The halfback position has two potentially explosive young players, another rock-solid veteran, and then a handful of guys battling for the final spot. The tight end and fullback group is in a similar situation. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are guaranteed locks and will receive the lion's share of snaps at TE.
They will both flex out as wideouts at times as well, and we may see some of Eifert at FB like we did last year. Alex Smith, as the best blocking TE on the team as well as the best blocking FB we used last year, is a virtual lock. That leaves just one more spot for this positional group.
Factors to be considered for this TE/FB group are blocking ability, receiving ability, and versatility in terms of being both a TE and FB as well as being able to play special teams. Alex Smith already looked good in the "moonlighting as a FB" role last year, and if Eifert improves in blocking and those two guys can fill the FB role well, then the fourth guy doesn't necessarily have to be an outstanding blocker, but must be able to contribute on special teams.
Orson Charles was listed as the team's first-string H-back/FB last year, and was a fourth-string TE as well. He also played in most every game on special teams. But he hardly got the playing time for his first-string role. The Bengals didn't use too much of a fullback in general, and when they did, it was mostly Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith, as well as Domata Peko in goal-line situations.
Charles got one offensive snap in the Bills game at FB, doing nothing while Marvin Jones ran for a long reverse. Charles was about to get one snap in the Lions game at FB, on a critical third-and-short late in the fourth quarter, but Gresham got called for a false start. The game in which Charles got most of his offensive playing time at FB was against the Jets in garbage time, with Josh Johnson at QB and Cedric Peerman at halfback. Charles did a lot of blocking and looked solid but unspectacular.
Gresham and Eifert were out due to injury in the home Ravens game, so the Bengals trotted out
the All-Pro duo of Orson Charles and Dennis Roland at TE, moving them from FB and OT, respectively. Charles caught 1 reception for 8 yards on a quick out, and provided the key block on Andy Dalton's touchdown run. In 2012, Charles was the second-string TE and flashed his potential on a handful of impressive athletic receptions.
Kevin Brock was signed off the street as emergency depth at TE shortly before the playoff game. He was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 2009, bouncing around 8 other teams before joining the Bengals. He's pretty fast, with a 4.65 40 time and good size, but hasn't produced much in his career.
Frankly, I don't know much about him. He would probably be an effective special teamer with that size and speed. It doesn't help his cause that he can't play FB, but if we decide to use a mix of Smith and Eifert at FB and no one else, then Brock has a shot.
Ryan Hewitt is an undrafted rookie out of Stanford. He was a true H-back at Stanford, and the Bengals have him listed at TE but I'm inclined to think they'd use him plenty as an H-back if he were to make the roster. Hewitt looks to be a nice combination of size, blocking, rushing, and receiving.
He's not a terminator like John Conner, but is still a solid, refined blocker. He paved the way for two 1500-yard rushers in Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, while being a solid receiving option and even a decent short-yardage back. He provides special teams ability as well. If Hewitt pans out, he would be a legitimate weapon- what we hoped Orson Charles could be.
Hewitt seems to have similar traits as Charles, but might be a better blocker. I don't want to give him too much praise since he's a UDFA, but I'd like Hue Jackson to give Hewitt a legitimate shot at the roster. In the fourth quarter of Stanford's 2014 Rose Bowl loss against Michigan State, he threw a vicious decleating block on an MSU defender:
Nikita Whitlock is an undrafted rookie out of Wake Forest. Personally, I'm not as high on him as some others are, for a number of reasons. First, he's a converted defensive tackle, so while he is strong he probably needs to greatly refine his technique by actually engaging in blocks and not just decleating; Charles and Hewitt are more refined in that.
Second, if the team decides to give a good amount of playing time to Smith (who, again, was very effective) and Eifert at H-back like last year- then Whitlock, as a pure FB, doesn't provide versatility as TE depth, unlike Charles and Hewitt.
Third, one has to question how effectively Whitlock can contribute on special teams. Last preseason, John Conner, who is a more refined and effective blocker than Whitlock, beat out Charles in the blocking game but did not make the roster because Charles could contribute on special teams and he couldn't. Whitlock did practice on special teams the first day of training camp, but Conner did special teams throughout camp as well- he just wasn't good at it, and Whitlock and him both have similar bulky body types and plodding speed. So for Whitlock to make the roster, it'd have to be a perfect storm:
1) Refine his technique in order to beat out Charles and Hewitt in the blocking game at FB
2) The Bengals decide to hardly use Smith/Eifert at FB
3) Somehow beat out Charles and Hewitt and Brock on special teams.
I think it will be Orson Charles because of his versatility, special teams contributions, supposed potential, and relatively high draft status, not to mention he is Hue's personal project.
As for who I think it ought to be? I really don't know and would like to see how they do in training camp. If the Bengals plan on using Smith/Eifert plenty at FB like they did last year, though, then I'd probably want to keep either Charles or Hewitt, because of special teams ability and FB/TE versatility.