Tight end hasn't been a position with much stardom for the Bengals in the past two decades.
Sure, guys like Matt Schobel, Reggie Kelly and Jermaine Gresham have been serviceable players who could make big plays here and there, but they never were enough of a threat to opposing defenses.
That changed for the Bengals this past year as Tyler Eifert emerged as a star and became the de facto tight end in an offense that wanted to feature that position, and for good reason. With Eifert, you have a 6-foot-6 guy who could sky over just about any defender for contested balls, but also run gracefully enough to line up as a receiver and do damage.
All of this was on display throughout the 2015 season as Eifert emerged and became an elite tight end. His 12 touchdown catches led the NFL through Week 12, but after seeing limited action in the last four games due to injuries, he finished with 13 scores, which was still a team record for touchdowns by a tight end (previously nine). Eifert also finished with 52 grabs for 615 yards on just 72 targets.
But as has been the case many times early in his career, injuries affected his availability. He missed three full games and the better part of two others due to a stinger and concussion. Through his first three NFL seasons, Eifert has missed 20 games due to injury, including the playoff game in the 2014. Those injuries include a stinger, concussion, dislocated elbow and a torn shoulder labrum.
The latter of which caused Eifert to miss 16 games (including the playoffs) in 2014. The surgery and recovery led to him losing weight and spending much of 2015 just getting back to his 2014 form. Now that Eifert is entering another NFL offseason, once his ankle heals, he can continue to better condition his body, and perhaps he'll be better at avoiding injuries in the future.
Even better for the Bengals is that they have Eifert for another two years after picking up his fifth-year option. As good as he's been at times the first three years, he's only begun to scratch the surface of his potential, and he's on the cusp of becoming an elite NFL pass-catcher if he continues improving this offseason.
After Eifert, there aren't exactly the kind of proven players you'd like to see. The Bengals did grab Rutgers' Tyler Kroft with the 85th-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft in hopes he could be a solid No. 2 behind Eifert. The former Scarlet Knight caught 67 passes, 842 yards and four touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons, before opting to declare for the draft in 2015, forgoing his senior season.
Not only did the Bengals love Kroft, but head coach Marvin Lewis called him "the best of the TE prospects" in the 2015 Draft. Kroft would play in every game as a rookie while making six starts. Some of those starts came while Eifert was injured with a stinger and concussion late in the season, and Kroft was serviceable in place.
However, Eifert went on to have a Pro Bowl season alongside A.J. Green, who also drew many of the passing targets last season. That led to Kroft being relegated to mostly blocking tight end duties for much of the year, a role he was decent in but will need to improve upon this offseason, including by bulking up.
When called upon in the passing game, Kroft was about as reliable as you could ask for. On just 14 targets, Kroft secured 11 grabs for 129 yards (11.7 yards) and a touchdown. His one score came during a Week 15 win over the 49ers.
Kroft would finish the 49ers game with three grabs for 31 yards. The following week, Kroft would catch four balls on six targets for 46 yards against the Denver Broncos. Though it's a small sample size, that two-game stretch did show he can be a reliable pass-catcher when called upon, and both of those games came with AJ McCarron as the quarterback. Imagine what Kroft would do with Andy Dalton.
Going into the 2016 season, Kroft should once again open the year as the No. 2 tight end next to Eifert. Those two together should be a formidable duo and help the Bengals' passing offense remain among the league's best.
As for the third tight end spot, that will likely go to C.J. Uzomah once again after the Bengals took him with the 157th-overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Though few scouting services had the former Auburn Tiger pegged as a draftable prospect, the Bengals liked what they saw in the 6'5", 264-pound athletic pass-catcher. Uzomah was primarily a blocking tight end in Auburn's offense, which rarely featured tight ends, but he did catch six touchdowns during his final two collegiate seasons.
A big reason why the Bengals liked him was they viewed him as a replacement for what guys like Alex Smith, Kevin Brock and Reggie Kelly gave them as blocking tight ends. Cincinnati uses either a blocking tight end or an extra offensive tackle in many of their formations, and with only Kroft and Tyler Eifert being viable options, they needed a guy like Uzomah to come in and give them another body that could block, maybe catch a few passes and possibly be a good red-zone target:
Uzomah would go on to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, despite catching just two passes for 13 yards in the preseason. As for the regular season, Uzomah caught one pass for four yards that converted a fourth-down attempt against the Browns.
Other than that, Uzomah got occasional snaps as a blocking tight end and even a backup h-back. He didn't fair too well in the h-back role though, which prompted the Bengals to move rookie lineman Jake Fisher to h-back when Ryan Hewitt went down with an injury against the Broncos in Week 16.
In the end, Uzomah showed flashes of being a good blocking tight end, but not enough so that his spot on next year's roster is locked up. Don't forget about Matt Lengel who was on the practice squad either. He was also the kind of blocking end the Bengals would like to have, so expect those two to compete for the third tight end spot on next year's squad.
Starter: Tyler Eifert
Backups: Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah
Practice Squad candidates with little shot of making final roster: Matt Lengel, John Peters