use The Middle Of The Field:
Under Jay Gruden, the Bengals offense forced a lot of deep throws that didn't necessarily play to Dalton's strengths. It worked out at times, thanks to a combination of busted coverages, acrobatic catches from receivers and the occasional in-stride throw from the quarterback.
When you watch the film, Dalton excels at short and intermediate throws in the middle of the field. Most of his errant tosses are plays to the far sideline and other deep throws that either flutter powerlessly or sail over a receiver's head. Using the tall boys between the hashes with controlled passing will be key to moving the chains and keeping Dalton's confidence level up. Check out last year's game film against the New York Jets to see this plan at its best.
Take A History Lesson From Other Stops From The Hue Jackson Tour:
It's kind of ironic, actually. After Jackson left the Bengals in his first stint (where they didn't use the tight end in the passing game), other players at the position flourished at his other coaching stops. Alge Crumpler in Atlanta back in 2007, Todd Heap in 2008-2009 and Zach Miller in 2010 and 2011 all had solid seasons under Jackson's tutelage.
Miller was the pinnacle of success and that is actually when one could argue that Jackson had the biggest influence on the offense (though he was a coordinator with the Falcons too). In those seasons, Miller had a combined 126 catches, 1,490 yards and eight touchdowns. This was with Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell and Carson Palmer as his quarterbacks.
The Bengals should take a page from Jackson's history with tight ends and employ the same mindset this year in Cincinnati. Tight ends are great security blanket for a young quarterback, and in such an important year in Dalton's career, the ones on this roster should be used.