The Cincinnati Bengals have not one, but two of their offensive starters lost to surgical procedures recently.
Starting tight end Tyler Eifert underwent a procedure on his ankle that will keep him sidelined 3-4 months and possibly the first 2-4 games of the 2016 season. Also lost for the time being is starting h-back Ryan Hewitt, who had a minor procedure done that shouldn't keep him out too long, but is concerning none the less when it comes this late in the offseason.
In response to these two injuries, the Bengals made an under-the-radar signing this week in the form of Andrew Bonnet. A rookie fullback from North Dakota State, Bonnet appeared in 61 games for the Bison while grabbing 56 passes for 574 yards and eight touchdowns over his career.
Bonnet had three touchdowns in his final season including one in the FCS National Championship win over Jacksonville State. That wasn't Bonnet's first taste of a title though. He was part of the school’s five straight FCS national championships (2011-15).
Bonnet was part of one while redshirting in 2011, then became a key member of the Bison offense over his four playing years while helping pave the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in each of those four years.
But Bonnet's career wasn't something many expected of him after he wasn't exactly a start even for his own high school team. As a 230-pound senior at Underwood high School in 2010, Bonnet rushed for just 771 yards while making 37 tackles on a 6-4 squad, which led to no major scholarship offers for him.
After redshirting his walk-on freshman year in Fargo, Bonnet finished the 2012 season with just 11 receptions for 93 yards and one score while making two starts at fullback in 15 games. He also showed flashes of former Bengals fullback Brian 'Leaping' Leonard with this hurdle move:
As a sophomore in 2013, Bonnet caught 16 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns while making two starts.
By his junior year, Bonnet went from being a partial scholarship player to earning a full ride and really began to make a big impact as he gradually began playing in more of a role similar to what Ryan Hewitt is for the Bengals. He finished 2014 as the team's sixth-leading receiver with 18 catches for 228 yards and two touchdowns while starting 14 of 16 games at fullback.
Bonnett began playing tight end and h-back because of his versatility and the Bison thinking they could take advantage of his receiving ability.
"What’s different about Andrew is he’s a 250-pound-plus kid, but his route-running ability is like that of a big wide receiver,’’ teammate Tyler Roehl said, via The Dailey Nonpareil. "He gets in and out of breaks really well. He catches the ball pretty good.’’
Bonnet's willingness to do whatever his team asked of him and give it everything he had, endured Bonnet to his teammates and coaches as he became one of the team's biggest leaders.
"For us, he’s everything,’’ NDSU head coach Chris Klieman told The Bismarck Tribune. "He’s a fullback. He’s a tight end. And to be honest, if it’s third and 2, I wouldn’t mind lining him up by himself back there in a one-back set, because I think the kid would find a way to get two or three yards.’’
Prior to his senior year, Bonnet admitted he thought he was more of a tight end than a true blocking fullback, but he was ready to do whatever his team needed of him to win.
"I prefer to play tight end, run some more routes and get more chances at the ball," Bonnet said. "But they’ve also talked about me getting a few more carries this year so hopefully we’ll be able to see more of that."
As a senior in 2015, Bonnet played in all 15 games and made nine starts at fullback or tight end while finishing sixth on the team in receiving with 11 catches for 105 yards and three touchdowns. Though he wasn't used in the passing game as much, Bonnet still received high praise from his coaches, who made it clear they think Bonnet will make it in the NFL.
"Everything that a tight end or fullback could be asked to do, Andrew did it within every game," NDSU offensive coordinator Tim Polasek told Black and Blue Review. "The kid's really gifted athletically as far as suddenness and explosiveness.
"In the NFL, in my understanding, they struggle to get into big personnel groupings because maybe their third tight end isn't very good. He's going to add a lot of versatility to personnel packages."
After his college career ended, Bonnet signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers after the 2016 NFL Draft, but was released on May 20. Bonnet faced long odds of making Carolina's roster with Mike Tolbert getting all of the fullback/h-back snaps there as he's one of the NFL's best at his position.
Hewitt is no slouch either with the Bengals, but overtaking him for the starting spot isn't exactly as daunting of a task as it is with Tolbert.
The same holds true at tight end now that Eifert is out. If that's more where Bonnet ends up playing, he only has Tyler Kroft definitively ahead of him while battling C.J. Uzomah and John Peters for the other two spots. There's also the possibility that once Hewitt is healthy, he goes to playing tight end more and leaves Bonnet to battle for the starting fullback/h-back spot.
Whatever happens, the Bengals appear to have found a good player in Bonnet who, if nothing else, is going to bring more fire and competition to training camp.