When Hue Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator last season, one of the most talked about topics was the two tight end formation he would be using, as the Bengals had the athletic, if often ineffective Jermaine Gresham and the former first round pick in the 2013 draft, Tyler Eifert, highlighting the unit. Very successful teams like the Patriots had been torching the league with that set featuring Aaron Hernández and Rob Gronkowski, and fans and the media were expecting Cincinnati to increase their use after an already high rate with Jay Gruden. Things did not go well for the most part in 2014, when injuries hurt the group badly.
After shoulder and elbow injuries ruined all but the first quarter of his 2014 season, Eifert is now the leading tight end in Cincinnati and Jermaine Gresham who took the reins at the position for the past few years has been run out of town. This year’s Bengals TE group lacks experience, and as Bengals.com Geoff Hobson wrote, it will be hard to rely on that combination very often:
"The double tight formation is going to be a work in progress because of the experience factor. Whether it’s been Reggie Kelly or Jermaine Gresham or Donald Lee or Alex Smith, they’ve always seemed to have a veteran with a lot of snaps at that spot. Not now. Tyler Eifert and Ryan Hewitt, with one year under their belts each, are the most experienced guys ahead of five first-year players. So while they’ll definitely employ more two tight ends than they did in ’14, I doubt it would approach the number of snaps like it did in ’13, when Gresham and Eifert combined for more than 1,500 plays".
After Eifert on the depth chart, the Bengals have recent draftees Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah, and practice squad standout Jake Murphy, but none of them are sure things, for now. There is also the versatile h-back Ryan Hewitt, who lined up often as tight end in 2014, but the addition of two drafted rookies will allow him to block primarily as a fullback.
With fifth rounder Uzomah working to become Cincy's designated blocking tight end, third rounder Kroft is the early candidate to become Cincy's number two tight end, even though both players are still far from ready. They won't get as many targets as Eifert did during his rookie season, and are considered projects who will hopefully pan out in the future.
Meanwhile, Eifert could have a breakout year. A.J. Green will draw many double teams as usual, and the return of Marvin Jones will open up the middle of the field even more. With Mo Sanu going back to his old gadget-guy role and the combination of Hill and Bernard in the backfield, Eifertshould see plenty of favorable matchups, and could become the Bengals' x-factor in 2015. There are concerns after he missed 16 of his 32 first games as a professional, but what he showed against the Ravens - and in small flashes in 2013 - before getting injured was that he can become a dominant player. And at 6'6" he is a nightmare for most linebackers and safeties. He is backing up the expectations, and recently told a local TV station that he is "hoping for a big year". Having Eifert back should really help Andy Dalton, giving him another big target in the short and intermediate areas, as well as in the red zone.
The Bengals graded Tyler Kroft "as the best of the tight end prospects" in this past draft, and they liked his "upside both as a blocker and a receiver" coming out of Rutgers, where he helped raise his own stock this spring in OTAs on an offense that made him "put his hand in the dirt and work that physical game". That "helped him in the eyes of people evaluating him because we don't get to see that that much anymore with tight ends in college football". Despite arriving to the Scarlet Knights as a wide receiver, his development as a complete tight end made Cincinnati set their eyes on him. In the words of position coach Jonathan Hayes, "He’s got a big catch radius, he’s an elusive runner, and he’s an effective and willing blocker. He’s got a frame where he will get stronger and put more weight on. He’s going to come early, leave late, and he’s not scared of hard work."
Blocking nevertheless will be his main assignment early on, and Jackson's unit is stacked with options, so Kroft won't be a relevant receiver unless injuries hit the team. His roommate and fellow rookie C.J. Uzomah offers a lot of upside as a versatile player who was "under-utilized" in Auburn's offense. His football I.Q. also stands out, and he showed a lot of toughness as a member of the Southern powerhouse, even playing the entire game against Alabama with a slightly separated shoulder. He was not featured heavily in college, but what the Bengals were looking for was somebody who could "stretch the team" and Uzomah has the size, speed and athleticism to be a good role player for Cincinnati in the future.
The spread offense Auburn runs means the Georgia native is "going to take a little more time to grow" although he is willing to learn fast. "I’m roommates with Tyler Kroft and we’re in our playbooks like no other when we get back from practice. Obviously there are going to be occasional busts and looks that we’re not familiar with, but for the most part we try to make sure that we go in there and know what our assignment is so that we can play fast."
The arrival of these two guys is a complete change from what the tight end unit used to look like and a clear sign that Cincinnati wanted to "completely move on from Gresham".
Jake Murphy and undrafted free agents Matt Lengel and John Peters round out the position, but only the Murphy has a decent – if minimal - shot at cracking one of the projected three spots available. Many see Murphy falling to the practice squad again, despite making a good impression in OTAs. He is slated to be the Bengals' emergency guy if they don't sign any other tight end before the beginning of the season